Fragile states, Security and Justice

Security and risk: A shifting threat in Kabul

With a project budget of £138.4 million during FY18/19, Afghanistan is one of DFID’s top 10 priority countries. It is also, however, one of the most challenging places in the world in which to work.
Our delivery of a number of the UK government’s programmes in Afghanistan depends on us being able to establish an environment where our teams can do their jobs safely and successfully. In this blog Risk Analyst, Elliot McArdle, details his observations – from his work both remotely and in-country – on the shifting threats we’re navigating in this challenging country.

Kabul was rocked by a series of ferocious attacks in early 2018. A hotel frequented by foreign workers was attacked, leaving at least 40 dead in mid-January. Less than a week later, nearly 100 people were killed at a hospital. Attacks of this kind are certainly not a rarity but the lethality of such attacks did cause some surprise.

Analysis of 440 attacks from 2010 until August 2018, using data from the Global Terrorism Database and a private security firm, reveals several interesting patterns that are emerging within the capital. The lethality of attacks has been on a drastic increase with an average of over 10 people killed per attack in 2018. This figure is more than double the figure for 2016. Attack frequency has been on a general decline since 2014, but that is likely to end this year, with the number of attacks so far in 2018 (41) higher than at the same time in 2017 (32).

This increase is likely being driven by three factors. The Taliban’s freedom of movement around the country has rapidly increased since the drawdown of foreign troops in 2014. As I write this, the group controls or contests 61% of the country’s districts. Such territorial advances have allowed the group to more fully coordinate attacks within Kabul and devote more resources to such endeavours. This is further demonstrated by the fact that complex attacks (incidents involving a mixture of explosive devices and ground troops) have been on the increase. The explosive power of vehicle borne attacks has also shown a marked surge - one such attack killed at least 150 people in May 2017.

The presence of an Islamic State affiliate has also altered the behaviour of insurgent groups. Known as IS-Khorasan Province (IS-KP), the group has been present in the country since at least 2015 but only active in Kabul from 2017 onwards. It currently has limited territorial control, although it should be noted that their mother organisation was not seen as a territorial threat in Iraq until it emerged that numerous towns and villages had fallen their control with little fanfare. However, the main effect of the group in Kabul has been to ramp up attacks against the Shia community and to spur competition with the Taliban.

While the Taliban have hardly been openly accommodating of Afghan Shias, they have also rarely targeted them directly. In contrast, IS-KP have sought to replicate the sectarian conflicts currently taking place across the Middle East. An October 2017 attack on a Shia mosque killed 56 worshippers whilst a similar incident in 2016 killed at least 80. IS-KP and Taliban competition is evidenced by the fact that their attacks often closely follow that of the other group.

Finally, both groups are willing to attack ‘soft’ targets with greater frequency. For IS-KP this takes the form of hospitals, protests and mosques. The group is brazenly less concerned with public opinion than their rivals. For the Taliban, there was a marked shift in 2015 to focus on non-military foreign personnel, all of whom are now considered symbols of foreign invasion. This has created space for attacks against foreign civilians, as demonstrated in the January hotel attack. Previously, there was a general line that targets would be related to the military or be associated with a NATO participating nation at the very least. This shift has also likely been driven by the increasing absence of foreign military personnel since 2014, causing the group to look elsewhere for high profile targets.

The run up to the elections scheduled for this October, will be a particularly testing time for Afghanistan’s security forces and for teams like ours, with responsibility for keeping our staff safe. Attacks reached a peak during the last elections in 2014 and while, perhaps surprisingly, few of those attacks directly targeted voters or the election itself, IS-KP are unlikely to miss such an opportunity to terrorise the advance of democracy. Indeed, their attack on a voter registration centre in April killed at least 60 people.

Neither group has any real motivation to limit their attacks, a fact aptly demonstrated by the Taliban’s less than reciprocal response to a unilateral government announced ceasefire in June –they killed at least 13 soldiers in Western Afghanistan, 10 days before the ceasefire was due to end. However, it appears that the government will try this outreach again in the lead up to Eid al-Adha.

Kabul will remain an extreme risk environment for some time. International organisations can continue to operate within the city but the risk of falling prey to a large-scale attack has undoubtedly increased. We strive to be adaptive when managing risks to our staff. We will be monitoring the latest threat reporting, political developments and map out polling areas in the coming months. This approach and our knowledge of the environment means we can continue to work in the country and to respond to new developments.