War & Peace

Unheeded Warnings (1): Looking back at the Taleban attack on Ghazni


Normally, this area would be bustling, with second-hand clothes and shoes sold from handcarts. During the August attack on Ghazni city, as many as 73 handcarts, all loaded with merchandise were burnt, according to a government fact-finding team. A month after the attack, this area, on the west bank of the River Jalga in the heart of the city, was still deserted. (Fazl Muzhary/AAN 2018)

Normally, this area would be bustling, with second-hand clothes and shoes sold from handcarts. During the August attack on Ghazni city, as many as 73 handcarts, all loaded with merchandise were burnt, according to a government fact-finding team. A month after the attack, this area, on the west bank of the River Jalga in the heart of the city, was still deserted. (Fazl Muzhary/AAN 2018)

Four months after the Taleban captured large parts of the strategic and historic city of Ghazni during a five-day siege in August 2018, local people live in fear of a new onslaught. While the Taleban were ultimately pushed out – or withdrew – from the city, they remain in the suburbs and have extended their grip over nearby districts. In this, the first of a two-part series, AAN’s Fazal Muzhary, who visited Ghazni city and neighbouring Andar district just before the attack and several times after, looks at the events in August, how they unfolded and the damage done. He details the failure of the government to heed the warning signs of an impending assault and the absence of planning or coordination in the face of a Taleban threat obvious to locals. In a second dispatch, he will look at what has happened since and hear from residents who say the government is still not protecting them from future assault.

Taleban fighters attacked Ghazni city, an important provincial hub 135 kilometres south of Kabul, on 10 August 2018. They closed in on the city from positions in nearby districts, villages and even the city’s suburbs, areas that they had systematically occupied in the preceding months (see AAN’s earlier analysis here). During the fighting, they cut off all telecommunication links to the rest of the country and managed to cut Ghazni off from three sides, blocking the main highway in Maidan Wardak and Zabul provinces, as well as the main easterly road in Andar district, leading east to Paktika province. They also temporarily occupied large parts of the city and made it to the very centre of the city, destroying key military, government and civilian buildings.

The result of the destruction to telecommunications equipment was that neither the government nor the general public were able to follow what was happening in the city. Meanwhile, closure of the highways prevented the Afghan government from sending in reinforcements. The provincial governor, Wahidullah Kalimzai, was on a visit to India at the time of the attack. Local sources told AAN that, prior to the attack, people had felt uncertain as to who was even governing the city.

It is still unclear whether the Taleban were pushed back by the United States-backed Afghan government security forces’ final counterattack, which involved airstrikes, or whether the Taleban themselves decided to withdraw. Two accounts are given. According to Time magazine the Taleban “began falling back …(t)hanks to the airstrikes” and the arrival of additional US Special Forces. The Taleban’s shadow governor for Ghazni, Haji Muhammad Yusuf, insisted they withdrew in order to reduce civilian suffering. In an interview published on the Taleban’s Shahamat website on 24 September, he said (see here): “After the invading foreign forces intensified their blind airstrikes against civilians and their properties, the mujahedin started setting back after spending six nights [in Ghazni] in order to reduce civilian casualties.” It is still unclear, therefore, whether the Taleban attempted to take over the city for good and were beaten back, or whether they were more interested in the propaganda value of a short-lived takeover of such a high-profile urban centre.

A closer look at the August events

The onslaught on Ghazni began at 1am on Friday 10 August 2018. Taleban insurgents attacked the city from four different directions: Andar district (also known as Shelgar) to the south, Khugyani district to the west, Deh Yak district to the east and Khwaja Omari and Jaghatu district of Wardak province to the northwest. At that time, the Taleban had long controlled the whole of Khugyani district and all but the district centres of the other four.

One resident, Esmat, who lives close to the Afghan National Army (ANA)’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF) unit in Ghazni city’s southwest told AAN that the Taleban attacking from the south were the first group to get close to the city. They did this by attacking the QRF unit near the Khalil Hotak Township, an area of newly-constructed houses named after its owner, Khalilullah Hotak, a former mujahedin fighter from Ghazni who still lives in the city. Meanwhile, another group attacked the old Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) compound to the south of the city where American and Polish troops were based until April 2014 (see here). It is currently used by the ANA. “After the Taleban attacked the QRF unit,” said Esmat, “they took several Humvees, other vehicles and weapons with them.” Another resident, Najibullah from the Khwaja Ali area, told AAN that at around 5am that day, the attackers had taken position at Haidarabad Bridge, about two to three kilometres to the southwest of Ghazni’s police headquarters and the governor’s house. These two significant buildings, along with most other government institutions, are located on the west bank of the narrow River Jalga which flows north to south, dividing Ghazni city. It tends to run dry throughout the summer months – as it was the case at the time of the August attack. Also located on the west bank is the city’s main commercial centre, which was hit particularly hard during the Taleban assault.

