The Fight for Ghazni

Published On : September 2, 2018
The Political Economy of Extremism in Pakistan
September 14, 2018

Ghazni, a city of 280,000 people, according to Afghan figures, sits astride the important Highway 1 linking Kabul and Kandahar, the second largest Afghan city, in the south, and is less than 100 miles from the capital Kabul. Ghazni city holds great value for the Taliban because if the Taliban successfully took Ghazni and are able to hold it, they would essentially cut off the traditional Taliban homelands in the south from northern Afghanistan and the capital.

 

Heavy clashes between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban for the control of Ghazni city broke out in the first week of August as Taliban launched their assault on Ghazni, which resulted in the death of hundreds on both sides. Security in the Ghazni city, which is a two-hour drive south of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, had been deteriorating for months as Taliban fighters slowly encroached. The Taliban assault on Ghazni city marked the bloodiest week in Afghanistan in years and came only two months after an unexpected Eid-ul-Fitr holiday truce in June which many saw as a rare hope in America’s longest war. [1a] The fighting for Ghazni also came only weeks after Taliban envoys met with senior American officials in the Gulf in an attempt to kick start some kind of political settlement. And even though the Afghan government later on claimed – which is disputed by many observers and journalists – that it successfully captured back entire Ghazni city from Taliban, the assault itself gave Taliban a major propaganda victory and left Ashraf Ghani’s weak government red-faced.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter that Taliban fighters infiltrated every part of the city. “Hundreds of Mujahedeen entered the [Ghazni] city, captured the police headquarters and all six police districts and an important military base, Bala Hesar”.

“Attacks are underway on the governor’s office, the N.D.S. Headquarters and other government offices,” he said, using the acronym for the National Directorate for Security, the Afghan intelligence agency. Mr. Mujahid also announced that Taliban fighters closed Highway 1 (Kandahar-Kabul Highway) to prevent reinforcements from reaching Ghazni and the occupied Ghazni police station. [1b] A BBC Pushto journalist Assadullah Jalalzai who was in Ghazni when Taliban launched the assault said that initial Taliban fighters came dressed as Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers. [1c]

Afghan government officials confirmed to local media that Taliban fighters had shot down two helicopters, which had to make emergency landings. Taliban fighters, who had brought their full force with them by calling fighters from other districts and provinces of Afghanistan, also attacked the only two helipads in the city. Keeping up its long tradition of denial, the Afghan government continued to deny any major Taliban assault and victories in Ghazni, saying that the city continues to be held by the Afghan government forces. “Overall, the situation is under our control in Ghazni, and the problems are not that serious,” Najib Danish, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said at a news conference. “The concern about the collapse of the province to the Taliban is gone now.”

Convoy of Afghan National Army (ANA) moving towards Ghazni city to participate in the fighting

 

But witnesses in Ghazni as well as local and international journalists were reporting an entirely different situation. A reporter for The New York Times who entered the city found the Taliban confidently in control at every intersection and checkpoint. [2] The Taliban had overtaken several government check-posts and had destroyed communication towers in the city, making it extremely difficult for those in the city to communicate with the outside world. This also resulted in significant delays for locals in getting the word out to the Afghan government in Kabul about the situation on the ground. Many residents fled Ghazni on foot as the Taliban had mined the roads heavily and were refusing to allow civilian traffic out of the city.

In the following photos released by the Taliban through their official propaganda networks, Taliban fighters pose with weapons and ammo they captured from the Afghan government forces during Ghazni battle:

Taliban display weapons and ammo captured from government forces in Ghazni battle.

 

The Role of US in the Fight For Ghazni

Following the Taliban assault on Ghazni city, U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters scrambled into action, deploying three 12-man Green Beret teams from 1st Special Forces Group along with their Afghan partnered force from the 2nd Commando Kandak, and conventional U.S. infantry soldiers from 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. Making their way through roadblocks in the form of destroyed vehicles and mines set up by the Taliban, as the US forces reached the outskirts of Ghazni, the real situation finally dawned on them. They saw that the Taliban clearly had an upper hand in the fighting despite all the US equipment possessed by Afghan government forces. The Taliban started clashing with the US forces almost instantly after the US convoy entered Ghazni. The US forces on the ground were aided by a AC-130 gun ship, Apache attack helicopters, A-10 attack planes, F-16 fighter jets and MQ-9 Reaper drones.

