(CNN) – An emboldened Taliban movement poses a serious and growing threat to the Afghan government, remains close to al Qaeda and believes it can return to power by force if necessary, according to a United Nations Security Council report released on Wednesday. .
While waiting for the last US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan in the coming months, the report, prepared by the UN Surveillance Team, tasked with monitoring security threats in Afghanistan, paints a grim picture of the threats. security prospects. It will be an uncomfortable read for the Biden administration, which is working to end the US military presence in the country.
Biden has pledged to withdraw all remaining forces by 9/11, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
As part of last year’s agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the Islamist organization promised to instruct its members “not to cooperate with groups or individuals who threaten the security of the United States and its allies” in counterpart to the decision by withdraw American troops.
But the UN Monitoring Team claims that the Taliban remain “closely aligned” with the terrorist network Al Qaeda, which has threatened a “war on all fronts” against the United States.
The two groups “show no indication of breaking their ties”, although they have tried to mask them temporarily, according to the report, although it notes that the Taliban call this “false information”.
The threat of the Taliban
The departure of US troops comes as violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level in two decades. According to the UN report, 2020 was the “most violent year ever recorded by the United Nations in Afghanistan.” Security incidents have increased more than 60% in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
The UN team asserts that the Taliban are “responsible for the vast majority of targeted killings that have become a feature of the violence in Afghanistan and that appear to be carried out with the aim of weakening the government’s capacity and intimidating the government. civil society ”. And it maintains that a part of the Taliban leadership is not interested in the peace process, stating that “the two deputy leaders of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Yaqub Omari and Sirajuddin Haqqani, are reportedly opposed by the member states. peace talks and are 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 Taliban founder Mullah Omar, was appointed head of the Taliban Military Commission in May 2020.
UN Monitors assess that the “security situation in Afghanistan remains as tense and challenging as at any time in recent history”, and Member States report that the “Taliban have been emboldened to sustain attacks for longer periods long, while exercising greater freedom of movement. This has allowed the Taliban to concentrate their forces around the provincial capitals and major district centers, allowing them to remain prepared to launch attacks. ‘
Future military operations
They add that many believe the Taliban are “trying to shape future military operations when levels of departing foreign troops can no longer respond effectively.”
According to the UN report, member states estimate that the Taliban “dispute or control approximately 50% to 70% of the Afghan territory outside urban centers, while exercising direct control over 57% of the centers. administrative district ‘.
Asfandyar Mir, a South Asian security analyst at Stanford University, says the Taliban appear ready to go on the offensive against the Afghan government. “The Taliban are beginning to exert great pressure on the provinces adjacent to Kabul – including, worryingly, neighboring Laghman, where there were major defections of Afghan security forces in favor of the Taliban,” Mir said. to CNN. “In the south of the country, the Taliban are willing to put more pressure on the provincial capitals.”
The report assesses that, despite twenty years of war, the number of Taliban remains “robust” and “recruitment has remained constant”, with estimates of the insurgent group’s combat strength ranging between 58,000 and 100,000 people.
Instead, the Afghan army is in decline. “In February 2021, the strength of the Afghan forces numbered approximately 308,000, well below its target of 352,000,” the report says.
No decisive advantage, for now
This leaves neither party with a decisive advantage. According to an assessment published earlier this year by the CTC Sentinel, a magazine published by the US Military Academy at West Point, the Taliban would have a “slight military advantage” when the last remaining US troops leave Afghanistan, which then “will likely increase. in an aggravated way ».
The UN report notes that “air force contributions provided by coalition forces have been essential support for ground operations; It remains to be seen how the Afghan forces will perform without them. ‘
“The upcoming international military withdrawal (…) will challenge the Afghan Forces by limiting air operations with fewer drones and radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical support and artillery, as well as an interruption of training,” says the team from the UN.
The report also expresses concern that better-trained units, such as Afghan commandos, will have to bear much of the burden of fighting, if less disciplined units of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police begin to crumble. or to defect.
According to the UN report, the Taliban are also not lacking in income. In 2020, according to estimates cited by the report, the Taliban earned the equivalent of more than $ 400 million from the mining sector, and similar income from poppy crops.
The report also concludes that “the Taliban have increasingly used their growing territorial control to extort money from a wide range of public infrastructure services, such as road construction, telecommunications and road transport.”
With money to spend, the Taliban have invested in more sophisticated weaponry. The UN team points to its use of explosives-laden commercial drones for the attacks and a spike in the use of magnetic improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers (VBIEDs).
The Al Qaeda connection
President Biden said in April that the US task in Afghanistan was complete. “We went to Afghanistan for the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We did justice to Osama Bin Laden and downgraded the terrorist threat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, “said the President.
However, the UN report notes that a “significant portion” of al Qaeda leadership is believed to remain in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. It says reports of the death of Osama bin Laden’s top adviser, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have not been confirmed, and one member state has reported that “he is probably alive, but too fragile to appear in propaganda.”
Although the Taliban “maintain their normal practice of denying the presence of foreign terrorist fighters”, UN observers estimate that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 belonging to various militant groups in Afghanistan, and most of them are considered to be “at the very least. tolerated or protected by the Taliban. ‘
The UN monitoring team believes that the Taliban are trying to exert greater control over Al Qaeda, but warns that “it is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will fulfill their commitment to suppress any future international threats emanating from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.” .
He adds that the ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda “have deepened as a consequence of the personal ties of marriage and the shared partnership in the struggle, now cemented through the ties of the second generation.”
The UN team also says that, according to member states, “Al Qaeda maintains contacts with the Taliban, but has minimized open communications with the Taliban leadership in an effort to” go unnoticed “and not endanger the position. Taliban diplomat regarding the Doha agreement. “
The UN team stresses that “it will be important for the international community to monitor any sign that Afghanistan once again becomes a destination for extremists with both regional and international agendas.”
Asfandyar Mir agrees that Al Qaeda remains firmly aligned with the Afghan Taliban and supports the Taliban strategy of ensuring America’s withdrawal. “I hope he will find a safe sanctuary in Afghanistan again, although it is not clear whether Al Qaeda will reconstitute an international terrorist operation from Afghanistan,” Mir says.
In the immediate future, the UN warns that the Taliban may carry out “attacks against retreating forces in a new attempt to score propaganda points on the United States.” And its long-term prognosis is grim.
The report concludes that the “intention of the Taliban appears to be to continue strengthening its military position in order to use it as a lever. He believes that he can achieve almost all of his goals through negotiation or, if necessary, by force. ‘
Mir agrees, saying: “The Afghan Taliban pose a great threat to the survival of the Afghan government, which is likely to increase substantially with the total withdrawal of US forces.”