Meanwhile, just north of the police department, a group of Taleban, that had come from Jaghatu and Khwaja Omari districts, approached the Bazazi bazaar (the fabrics market), according to local businessman Muhammad Nabi, who spoke to AAN on the morning of the attack. He said that as militants were firing rockets at the headquarters, the Bazazi area was caught in the crossfire and was hit hard. According to a mechanic named Ishaq from the Ali Lala area situated four to five kilometres to the east of the governor’s house, the attackers coming from the east got to both Rauza hill (where most of the transmitters for mobile phone traffic, television and radio are located) and the Qala-ye Jawz area; their job was to prevent government reinforcements arriving from Deh Yak district.

There was not a lot of fighting to the east of the Jalga river, where a number of businesses are located, as well as some government institutions, the historic Bala Hesarfort and bus stations, including the one that serves the route to Kabul. As a result, there was little damage to civilian properties in this part of the city. The author only saw one destroyed Afghan National Police (ANP) post there. Beside it were two burnt-out cars, one belonging to Taleban fighters, destroyed in an airstrike, the other a police vehicle, which, according to local residents, was burnt during the attack.

Outside the city, however, the author saw several destroyed ANP security check-posts located along the city’s outskirts towards Andar district to the south. People from the area told AAN that the Afghan security forces manning the posts had failed to show “even a little resistance” to the Taleban. A number of destroyed posts were also visible along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, in Shahbaz, Spandi, Khalil Hotak Township and Augra, among others areas. On the Paktika-Ghazni highway, the author witnessed destroyed posts in the villages of Aurzu, Small Aurzu, Shahkhuzhi, Zana Khan Stream, Deh Khudaidad and elsewhere. According to local sources, the Taleban took everything the ANSF had left behind at these posts.

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told AAN via WhatsApp that “a large number of fighters” had taken part in the attack. He gave no figures. According to local Taleban sources, however, the fighters included mainly local Taleban from Ghazni, as well as some Kandaharis and Helmandis, who were working as special guards for the Taleban shadow governor. He is a Kandahari named Haji Muhammad Yusuf who had previously worked as the Taleban’s shadow governor for Uruzgan and, according to pro-Taleban sources, was appointed as Ghazni governor before the start of the 2018 spring operations. Spokesman Mujahed said that fighters from neighbouring provinces had offered to send reinforcements but were told by the local Taleban leadership to remain on standby and had not fought. He did confirm, however, the participation of members of the Taleban’s Red Unit, the Taleban’s élite force, which was reportedly established around 2015 and is better trained and equipped than ordinary Taleban (read more background about it in this AAN dispatch). Mujahed said Red Unit fighters had been active in three particular parts of the city and had been assigned special targets to focus on during the onslaught only at night. He shared no further details in this regard.

Differing accounts of casualty figures

The five-day attack on Ghazni city resulted in a large number of casualties, to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Taleban and the civilian population. Accounts as to the magnitude of the losses, however, differ between government, Taleban and media sources.

Figures released by a fact-finding team sent by the presidential palace on 15 August 2018 (to identify civilian casualties and financial losses), which stayed in the city for three weeks (see the government’s statement here), said that 97 civilians had been killed and 160 wounded over the five days of the attack. In his report, advisor to the president and team member, Asadullah Falah, wrote that 95 ANP and 12 ANA members were also killed, while another 136 were still missing. The report does not elaborate on the number of wounded ANSF. An official of an international NGO who was part of a different investigation into the casualties and who did not want to be named, confirmed to AAN that as many as 200 ANSF members might have been killed.

Government accounts of the Taleban’s death toll tend to be incoherent and often wildly exaggerated. For example, the Kabul delegation stated that 850 Taleban fighters had been killed (see the report here). A statement issued by Ghazni’s governor on the day the attack ended gave a death toll of 400 Taleban and foreign fighters, as well as 100 ANSF members and 35 civilians, and noted that hundreds of insurgents had been wounded. It then added, because all telecommunications were cut off, that the exact number of casualties was unknown (see the statement here). The governor’s office has not released an updated list of casualties since the attack. (1)

The Taleban provided an opposing, presumably also exaggerated, account of casualties. On the fourth day of the attack they claimed in a statement to have only lost 16 fighters, whereas they say they killed around 300 ANSF members and wounded “a few hundred” others (see here). By contrast, shadow governor Haji Muhammad Yusuf said they had lost about 25 to 30 fighters in a video interview with a Taleban website published on 18 August. Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, stated in a WhatsApp group that only 21 of their fighters had been wounded. AAN understands from another Taleban source, who did not want to be named, that their death toll actually stood at over a hundred.