The US military said it dropped 73 bombs and missiles in the Ghazni operation. Although the initial mission of US forces was to secure the two Afghan helicopters shot down by the Taliban, they spent the next few days fighting the Taliban in an attempt to reach the helicopter site. The Taliban were armed with machine guns, AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers and mortars, and kept the US forces busy for next few days.

A member of the Afghan security forces stands guard next to damaged army vehicles after a Taliban attack in Ghazni

 

During Ghazni fighting, the Taliban also torched several buildings in the city, including the building of Afghanistan’s national TV channel and radio station and killed at least one of the staffs.

The media building in Ghazni torched by the Taliban.

 

Taliban torched many buildings in the city. Source: TOLO News

 

“We’re seeing the strategy is fundamentally working and advancing us toward reconciliation, even though it may not be playing out the way that we anticipated,” General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said on Aug. 22. This statement released by General Nicholson in fact contradicts itself and raises serious questions about the state of war in Afghanistan.

General Nicholson’s statement comes in the same month when the Taliban have launched a nationwide assault, in which hundreds of people on both sides have been killed. While the Pentagon officially says that the combat role of US has long ended in Afghanistan and that the US forces are only there to train, advise and assist government forces, the fight in Ghazni highlighted the grim cost that US still has to pay in its plan to train, advise and assist every time it rushes to aid Afghan forces on the verge of defeat. Nine Americans were evacuated from the battlefield by air because of injuries incurred by the Taliban attacks. At least two US soldiers received Purple Hearts after suffering serious wounds. Seven out of 10 armoured vehicles in one US convoy were completely destroyed in the Ghazni battle.

In the following photos, a US Special Forces airman who was injured in the Ghazni battle and received a Purple Heart shows his gear which got badly damaged in the fighting.

US Forces airman, injured in the Ghazni battle, received a Purple Heart. Here is he showing his damaged equipment.

 

A major reason why the US forces and the Afghan government were both taken by surprise by the Taliban assault on Ghazni was that the government as well as US Coalition forces had moved most of their fighting units from Ghazni and were instead focused on fighting the Islamic State in Khurasan Province (ISKP) in Eastern Nangarhar. And at the same time the assumption was that since the Taliban announced a truce in Eid-ul-Fitr and were engaged in negotiations with US in Gulf, they would not launch any major attack at least until after Eid-ul-Adha. But Taliban did exactly what everyone assumed they won’t do. And even though the Afghan government and US Coalition had received prior intelligence that a Taliban attack on Ghazni was imminent, they still didn’t take it as seriously as they should have and were caught with their pants down in broad daylight. It would also be important to note that the Taliban attack in Ghazni did not come out of nowhere. Earlier in May, locals in Ghazni told The New York Times that Taliban fighters infiltrated the city and are stashing arms and ammo in safe houses. [3]  Clearly the Afghan government or the US Coalition did not take these reports very seriously at the time.

Americans at a military outpost in Ghazni city on Aug. 16, after the U.S. helped Afghan forces retake the city from the Taliban. Source: TIMES

 

After fighting of several days, the US Coalition and the Afghan government claimed they have recaptured Ghazni from the Taliban but at the same time local sources in Ghazni confirm that Taliban still have a presence in the city in the form of fighters, suicide bombers and informants. The proof of continued Taliban presence in Ghazni came from the Afghan government itself when on 28th August it announced it carried out new airstrikes on Taliban in Ghazni, killing at least 28 Taliban militants. [4] On the other hand, Taliban also claimed victory. Even as the fighting drove them from the city, the Taliban bragged that it had sent a clear message to President Donald Trump that “the conquest of this city signifies the failure of yet the latest American strategy,” according to a Taliban statement. “The experience of Ghazni has proven that no defensive belts of cities can withstand the offensive prowess of the Mujahideen.” [5]

Special Forces soldiers sleep at a military outpost. Source: TIMES

 

