By The Counterterrorism Group
Tactical changes and improvised explosive device (IED) adaptations have enabled the Taliban to pursue a strategy of more accurate and targeted attacks rather than widespread indiscriminate killings. Not only are the frequency of targeted IED attacks increasing, but they account for a higher lethality per IED incident than before. This is due to the ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government, which has prevented them from taking more decisive action to overrun provinces in Afghanistan. Since the Intra-Afghan peace talks began in September 2020, the Taliban have ushered in new advancements in Radio-Controlled IEDs (RCIEDs), IED Weaponized Drones, and an increase in Sticky bombs. The increase in attacks has also been exacerbated by the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Yet, it is the Taliban’s “successes” on the battlefield – and the perceived upper hand this affords – which brought them to the negotiating table. Therefore, although assertive counter-IED (C-IED) efforts may result in a short-term reduction of attacks, without successful diplomacy to accompany it, long-term stability will remain threatened.
Using IEDs as a method for targeted attacks offers the group a strategic advantage: it harms the target but protects the Taliban while simultaneously pressuring the Afghan government.
According to Afghanistan’s Interior Minister and head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Taliban are responsible for 99% of the increased targeted attacks. Using IEDs as a method for targeted attacks offers the group a strategic advantage: it harms the target but protects the Taliban while simultaneously pressuring the Afghan government. The Taliban target key figures in the military, government, and journalism without the indiscriminate mass killing of civilians, which may alienate potential supporters or recruits. IEDs remain a leading cause of civilian deaths at around 77% in the last ten years, including women and children.
Targeted IED attacks have played a role in delaying Intra-Afghan peace talks. In the past ten years, 75% of IED attacks have not been claimed, providing both the Taliban and the Afghan government with a tool to blame each other. The Taliban aims to weaken the Afghan government and gain the upper hand in any negotiations, while the Afghan government blames the Taliban for purposely halting the peace talks.
The Taliban are adept at modernizing IEDs to circumvent countermeasures. For instance, within the first five years of IEDs emergence in Afghanistan, the RCIEDs known as ‘Spider’ devices had undergone at least 5 adaptations. RCIEDs such as the Spider, which are remotely activated by mobile phones or radios, reduce the need for suicide operatives. Therefore, RCIED and Victim-operated IEDs such as pressure plates have become the Taliban’s favored delivery and detonation methods. Recently, Afghanistan has seen an increase in ‘Sticky bombs’ from the Taliban against Afghan government officials. Sticky bombs can be detonated remotely or with a time-delay fuse and are powerful enough to blow up a car. These devices can be sophisticated, but they are cheap, simple, and hard to defend against.
Future adaptations of IEDs with the potential for even more accurate targeting pose a severe threat. In particular, the use of IED Weaponized Drones and other emerging UAV technologies will present new and considerable challenges for countermeasures. For now, attacks using these methods are rare, and the Taliban’s use of drones has been limited to commercial quadcopters, which are widely available yet incapable of carrying a heavy load. Nonetheless, if the Taliban can acquire military-grade drones or adapt commercial drones in-house, the potential ramifications would change the state of play in the conflict and tip the balance of power even further towards the Taliban.
C-IED of Weaponized Drones should capitalize on drones’ vulnerabilities such as hijacking, repurposing, wiping and injecting data, and other malicious tactics.
Afghanistan has been utilizing a variety of parties and methods to combat IEDs. In 2010, the government banned ammonium nitrate fertilizers – a crucial component for many IEDs. In addition, the US, UK and NATO have offered extensive C-IED expertise, training and funding to Afghanistan’s Military and Police but many existing C-IED measures remain incapable of meeting new threats. One method to respond to emerging threats is by replicating Taliban surveillance methods through the use of drones or balloons such as the aerostate which is equipped with sensors and cameras. This method relies on HUMINT to interpret surveillance to determine if there is a threat of IED manufacturing or planting. This surveillance could enable forces to eliminate a threat before any attack can happen.
C-IED of Weaponized Drones should capitalize on drones’ vulnerabilities such as hijacking, repurposing, wiping and injecting data, and other malicious tactics. Where these vulnerabilities may be a security concern for militaries, they can also be repurposed for C-IED efforts against terrorist groups such as the Taliban. In particular, wifi-jamming or frequency-jamming could prevent RCIEDs or IED Weaponized Drones from carrying out their objectives. The Afghan forces and their allies must continue to anticipate future threats posed in order to prevent weapon adaptations – even if that requires increased reliance on AI combat systems.
The pursuit of more modern methods of attack suggests that rather than acting in the spirit of the ongoing peace negotiations, the Taliban are instead expanding their weapons capabilities in a way that directly threatens peace and stability. This demonstrates that despite the Taliban’s engagement in Intra-Afghan peace negotiations and the peace agreement with the US, C-IED efforts remain a crucial component to establishing peace in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan per the Peace Agreement began around November 2020 and will be complete in May 2021. Although this peace agreement may have been designed to facilitate peace talks, the withdrawal of US troops also had the unintended consequence of emboldening the Taliban to continue its attacks. This has given the Taliban a perceived upper hand in peace talks with the government. The US scale-down has also exposed the inability of the Afghan forces to maintain peace independently – a task that they have been unprepared to tackle given the long-term presence and reliance on US, NATO, and other Western forces.
Under the Biden Administration, the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is a previous CENTCOM commander, which means Biden is likely to prioritize troops in the CENTCOM region, specifically Afghanistan. President Biden has announced he will review the peace deal with the Taliban, but any changes are likely to change the tone and make the deal more responsible. President Biden has expressed interest in leaving some troops in Afghanistan as a counterterrorism force, but this may be unlikely to happen as it could lead to the Taliban withdrawing from all peace talks. This means clandestine operations and diplomacy may increase in the country to avoid any additional conflict.
War and peace are inextricably linked for the Taliban. Given the asymmetric balance of power between the Taliban and the Afghan Government, it is through targeted violence that the Taliban garner a perceived bargaining chip to enter into a dialogue on the future of Afghanistan. This reliance on violence simultaneously keeps them at the negotiating table while preventing progress, resulting in stagnant discussions and growing frustration. C-IED and diplomacy are not mutually exclusive and, therefore, must work in tandem to bring about a reduction in Taliban attacks while ensuring the Taliban remain cooperative in negotiations.
About the Authors
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is a unit of the global intelligence, risk consulting and security firm Paladin 7. CTG proactively searches for and analyzes the threat of terrorism that comes from international terrorist organizations, domestic terrorist organizations, and individuals determined to inflict terror upon societies, organizations and individuals. Our national and international security professionals set up protective measures to detect, deter, and prevent, discourage, and dissuade any terrorist organization or individual from carrying out an attack on organizations and individuals. We work to protect our clients from any terrorist threat or attack. CTG also works proactively with the proper authorities to find those in terrorist organizations and individuals who will cause harm and assist in bringing them to justice and mitigating the threat long-term.