Mujahed also claimed that over 200 ANSF members had surrendered to them and handed over their weapons and vehicles. Other equipment was seized, said the unnamed Taleban source, more than a hundred military vehicles, including Humvees and Ranger pickup trucks, hundreds of weapons and lots of ammunition. The un-named Taleban source also said the number of captured vehicles and weapons was “extensive.” He told AAN, “With these weapons, we could overrun two other provinces.” Residents of Andar and Jaghatu districts told AAN that the weapons the Taleban had captured in Ghazni were so numerous that they could not stash them all in one place, so have hidden them away in different locations within villages they control. The Taleban shadow governor said the ‘booty’ had been divided among the various Taleban fighting groups involved in the attack. The fact-finding team from Kabul did not give figures on weapons or ammunition taken by the insurgents – or acknowledge that this had even happened.

Airstrikes by United States (US) and Afghan forces were arguably the main cause of many of the casualties. They targeted several locations, mainly during the last days of the onslaught, and killed and wounded both Taleban fighters and civilians and destroyed civilian homes. Time magazine reported that “The U.S. military said it dropped 73 bombs and missiles in the Ghazni operation [and that] 226 Taliban were killed during the operation.” AAN was unable to identify all the locations hit by airstrikes, whether Afghan or American, but in some of them, the author was told by local sources that both civilians and Taleban fighters had been killed.

According to one local resident, Redi Gul, in the Pashtunabad area, on the western bank of the river on the southern edge of the city, about four to five kilometres from the governor’s office, around 15 houses were destroyed in airstrikes. He said that in one such airstrike on the fourth day of the attack, 18 civilians had been killed. The international NGO staff member quoted above also confirmed this strike, which, he said, killed only civilians. In another house targeted by another airstrike, 20 Taleban fighters were killed, he added.

He also told AAN that seven areas had born the brunt of the fighting and airstrikes: Pashtunabad, Khushhal Mena, Towhidabad, Deh Khodaidad, Mu-ye Mubarak (around the shrine, one of the most important in the country, which contains a hair from the head of the Prophet Muhammad after which the area is named), Khashak and Rassulabad. Of these, he said Pashtunabad, Khushhal Mena and Mu-ye Mubarak suffered the most, including the greatest number of airstrikes and reported civilian casualties. “The Taleban fighters were mainly present in these areas,” the NGO staff member said. “Also, they entered the city through these areas and from there attacked the city itself.” This indicates that the Taleban staged their attacks from civilian areas, and the US and Afghan air forces bombed them there. Neither side apparently took enough care to protect civilians. Based on a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), as many as 210 civilian casualties had been counted as of 7 October, including 69 dead and 141 wounded (see the report here).

Economic damage and financial losses

The five-day onslaught also had a devastating impact on local businesses. Traders lost thousands of dollars because their businesses were completely or partly burnt, or otherwise destroyed.

A month after the Taleban’s five day siege of Ghazni city (10-15 August 2018), work was still underway to rebuild one of the five markets completely burned down. This on ein the Bazazi area was used mainly by the shoe business. (Fazl Muzhary/AAN 2018)

A month after the Taleban’s five day siege of Ghazni city (10-15 August 2018), work was still underway to rebuild one of the five markets completely burned down. This on ein the Bazazi area was used mainly by the shoe business. (Fazl Muzhary/AAN 2018)

As most of the fighting took place on the western side of the river, it was here that local businesses saw the greatest damage. The author, who visited all the large markets of the city during his visit, saw five markets near the police headquarters completely burnt and a sixth partially burnt. Two, both typical U-shaped buildings with an inner courtyard and access to the street, one selling carpets and the other mostly kitchen items, were located along the police headquarters’ eastern wall. The other markets affected were also only a stone’s throw away from the headquarters. Three are to the north of the police headquarters in the Bazazi area where markets line both sides of the road that leads to the Mu-ye Mubarak shrine (it was not damaged during the fighting). Two were completely destroyed and a third was half destroyed; these had mainly been used by the shoe business. The other destroyed market, Lab-e Darya (Riverside) was a major second-hand clothes market adjacent to the eastern wall of the police headquarters. This was an open place for roadside vendors, where no proper shops existed. All the author could see here were the burnt remains of handcarts. Other markets attached to the northern wall of the police headquarters remained untouched during the fighting.

