Has the Spring Fighting Season Already Begun?
As spring approaches in Afghanistan, knives are being sharpened and guns receive a fresh coat of oil. Afghan men are preparing for another fighting season in a ritual that is all too familiar. As poppy production wraps up and the weather warms, manpower is freed and fighting becomes viable. Casualties rise, territory changes hands, and conflict is in full swing again.
This spring will be different for the newer generation of the Taliban. For nearly two decades, they were the aggressors, able to choose targets that suited them, attack hard, and melt back into the countryside. This year they must defend a nation—and we’re not sure it is something they know how to do.
With multiple armed opposition groups active in the country and terrorist activity increasing, the Taliban will have their hands full as Afghanistan’s new rulers. April is traditionally the month that the fighting season begins so we will soon see the Taliban’s mettle tested. The question on everybody’s minds is when?
The Afghan Digest believes that the spring fighting season has already begun. News outlets that cover Afghanistan occasionally print what the Taliban feeds them about sporadic run-ins with bandits, kidnappers, and criminal gangs. In some of these clashes, the Taliban report their own casualties; while they don’t appear to be losing a lot of fighters, they are losing quite a few vehicles.
However, the reality is that there have been several series of largely unreported clashes ongoing in Panjshir, Faryab, Balkh, Baghlan, and Badakhshan provinces. In addition to equipment losses, more forces are dying than they are admitting, including both Taliban and NRF leaders and commanders.
On social media, the media landscape is much more transparent. Civilians post about clashes in their areas, providing insight into less reported skirmishes. Furthermore, several opposition groups actively manage social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The more active accounts consistently post updates with videos and photos as evidence of their actions. A few reports have turned out to be fraudulent, which has caused many observers to dismiss the grander claims made over the past three months as mere fiction. However, over the past 21 days clashes and casualties clearly appear to have intensified, and it is getting harder to dismiss the clashes as simple encounters with bandits.
Possibly in response to increased clashes, the Taliban have recently sent out larger scale troop deployments around the country that seem excessive for simple policing actions. Furthermore, the matriculation of new recruits through both army and police training has notably sped up since January, even if it jeopardizes the effectiveness of their training.
Although there were several skirmishes, mostly along ethnic lines (see our former DEBs for details), throughout the beginning of the Taliban’s regime, clashes were relatively minimal and the Taliban were the main initiators of hostilities.
Things changed in February 2022. Around the time house-to-house searches were launched in Kabul and elsewhere in late February, the National Resistance Front claimed to have successfully repulsed a Taliban attack in the Shotol district of Panjshir province. The clash was verified by multiple sources, but casualty counts varied widely. A retaliatory attack by the NRF was launched the following day in Kohistan, Kapisa province in which several Taliban were killed and more vehicles were destroyed. This clash was also verified by additional sources.
Since that time, the NRF have claimed fourteen acts against the Taliban with nearly 100 Taliban dead and a similar number wounded. Two of the incidents were later determined to be the work of ISIS-K. In the first three days of April, the NRF claim to have killed Taliban members every day, with the bulk of the attacks occurring north of Kabul. Very few of these incidents were ever reported in the press.
“57 Taliban mercenaries were killed by the National Resistance Forces”
NRF Website 3 MAR 2022
Headlines such as this appear bombastic and jingoistic, which has led many to believe the NRF is made up of a group of “virtual warriors” who are waging a misinformation campaign online. However, sources across the spectrum indicate the NRF represents the largest, most well-armed, and best led force of all the counter-Taliban groups. Their young leader Ahmad Massoud has been proactive in forming alliances among the anti-Taliban groups and is even recognized by the Iranian and Russian governments as a legitimate political opposition leader. While a lot of media attention has been given to now unemployed Afghan Army and DNS personnel joining the ranks of ISIS-K, it is believed that far more have rallied to the NRF banner.
The Taliban must now make the difficult transition to a peacekeeping and policing force. This is something they have minimal experience with, and the current force structure is not well suited to dealing with dispersed guerrilla tactics. History has shown that insurgents generally do not make effective counterinsurgents. Even if the Taliban successfully recruit and field their intended army of about 150,000 fighters, this will be far below the historical guidelines for the manning strength of an occupation force (1 soldier : 40 citizens). Furthermore, the Taliban lack significant air assets, which precludes them from having the distinct advantage of quick responses to hit-and-run attacks.
The wildcard in all of this speculation could be foreign military assistance provided by a neighboring country to either the Taliban or the NRF. That is a topic for a future Whispers analysis.
Regardless, it is clear that clashes are increasing and major troop movements are occurring. Casualties are already beginning to surge, and there have been reports of the NRF’s strategic buildup in certain areas.
The bottom line is The Afghan Digest is confident that the spring campaign season has begun. Enough credible verification of the clashes reported on social media have manifested to support this conclusion.
Furthermore, we believe the NRF is the largest and best equipped adversary operating in Afghanistan. They have already developed relationships with other anti-Taliban groups who also oppose the regime and are very well-funded and supported, through wealthy Afghan expatriates, interested regional actors, and sympathetic individuals in the West. If the NRF achieves notable successes in the coming months, the Afghan people will be inspired and the NRF’s ranks will swell, giving them the confidence and ability to begin taking the fight to the cities.
We do not believe the Taliban’s shallow recruitment tactics and overly quick training will result in a proficient and effective fighting force. The Taliban army will have difficulty defeating a competent insurgent force while also protecting their bases of operations and lines of communication.
Finally, our analysis indicates that April and May will be pivotal months for both sides of the conflict and could set the trajectory for the remainder of the year.