Afghan conflict evolving into war of nerves

KABUL (AA): As a New Year dawns, Afghanistan’s long-running conflict is shifting to a form of psychological warfare as casualties mount on all sides.

Statistics compiled by Anadolu Agency show that in December alone, at least 150 security forces, 184 civilians and hundreds of armed insurgents were killed in a string of deadly incidents while 14 NATO troops were killed throughout 2018.

The persistently high death toll reflects a determination by the government and the Taliban to demonstrate their clout amid an apparent rush by Washington to conclude America’s longest war.

Kabul flexes its muscles

On the part of the Kabul government, control of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANSDSF) now rests with two former spymasters with a hawkish approach following a major reshuffle in the leadership of defense and security institutions last month.

President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani appointed former intelligence chiefs Amrullah Saleh and Assadullah Khalid as minister of interior and defense respectively. In their initial remarks, both of them highlighted the policy framework for the ANSDSF with a clear focus on mercilessly targeting the rebels not only under the usual defense scenario but more so in terms of scaled-up attacks on the bastions of the Taliban and Daesh.

“For so long, our forces had the slogan ‘Sar Warkao, Sangar Na Warkawo’ [Pashto for ‘Would die, but not surrender’]. But with all due respect to this old slogan, now our slogan will be ‘Sar Waho, Sangar Tre Neso [‘Would kill them, capture their bastions’],” Khalid told a gathering of Afghan soldiers in his maiden speech after taking charge at the Ministry of Defense.

The future strategy is focused on eliminating the rebels’ leadership and financial sources through targeted operations, Defense Ministry spokesman Syed Ghafor Javed told Anadolu Agency.

“From now on, on an average basis, 15 air strikes per day are being conducted to eliminate the Taliban leadership and their financial resources. This has yielded positive results,” he said.

He claimed a number of Taliban shadow governors and key militant commanders have been killed recently.

This is also reflected in the statistics released by the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, which show that 1,089 Taliban fighters, including nine commanders, have been killed in Afghan-led operations supported by Coalition airstrikes since Nov. 9.

In total, 392 airstrikes were carried out in November and 150 in the first three weeks of December. According to the Resolute Support Mission, 450 Taliban fighters were killed in the December airstrikes.

In his speech, Khalid also said the Taliban would be forced to accept Afghan-led peace talks, indicating a deadlier 2019.

Rebels unmoved

The rebels, however, have shown no signs of weakening or surrender. In December alone, the group staged multiple coordinated assaults as well as suicide bombings and IED attacks particularly in the northern provinces of Faryab, Sar-e-Pul and Jawzjan and western provinces of Farah and Herat. Estimates gathered by Anadolu Agency indicate that at least 150 Afghan security forces, including four regional police commanders, lost their lives in these assaults.

The deadliest terrorist attack during the month was a suicide car bombing followed by the siege of a government compound in Kabul on Dec. 24 that left 43 people dead, most of them civil sector employees. The Taliban denied involvement.

In the Taliban’s review of 2018, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said on Twitter the group has extended its control to 29 more districts across Afghanistan. He noted that a total of 10,638 attacks were carried out, killing more than 20,000 Afghan and allied forces.

Last month, some US media reported that Washington was considering the withdrawal of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, but this has not been confirmed by the White House.

Position of strength

Mohammad Arif, a defense analyst, told Anadolu Agency that both sides have raised the bar in a bid to enter proposed peace talks in a position of strength.

The Taliban “have initiated a diplomatic offensive, now having open contacts — which were previously kept secret — with Iran, Pakistan, Russia and other countries as well as of course the interaction with American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad. They certainly seek a major share in any future setup the US seems to be urgently seeking”.

President Ghani has made it clear that the proposed peace process would indeed be led by Afghans. But the Taliban’s continued refusal to meet with Afghan officials remains an obstacle to realizing this.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is set to hold a session on the proposed peace process in Jeddah this month, with the Taliban and U.S representatives meeting face-to-face.

A spokesman for the High Peace Council in Afghanistan, Syed Ehsan Tahiri, said it is hoped direct talks with the Taliban will take place in Saudi Arabia.

“We hail and support all bids for peace in Afghanistan. We hope the promises made will be realized.”