Eid Muhammad, a cobbler in his late sixties from the Bazazi area who works in front of one of the two burnt shoe markets, told the author, “Luckily, the Ghafuri market did not catch fire, otherwise the whole city could have been burnt down.” This market, highly flammable given that it mainly sells textiles, is one of the largest markets in the neighbourhood.

The damage to mobile network providers was severe, according to an expert on mobile networks consulted by AAN. Ghazni is geographically important, a gateway province which enables network coverage to multiple provinces in the southwest and southeastern parts of the country. The network providers were operating very powerful mobile transmission towers in the city. The expert said he had the impression that the Taleban knew exactly what they should destroy to cause the most damage and targeted the very expensive network antennas, each worth around 250,000 USD. He said that after the Ghazni attack, most of the operators were looking for alternative sites in order to avoid further destruction.

The government’s fact-finding team’s report concluded that local businesses had suffered a loss of 500 million Afghanis in total (roughly 6.6 million US dollars). In contrast to the author’s findings, it said ten markets, 130 warehouses, 16 underground shops and 73 handcarts had either been completely or partially burnt. It also found that telecommunication companies had suffered a loss of 2.73 million US dollars, the state-run TV station alone one million Afghanis, while Ghaznavian private radio, owned by local businessman Engineer Abdul Qayum Omari suffered 18,250 US dollars-worth of damages. In one media (see here) report, Ghazni residents told a reporter that local businessmen’s losses totalled up to 75 million USD. Local officials told the same reporter that losses were likely closer to 100 million USD, while the deputy of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Kabul, Khan Jan Alokozai, estimated losses at around 50 million USD (see here). The same figure was given in a Tolonews report (see here). It is not clear exactly what each of these very different damage assessments were based on.

In a visit to the city on 26 August, one and a half weeks after the attack, President Ashraf Ghani said the government would allocate 20 million US dollars for the reconstruction of those parts of the city that had been destroyed in the fighting. “All the destroyed areas will be fundamentally reconstructed,” the president said. According to the international NGO official who spoke to AAN, a thorough assessment of financial losses is still underway.

More on the human cost

The fact-finding team sent from Kabul found that a large number of families living either in the city or on its outskirts had fled their homes to escape the fighting. Most had either moved to the capital, Kabul, or to other provinces or districts where no major fighting was taking place at that time. According to this same report, residents from the following 16 villages had evacuated their houses: Pashtunabad, Amir Muhammad Khan village, Tawhidabad, Shahr-e Kuhna (the Old Town), Haiderabad, Qala-ye Ahangaran, Sanjitak, Khwaja Hakim, Nawabad, Qala-ye Shada, Mu-ye Mubarak, Plan-e Seh, Bahlul, parts of Khak-e Ghariba, as well as and others (see the report here). The provincial department for refugees found that as many as 5,500 families had been displaced by the fighting, but that most of them had returned after it stopped (see here).

It is also worth mentioning the emotional cost of the onslaught. Theauthor visited the city just six days after the Taleban withdrew, on 21 August, the first day of Eid ul-Adha. Most of the streets were still empty. The only crowds were near mosques, where people, mostly men, had come together to perform the Eid ul-Adha prayers, on 21 August. Sadness was very visible on the faces of most of the worshippers. On 15 June, the first day of Eid-ul Fitr, the author had seen the same people excited, beaming with smiles, laughing, dancing and chanting slogans in favour of peace and an end to enmity among Afghans. That had been when the warring parties had declared their historic ceasefire. What a difference was felt between the two Eids.

Lack of ANSF coordination and sugar-coated government reports

The Taleban have claimed their fighters enjoyed cooperation from local residents as well as some government officials, particularly the security forces, before and during the attack. One unnamed Taleban source, whose information has generally been reliable, also claimed there had been cooperation from within the government, although he did not want give any specifics. The shadow governor for Ghazni, Haji Yusuf, while talking to a Taleban interviewer in a video on 18 August just as American fighter jets were roaring overhead, said: “The locals told us, when you come to the city we all will cooperate with you. They fed us and transported wounded Taleban fighters.” In some parts of the city, he said, Ghazni residents “publicly requested other residents to cooperate with the Taleban via mosque loudspeakers.” It was not possible to verify that such calls for cooperation had taken place (our local sources had not seen or heard anything). Neither did the Taleban governor give any details on how exactly government officials had cooperated (full interview here).

