Last week, the Taliban launched an assault on the district of Jaghuri in the embattled eastern Afghan province of Ghazni. Reports in the Afghan press downplayed the severity of happenings in Jaghuri, which is considered to be the most secure rural district in all the country due to the demographics and geography.
However, reporters from The New York Times who were on the scene saw something much different and far more terrifying than what was reported in the Afghan press: an Afghan Special Forces commando company that was sent to bolster defenses was routed, while security forces and government officials were attempting to flee the scene as Taliban forces advanced.
As The New York Times noted, Jaghuri, which is considered to be “Afghanistan’s Shangri-La,” has until now been immune from the Taliban’s insurgency, despite that fact that it is located in Ghazni province, which has been a hotbed of Taliban activity. Jaghuri’s population of 600,000 is predominantly Hazara and are opposed to the Taliban. The Taliban has isolated the remote district by cutting off roads, but refrained from attacking it.
Last week, Taliban fighters (more than 1,000 of them, according to the Times) pressed their attack into Jaghuri while also assaulting other districts in Ghazni. Reports from Ghazni, such as this one from Khaama Press on Nov. 7, parroted the official Afghan government line that the Taliban was “pushed” from the district as military reinforcements arrived. TOLONews echoed this sentiment on Nov. 7, when it quoted Interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish.
“Enough equipment has arrived via air to our forces and backup forces have been deployed there. The situation is under our control, but clashes are still ongoing,” said Danish told the news agency.
Yet, as the Times reported, by Nov. 11, the situation in Jaghuri was in disarray. Security forces have all but collapsed. An Afghan Army Special Forces commando company which was sent to Jaghuri to help shore up the local militia that secured the district, was rendered combat ineffective. Of the 50 members of the Special Forces commando company, 30 were killed and 10 more were wounded.
The commander of the Hazara militia was killed and three of his sons are missing. Local Afghan officials pleaded with a delegation from Kabul to send reinforcements, but none came, despite promises. An official from the Ministry of the Interior downplayed the deaths of the commandos, and claimed they were local militiamen, despite the fact that the bodies of the soldiers being stacked in front of him were wearing commando uniforms.
As of Nov. 11, Afghan officials and all those who could leave the district were attempting to do so. The Taliban are said to be just miles from the district center, where the remaining security forces and militia are holed up.
Afghan forces seemingly on the brink of collapse
The Taliban’s rout of the commandos and collapse of Afghan forces in Jaghuri, and the government’s inability to send reinforcements, should come as no surprise. The Afghan military and police forces have been unable to defend Afghanistan’s rural areas and have been overrun at a host of bases, outposts, and checkpoints throughout the country over the past several years. The Taliban overran four significant bases in the first six days of this month. Since the beginning of this year, the Taliban has routed a commando company in Ajristan district Ghazni, and inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan Special Forces in Farah.
To remedy the problem, the US military and Resolute Support – NATO’s command in Afghanistan – advised Afghanistan’s ministries of defense and interior to pull back from rural areas and defend more populous areas. In theory, this should have preserved Afghan forces and defended the bulk of Afghanistan’s population from the predations of the Taliban. In practice, it has resulted in a degraded security situation and has put the Taliban in an even better position to threaten and attack Afghanistan’s population centers.
While US and Afghan military officials have claimed that Afghanistan’s remote areas are strategically insignificant, the Taliban has used its mastery of them as a springboard to take the fight to more populated areas. In these remote districts, the Taliban has established its shadow government, which it uses to spread its ideology and further its military aims. Here, the Taliban taxes the local populations, recruits fighters, establishes training camps and military stockpiles, while using these areas as staging points to attack neighboring districts. In the south, the Taliban controls and hotly contests a band of districts, panning from Ghazni and Zabul in the east all the way into Helmand, Nimruz, and Farah in the west that it uses to take the fight to the Afghan government. Over the past six months, this safe haven was used to launch major incursions into Ghazni and Farah cities.
The Afghan military has been unable to halt the Taliban’s slow but inexorable attacks that have taken place in all regions of the country. The size of the Afghan military has decreased at a time when more, and not less, soldiers and policemen are needed to stave off the Taliban assault. Over the past year, the size of the Afghan security forces has decreased by almost 9,000 personnel due to casualties, desertions, and failure to reenlist.
The Taliban clearly has the initiative and Afghan forces are on the defensive in many areas in Afghanistan. It is unclear how long the Afghan security forces can suffer losses such as the one in Jaghuri. Casualties are at an all time high, and the cumulative effect on morale of Afghan forces cannot easily be measured since elite forces and military and police bases are overrun with shocking regularity, at this point on a near daily basis.