Afghanistan: UN sounds alarm over threat posed by emboldened Taliban, still closely linked to al-Qaeda
With the last US troops due to leave Afghanistan in the coming months, the report compiled by the United Nations monitoring team tasked with monitoring security threats in Afghanistan paints a grim picture of the security outlook. It will be an uncomfortable read for the Biden administration as it strives to end the US military presence in the country.
Biden has pledged to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces by September 11 – the twentieth anniversary of September 11.
The two groups “show no indication of breaking ties,” although they have temporarily tried to hide their connections, according to the report, although it notes that the Taliban are calling it “false information,” according to the report.
The Taliban threat
The UN team said the Taliban are “responsible for the vast majority of targeted assassinations which have become a hallmark of violence in Afghanistan and which appear to be carried out in an attempt to weaken the government’s capacity and intimidate civil society. ” And he argues that part of the Taliban leadership has no stake in the peace process, claiming that “the two deputy heads of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Yaqub Omari and Sirajuddin Haqqani are reported by member states as being opposed peace talks and in favor of a military solution “.
Haqqani is the commander of the Haqqani network, a powerful semi-autonomous force within the Taliban structure. According to the UN, Mullah Yaqub (also spelled Yaqoob), son of the late founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was appointed head of the Taliban military commission in May 2020.
UN observers believe that “the security situation in Afghanistan remains as tense and difficult as at any time in recent history”, with member states reporting that “the Taliban have emboldened themselves to continue attacks for more. long periods while exercising greater freedom of movement. This allowed the Taliban to consolidate their forces around major provincial capitals and district centers, allowing them to remain ready to launch attacks. “
They add that many believe the Taliban “seeks to shape future military operations when levels of departing foreign troops are no longer able to respond effectively.”
According to the UN report, member states estimate that the Taliban “contests or controls about 50 to 70 percent of Afghan territory outside urban centers, while also exercising direct control over 57 percent of district administrative centers. “.
Asfandyar Mir, a South Asian security analyst at Stanford University, said the Taliban appeared ready to go on the offensive against the Afghan government. “The Taliban are starting to exert major pressure in provinces adjacent to Kabul – including, worryingly, in neighboring Laghman, which has seen significant defections from Afghan security forces to the Taliban,” Mir told CNN. “In the south of the country, the Taliban are preparing to exert more pressure on the provincial capitals.
The report estimates that despite twenty years of war, the number of the Taliban remains “robust” and “recruitment has remained stable” – with estimates of the insurgent group’s combat strength ranging from 58,000 to 100,000.
In contrast, the Afghan army is in decline. “In February 2021, the strength of the Afghan forces stood at around 308,000, well below its target of 352,000,” the report said.
The UN report notes that “air contributions provided by coalition forces have been essential support for ground operations; it remains to be seen how the Afghan forces will behave without them ”.
“The next international military withdrawal (…) will challenge the Afghan forces by limiting air operations with fewer drones, radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical and artillery support, as well as an interruption of training, “notes the UN team.
He is also concerned that better-trained units such as the Afghan commandos would have to shoulder much of the burden of the fighting, if less disciplined units within the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police begin to pull out. collapse or defect.
The Taliban also has no shortage of income, according to the UN report. In 2020, according to estimates cited by the report, the Taliban earned the equivalent of more than $ 400 million from mining, and similar income from opium poppy crops.
The report also finds that “the Taliban have increasingly used the extension of territorial control to extort money from a wide range of public infrastructure services, including road construction, telecommunications and road transport.” .
With money to spend, the Taliban invested in more sophisticated weapons. The UN team highlights its use of commercially available drones loaded with explosives for attacks and an increase in the use of improvised magnetic explosive devices and suicide bombers (VBIED).
The Al-Qaeda Connection
President Biden argued in April that the United States’ task in Afghanistan was over. “We went to Afghanistan to recover the terrorists who attacked us on September 11. We have done justice to Osama bin Laden and we have degraded the terrorist threat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” said the president.
But the UN report finds that a “significant portion” of al-Qaeda leadership is believed to still be in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He says reports of the death of Osama bin Laden’s top adviser, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have not been confirmed, with one member state saying “he is probably alive but too fragile to feature in propaganda.” .
While the Taliban “maintains their long-standing practice of denying the presence of foreign terrorist fighters,” UN observers estimate that there are 8,000 to 10,000 members belonging to various militant groups in Afghanistan, most of them being considered “at least tolerated or protected by the Taliban.”
The monitoring team believes that the Taliban are trying to exert greater control over al-Qaeda, but warns that “it is impossible to assess with certainty that the Taliban will honor their commitment to suppress any future international threats emanating from them. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. “
He adds that the ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda have “strengthened because of the personal ties of marriage and the shared partnership in the struggle, now cemented by second-generation ties.”
The UN team also said that, according to member states, “Al-Qaida maintains contact with the Taliban but has played down open communications with Taliban leadership in an attempt to ‘keep a low profile’ and not undermine the diplomatic position of the Taliban vis-à-vis the Doha agreement. “
The UN team stresses that “it will be important for the international community to watch for any sign that Afghanistan is once again becoming a destination for extremists with both regional and international programs.”
Asfandyar Mir agrees that al Qaeda remains firmly aligned with the Afghan Taliban and supports the Taliban’s strategy of securing a US withdrawal. “I expect him to find safe sanctuary in Afghanistan again, although it is not clear whether al Qaeda will reconstitute an international terrorist operation from Afghanistan,” Mir said.
In the immediate term, the UN warns that the Taliban could carry out “attacks against the withdrawal of the forces in a new attempt to score propaganda points on the United States”. And its longer-term prognosis is grim.
The report concludes that “the intention of the Taliban appears to be to continue to strengthen their military position as leverage. They believe that they can achieve almost all of their objectives through negotiation or, if necessary, by force.”
Mir agrees, saying, “The Afghan Taliban pose a major threat to the survival of the Afghan government, which is likely to increase dramatically with the total withdrawal of US forces.