While outright cooperation has not been confirmed, what was clear was the lack of cooperation between Afghan officials and that this hampered the government in countering the Taleban attack. Civil society activists and elected provincial representatives have both highlighted this. Civil society activist, Nawruz Sharafat, for example, told Sarkhat Daily, “The Ghazni police chief and his police were fighting from midnight to midnight on 10 August, but no other security forces showed up to support them” (article not online). This lack of support might have been a result of overly optimistic official statements on the first day of the attack. Ghazni’s ANA brigade press office, for example, assured Ghazni residents that the situation was under control. It read: “Ghazni city is under the control of ANSF. We will make Ghazni a graveyard for the Taleban as we made Farah province the graveyard for them.” (see the statement here).

A provincial council member, Abdul Bari Shelgarai echoed Sharafat’s criticism. Referring to earlier Taleban attacks, such as the 2015 Ghazni jail break, he told AAN, “The ANA didn’t react to most of these incidents because, they say, they were not ordered to do so.” As a result, he said, most of the people fighting the Taleban during the latest attack on Ghazni were policemen. He said “Hundreds of ANP members were killed and wounded, but only a dozen ANA soldiers were.” In mid-September, Reuters quoted a Ministry of Interior (MoI) report that policemen had fought alone for over 28 hours before the army launched any counter-insurgency operation. “The Afghan National Police acted swiftly but they were defeated because they are not trained to fight the Taliban,” the report said.

Ghazni governor’s spokesman, Muhammad Aref Nuri, rebutted these claims when speaking to AAN. Based on what he called “the local security structure,” he said the “policemen are deployed to the so-called ‘security belt’ around the city.” The ANA’s responsibility is to provide protection to the highway, which, he said, is not part of the security belt. As the police were positioned on the frontline, they suffered more casualties than the ANA. Nuri also claimed the ANA commander had been leading the fighting that night and ANA officers were on duty at the coordination centre. He dismissed accusations of a lack of coordination. If it was the case that the government deliberately kept ANA soldiers aside in the face of an almost successful Taleban attack on a provincial capital, leaving its defence to the much more lightly-armed and vulnerable ANP, questions would have to be raised about priorities and orders.

Provincial Council member Shelgarai also alleged, when talking to AAN, that local security forces withdrew “without even putting up a fight” from Khwaja Omari district, from where one of the main attacks was carried out on 10 August. Such withdrawals also happened, he said, from “17 or 18 security posts” in areas to the northwest, west and southwest of Ghazni city. They were part of a total of 70 security personnel posted to the security belt around the city, consisting of the regular Afghan National Police but also Afghan Local Police and so-called ‘uprising units’, which are irregular local forces usually funded by NDS and with murky chains of command. The result of these withdrawals, he said, was that “The Taleban fighters got to the police headquarters in Ghazni city without much fighting.”

Some Afghan online media reported that the government forces’ withdrawal was the result of a pre-attack deal between the Taleban and local Hazara community elders in Ghazni city (see one report here). (2) Local Hazara people provided a different version of events in a series of conversations with AAN. These sources claimed that Taleban fighters had already reached central parts of the city and taken the police headquarters before the attacks on the outskirts. Hazara fighters had therefore engaged with enemy forces early on, but felt so outnumbered and outgunned that they doubted whether the provincial government would or could support them – notwithstanding the promised imminent arrival of government reinforcements from other parts of the city. AAN’s Hazara sources added that the Taleban had attacked the seriously below-strength – and mainly Hazara – security forces in the district centres before they attack Ghazni city. Security forces in places such as Jaghatu and Khwaja Omari had not received reinforcements despite their pleas from the spring of 2018 onwards for support (AAN reported here). AAN has learned that, after the Taleban killed more than half of the government forces’ tashkil during attack on Khwaja Omari district in April, 2018, many policemen left their jobs and only eight to ten ANP and ALP remained in Khwaja Omari.

In this situation, Hazara community elders said, they requested ‘their men’ in the security forces not to resist the Taleban because they feared their forces would be overwhelmed anyway and the fight might trigger a massacre of civilians. The Taleban have repeatedly said that they do not consider members of the Hazara community as targets on the grounds of their ethnicity or Shia faith. However, Hazara and Shia communities are nervous, especially given the brutal attacks by local Islamic State affiliate, ISKP (see UNAMA’s latest report on protection of civilians here). Many worry that there is a wider conspiracy including the Haqqani network within the Taleban and possibly elements in the security apparatus against them. The MoI report quoted above just said “that some policemen were scared and ran away to neighboring villages,” without pointing to particular groups.