In truth, the strategic value of the Ghazni attack seems to have been the tweets, headlines and video footage that rippled across social-­media feeds, showing armed Taliban brazenly roaming free in the city centre. The message of the Taliban to US was clear: the Taliban remains a fierce enemy who can strike whenever they choose, regardless of peace talks and hopes of reconciliation. And this is something which the US Generals in Afghanistan have no solution for. For the US forces to call the Ghazni battle a success means the bar for success has been set far too low. Perhaps no one understands the futility of this war better than Afghan civilians, many of who trust the Afghan government forces about as much as the Taliban. These civilians are the ones who actually lost the most in the Ghazni battle, with many either losing their life or limbs while others losing their property and livelihood.

Besides the heavy toll on civilians, there’s also the problem of Afghan forces mistakenly or intentionally attacking US forces. During the Ghazni battle, two American soldiers told a TIME reporter that the Afghan National Army (ANA) had accidentally fired on their own units, as well as American convoys. With US continuing to say that US forces are only training, advising and assisting, the question arises of how long and for what cost can US afford to continue this training, advising and assisting mission with local forces it cannot even fully trust. Besides the issue that US forces don’t fully trust the Afghan forces, there’s also the problem of lack of coordination between Afghan police, army, air force and other security institutions. In fact, this lack of coordination immensely helped Taliban in the Ghazni battle to push out the Afghan government forces that were armed with more sophisticated US-supplied weapons and equipment.

Following the assault on Ghazni and the counter-attack by Afghan forces aided by the US forces, the Taliban released August issue of its monthly Al-Somood magazine in which it gave extensive coverage to the Ghazni battle, giving their own version of the story.

August issue of Taliban’s monthly Al-Somood magazine.

 

The Afghan Taliban also released two videos from Ghazni; one showing the prisoners it released from Ghazni prison and the other detailing their ‘victories’ in Ghazni.

Cover photo of Taliban’s propaganda video from Ghazni released by Al-Emarah Studio

 

Photo cover of Taliban video detailing their ‘victories’ in Ghazni fighting

 

Bombarded by the Taliban propaganda videos and images, the US Coalition brought out its own tools of information warfare and started releasing images and videos from Ghazni that purportedly contradicted claims of the Taliban. A video released by the US Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan claimed to show the Taliban harassing civilians in Ghazni.

Screenshot a Resolute Support mission Resolute Support mission from Ghazni, claiming to show Taliban harassing civilians. Source: Department of Defence [6]

 

Conclusion:

For US to lose, the Taliban don’t necessarily have to win. All the Taliban have to do is to keep launching raids across the country, killing as many as possible while exposing the weak spots of the already weak government, and then spreading propaganda images and videos across social media while claiming victory. The problem is this game of cat and mouse is mounting a high cost upon the Afghan government and the US Coalition as well as local civilians and not just in the form of loss of life and property but also in the form of psychological impact, and Taliban fully understand this. The only possibility of long-lasting peace could come from successful negotiations between the US and the Taliban. Any negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are going to be futile since the Taliban don’t consider it a legitimate government and would only seriously negotiate with the international backers of the Afghan government.

 

References:

1a. https://www.dw.com/en/afghanistan-ghani-announces-ceasefire-with-taliban-for-eid-al-fitr/a-44106896

1b. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/taliban-occupied-ghazni-city-police-station-as-resolute-support-claimed-city-was-under-afghan-control.php

1c. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-45186341

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/11/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-ghazni.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/07/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-ghazni.html
  3. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/360608-afghan-airstrikes-kill-28-taliban-in-ghazni
  4. http://time.com/longform/ghazni-fight-taliban/
  5. https://dod.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/Videos/?videoid=619783

 

 

Published By:

Faran Jeffery

Deputy Director and Head of South Asia Desk on Terrorism


Faran Jeffery is the Deputy Director and Head of South Asia desk on terrorism at ITCT. He is a South Asia based expert on counter-terrorism, counter-extremism and security-related matters. He closely monitors Jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, especially Islamic State and Al-Qaeda allied groups. Mr Jeffery is an expert on Open Source Intelligence and terrorist propaganda. Some of his past work includes working as a News Editor and later as an analyst for a Pakistani national security think tank.

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