The Taliban announced the commencement of their spring offensive with a vow that their main focus this year would be on targeting “foreign forces” in Afghanistan.
Their strategic goals come as Russia has been arming the Taliban over the winter, according to Defense Department officials and Afghan officials. “We continue to get reports of this assistance, and, of course, we had the overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russians,” Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the Resolute Support mission, told reporters in Kabul this week. “That really occurred starting late last year, beginning through this process they’ve been undertaking.”
In February testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nicholson told lawmakers that Russian support for the Taliban was increasing.
The general added that he believes Russia is “concerned that if there’s a coalition and a U.S. presence in Afghanistan that this affects their ability to influence the Central Asian states to the north.”
Pressed on what Russia’s endgame in Afghanistan could be, Nicholson said he thinks the Kremlin’s goal is to “undermine United States and NATO.” Russia ally Iran also believes that successful democracy in Afghanistan “will be a threat to them,” he added.
In addition to the reports of material support, Afghan officials have reported seeing Russian trainers on the ground with Taliban in Uruzgan province.
The Taliban have denied receiving assistance from Russia, but added in an April 14 statement, “However it should be clear that the Islamic Emirate – as a representative of its people and a guarantor of its national interests – seeks to develop cordial relations with all its neighbors and regional powers.”
The Taliban spring offensive is named Operation Mansouri, after late Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, who was killed in a May drone strike.
“Although over the course of the 15-year Jihad the foreign occupiers have suffered heavy casualties and a large number of the coalition have withdrawn from our lands yet under American leadership some unjust countries insist on the continued occupation of Afghanistan,” said the Taliban Leadership Council in a statement. “…The Islamic Emirate therefore has determined that with the advantageous weather we once again launch our yearly spring offensive against the foreign forces and their internal allies named Operation Mansouri.”
They added that during Mansour’s tenure “the mujahideen gained various decisive victories, annihilated highway robbers and impious people, foiled various seditions and intrigues, leaped forward in the political and social arenas, humiliated various foreign powers compelling them to leave our land, and achieve copious other proud milestones.”
“With the help of Allah Almighty and the infinite sacrifices of our Mujahid nation the foreign forces have suffered a historic defeat having been forced to admit that the Mujahideen control more than half of Afghanistan,” they said. “Hence, keeping the evolving situation in mind, this year’s Mansouri Operations will differ from previous ones in nature and will be conducted with a twin-tracked political and military approach.”
While the Taliban consistently inflate numbers of attack victims and military losses to their advantage, they may have loosely based their control estimate on U.S. government figures. A February report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated that the Afghan government controls or influences just 52 percent of districts in the country, down from 72 percent control in 2015.
The Taliban said in their Operation Mansouri announcement that they will ensure “social justice” in areas under their control, and “in cleansed districts and areas state-building will earnestly proceed and institutions will be erected to secure the social, security, and legal rights of the citizens.”
They also vowed to set up, without elaboration, an “apparatus” to “help those deceived by the enemy see the truth of our struggle, relinquish their opposition.”
“In those areas where the Mujahideen do not have full control, the enemy will be targeted, harassed, killed, or captured until they are compelled to abandon their few remaining posts,” the Taliban vowed under their military goals. “The main focus of Operation Mansouri will be on foreign forces, their military and intelligence infrastructure and in eliminating their internal mercenary apparatus.”
Attacks, they added, “will involve conventional attacks, guerrilla warfare, complex martyrdom attacks, insider attacks, and use of IEDs to achieve their objectives.”
The terror group runs a Department for the Prevention of Civilian Casualties, and claimed they would “scrutinize their targets and places so as to minimize civilian casualties” in the spring offensive.
“We request from civilians – in order to minimize collateral damage – that they avoid enemy bases and their military and intelligence personnel and to assist their Mujahideen brothers by all means possible,” they added.
The White House is weighing what the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan will be going forward. Two U.S. servicemembers were killed and another injured this week fighting ISIS in Nangarhar Province, where the U.S. dropped the MOAB earlier this month.
ISIS and the Taliban are operating under a truce so they can focus on the common enemy.