The ‘Hazara narrative’ was also contradicted by governor spokesperson Nuri. He admitted certain ANP officers had ‘neglected’ their duty, but said this did not amount to “cooperation with the Taleban.” The security forces in Rawza, in Ghazni city and Khwaja Omari district had, he said, failed to resist the Taleban. “They left their posts without fighting… before the attackers arrived.” He said the officers were currently in Ghazni’s central jail and would be prosecuted. He gave no exact number of the number of ANP who had been arrested, but said they included Khwaja Omari’s acting district police chief, Alizada.

The final complaint against the government was that local officials appeared to have provided incorrect, ‘sugar-coated’ reports about the situation to the central government in Kabul. For example, Afghan media and The New York Times reported that President Ghani had been told in the early days of the attack that the situation in Ghazni was normal. Afghan daily Sarkhat put it like this (see here): “On the third day of the attack [only], did Ghani learn that the situation in Ghazni was abnormal,” and only then while in a meeting with youth representatives. Later, Muhammad Khan, CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s first deputy (who is from Qarabagh district in Ghazni), informed the president about what was happening. The president then took measures, but this was three days into the onslaught.

The US military in Afghanistan also followed the same line, as reported by The New York Times and The Long War Journal, of playing down the seriousness of the situation despite knowing what was happening.

Meanwhile, the insurgents’ communication channels were more active than those of the government. The Taleban shared timely updates of the fighting throughout the five-day onslaught, mostly on social media, while the government was silent or trying to pretend everything was normal.

Similarities to the 2015 Ghazni jail break

In their August 2018 attack, the Taleban used a tactic similar to the one used in their assault on Ghazni’s central jail three years earlier, in 2015 (see AAN’s previous piece here). Before moving to the jail then, the insurgents, in a diversionary operation, first attacked security posts in the Shahbaz area on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, as well as the QRF unit in the southwest of the city. When government forces responded, the Taleban launched their main attack and broke into the central jail, located in the southeast.

As to the 10 August 2018 attack, Taleban sources told AAN, “We signalled to the government that the plan was to attack Andar district centre. It sent Humvees and some reinforcements to Andar from Qarabagh district on 9 August. Then, on 10 August we targeted Ghazni city.” This narrative was backed up by two residents from Andar, where the Taleban have a permanent presence. Nemat and Rahimullah told AAN that in the early evening of 9 August they had seen “several Taleban fighters, in police Rangers that they had taken from government forces, moving towards Andar district centre. We thought they would carry out a major attack on the district centre. However, the next morning we got the surprising news from the radio that the Taleban had almost captured Ghazni city.”

Was it really a surprise attack?

Given the build-up of Taleban forces both in Ghazni’s surrounding districts as well as in parts of the city itself over the spring and summer (see earlier AAN analysis here), government officials as well as security forces should have expected an imminent attack.

There were many warning signs. Some weeks before the attack, Taleban fighters had carried out a campaign of assassinations throughout the city. Afghan media dubbed this the “terror machine in Ghazni” (for example, here). Over several months, locals in areas close to Ghazni city, including several villages in Andar district, reportedly saw non-local Taleban fighters moving in as part of this year’s Taleban ‘spring offensive’, codenamed ‘al-Khandaq’. The Red Unit’s presence was especially puzzling for them, as they had very little experience of seeing Taleban fighters from other provinces, particularly from Kandahar or Helmand. Such fighters had been seen in Ghazni province previously, but never in such large numbers as this year. The author also saw these ‘new’ Taleban and members of the Red Unit on several occasions going from house to house asking for food. The Taleban have also been active in Ghazni city itself, establishing a parallel government structure. This was not necessarily a sign of an imminent attack but should have worried officials, too, and prompted some countermeasures. (3)

Prior to this, when the Taleban announced their annual spring offensive (see here) – which began with an invasion of Farah city (see AAN’s analysis here) that turned out to be very similar to their later assault on Ghazni – the Taleban announced they planned to attack as many strategic provinces in the country as possible this year. This year’s strategy mirrors 2015, when they briefly captured Kunduz and the less successful, but still heavy follow-up attacks during 2016 and 2017. During an earlier visit to Ghazni and Andar district during Ramadan in early June 2018, the author spoke with several people who said the Taleban had announced publicly they planned “to perform Eid-ul Fitr prayers in Ghazni city.” Local residents that AAN consulted said at the time they understood by this that a major attack on Ghazni city was imminent.

The Taleban had a message for the people, that fighting would intensify over the summer, which it did – and was generally fiercer than last year. This included Red Unit fighters taking part in intensive fighting with Afghan security forces in Muqur, Deh Yak and Qarabagh districts. In October 2017 the Taleban laid siege to Andar district for three days. This year, they closed the highway on 3 May, and, as of writing this dispatch, it is still blocked (see also AAN’s previous dispatch here).

Conversations during the Eid-ul Fitr ceasefire in June with Taleban who have been part of the re-emerging Taleban movement in Andar district since 2004 indicated that local fighters had been aware of the plan to attack the city. When the author asked one commander to elaborate on plans during the ceasefire, he said: “We will fight as much as we can, to bring the government and the Americans under pressure.”

Given the lack of any major clearing operation around the city since the government’s Nabard-e Ahanin(Iron War) operation in February 2018 which targeted insurgents in Mangur and Qarabaghi villages near the city, the Taleban have been able to remain in areas such as Spandi, Qala-ye Qazi and Urzu, to where fighters moved before the August attack. Even during the February operation, no area was left entirely cleared of insurgents, according to provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani. Instead, he said, the operation drove civilians out of their houses. When a mortar shell hit civilian houses in Qarabaghi village near Ghazni city, seven civilians including a woman were killed. Both sides blamed each other for the incident (see this VOA report).

Parliamentarians from the province have repeatedly warned Kabul that an attack on Ghazni was imminent. Lawmaker Shah Gul Rezayi told the Wall Street Journal during the onslaught on Ghazni city that she and other lawmakers had met officials in Kabul before the attack. “They refused to heed our warnings,” she said. “Now you see the consequences.” Lawmakers also complained about inadequate resources linked to the fact that Ghazni is only listed according to the Central Statistics Office as a ‘second-tier’ province (out of three). Even AAN warned of an imminent major attack on Ghazni in May (see AAN’s dispatch here).

Many Afghans and observers had also wondered whether the Eid ceasefire, which enabled Taleban fighters to visit cities like Ghazni, had served as an opportunity for fighters to infiltrate the city. This cannot be completely ruled out, but it is a fact (and was reported in May by The New York Times) that there was already a significant Taleban presence there beforehand.

From the point of view of this analyst, who spends a considerable amount of time in Ghazni and Kabul, the main issue is that security in the province has been worsening for a number of years and the government has failed to remedy this. It is difficult to understand why neither Afghan nor US intelligence had heard or picked up the chatter about the Taleban’s readiness to intensify fighting, or, if they did, why they did not prepare themselves adequately. This contributed to conspiracy theories that there is support for the Taleban among the authorities. The lack of preparedness could also have resulted from the overestimation of the ANSF’s own capacity or underestimation of the Taleban’s abilities and intentions, in addition to the lack of readiness (and possibly fear) of reporting on the reality of the situation to the central government.

As to the slow reaction and poor reporting when the attack happened, one explanation is that senior officials were not in the city. The provincial governor was not even in the country at the time and only returned to Kabul some days after the siege began, while Deputy Governor Muhammad Amin Balegh was also out of the city (the attack was just before the Eid ul-Adha holiday). The provincial police chief was engaged in an operation in Deh Yak district. It was unclear who was in charge in their absence. All three officials were quickly cut off from the scene by the Taleban blacking out all communications to the city. All were also relatively new to their positions, having been appointed only two months prior to the attack (read about their appointments here, here: and here).

Conclusion: repeated mistakes

After the attacks in Kunduz in 2015 and Farah earlier in 2018, the Taleban attack on Ghazni city is a third example of the insurgents almost or entirely taking over a provincial centre (with Farah and Ghazni representing two major centres overrun in one year, see AAN’s previous dispatch). Even if only for a limited time, these incidents always come as another shock for the Afghan government and its supporters. They also serve as a reminder of the potential of the insurgent movement’s unbroken momentum.

The attack was a significant part of the Taleban’s military strategy this year, which has aimed, in part, to threaten a larger number of provincial centres. Attacks on provincial centres are an effective way of maintaining pressure on the government and its foreign backers. As mentioned earlier, is not clear whether they had planned a temporary or a permanent occupation. The government not only seemed to have been insufficiently prepared for the attack, despite the warning signs, underestimating Taleban capabilities and misreading the insurgents’ intentions. Coordination between the army and the police was clearly insufficient to counter an attack of this scale and the absence of any significant provincial leader exacerbated the problem.

The issue of coordination belies a deeper problem: using the ANP as a first line of defense might work in theory, but the army then needs to step in quickly, as it is clear that the police – particularly in the districts – are often outnumbered and outgunned by the Taleban. The lack of adequate cooperation and coordination among security officials has long been an issue throughout many parts of the country. In Ghazni, this was already obvious and with particularly dire consequences during the 2015 jail break. Back then, an investigation team sent from Kabul (see AAN’s reporting on it here) found a similar lack of coordination among security forces in the lead-up to that attack. It seems that, again, as in Kunduz (see AAN analysis here), there was insufficient practical follow-up on this finding.

It also remains unclear whether or how much support the Taleban had from residents within the city and from within the local government. If so, that would be most worrying for President Ghani.

The fact that the government retook the city after five days is less important than that they allowed its capture in the first place.

As AAN and others have described, an increasing number of Afghan cities are under permanent threat. In May 2018, we reported the Afghan Ministry of Defence indirectly confirmed that the Taleban was pursuing a strategy of surrounding provincial centres, citing Maimana (Faryab), Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan), Tirinkot (Uruzgan), Kunduz and also Faizabad (Badakhshan) as examples. Tellingly, Ghazni was not mentioned. AAN then commented that “Lashkargah (Helmand) and Sar-e Pul (where incidents are under-reported) could also be put into this category” and reported on the Taleban spring build-up all over Ghazni province. From what we compiled above, it was clear that the Afghan government should have had sufficient warning signs that the Taleban were planning an attack in Ghazni.

Under these circumstances it is almost a blessing that the Independent Election Commission postponed the parliamentary election in Ghazni planned for 20 October 2018, ordering that they be held with presidential elections planned for 20 April 2019. It is doubtful, though, whether the government will have been able to significantly improve province’s security by then. This will be largely impossible over the winter. A massive government spring offensive will be too close to election day and could disrupt preparations for the polls.

Meanwhile, the Taleban have continued to expand their control in the province. Since August they have increased their full control from three districts – Nawa, Khogyani and Rashidan – to eight; the Taleban have captured all areas, including the district centres, of Andar, Deh Yak, Khwaja Omari, Jaghatu, and Ajristan. This allows them also to control sections of the key highways that connect Ghazni with the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. These developments, the continuing lack of government action and an increase in airstrikes on the province will be further explored in the second part of this series on insecurity in Ghazni province.

Edited by and input from Thomas Ruttig, Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark

 

 

(1) Other casualty figures reported by the media included:

BBC Pashto quoting a ‘local official’: “In the five-day fighting in Ghazni, 60 civilians, 145 ANSF members and 533 Taleban fighters were killed or wounded.”

In the same report, Defense Minister Tareq Shah Bahrami was quoted as saying, “Nearly 100 security forces, 30 civilians and 200 Taleban fighters were killed and more than 100 were wounded.”

An Azadi radio report quoted officials from the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) on 18 August, stating they had collected the bodies “of nearly 200 people” and handed them over to their relatives. The ARCS officials did not specify whether these were bodies of civilians, ANSF or Taleban fighters.

The New York Times, quoting a ‘senior official’, reported that “the death toll was 155 police and soldiers, 60 to 70 civilians, and 430 insurgents.”

(2) AAN has previously reported about local deals between the Taleban and Hazara communities, for example in Baghlan in 2015/16 and, as AAN heard from local sources, in Jaghori district (see also this media report).

(3) One feature of this parallel structure is the Taleban’s system of tax collection from local residents. This spring, a local doctor told the author that an official from the government’s revenue department had surveyed most of the health clinics and diagnostic centres. The next day, doctors received calls from the Taleban telling them to go to Mangur village, a small town about seven kilometres to the south of the city in order to pay taxes to the Taleban. The doctor told AAN “We were wondering whether the survey was leaked to the Taleban, but no one knows what happened to it.” On the third day of the survey, most of the doctors, including the one who talked to AAN, were “negotiating the amount of tax with the Taleban finance representative.” Moreover, he said “Some doctors paid 10,000 Afghanis, some less than that, per one year.” Tolonews also conducted an investigation into the tax collection, in which a Taleban spokesman told the reporter that “The group successfully collected over three million Afghanis from Ghazni alone this year” (the report can be accessed here). One local journalist who did not want to be named explained to AAN that Taleban fighters had also been able to establish a court system where they resolve disputes between residents of the city, summoning people to the courts. In one significant case, a former Ghazni governor, Karim Matin, reportedly took a legal dispute to the Taleban court, according to Ali Akbar Qasimi, a parliamentarian from Ghazni citing a media report (see here). Kabul-based Sarkhat Daily also reported this issue on 17 April 2018.

 

 

 

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Thematic Category: War & Peace