The Taliban is employing a fight-and-talk strategy in Afghanistan, seeking to gain leverage in peace talks through gains on the battlefield.
The militant group carries out targeted killings and assassinations against civilian targets in major urban areas.
In rural areas, where the Taliban holds sway, the militants are also staging mass casualty attacks against Afghan government military targets.
In its attacks against Afghan military bases and outposts, the Taliban is increasingly utilizing a deadly and effective terror tactic: suicide car bombings, or what military experts call “suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” (SVBIEDs).
The Taliban has carried out suicide car bombings for years. But in recent months, there has been a major escalation with dozens of the attacks staged across Afghanistan.
The surge in the use of the tactic has coincided with peace talks that started in September in Doha, Qatar, between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban.
The intra-Afghan negotiations are a key part of a U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February. Under that agreement, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021.
In exchange, the Taliban has vowed security guarantees to prevent future terrorist attacks out of Afghanistan and to negotiate with Kabul on a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement.
Fragile and deeply divided, the Afghan government has come to the negotiating table in a position of relative weakness.
With about half of the territory in the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Kabul lacks the military advantage to drive a hard bargain.
“The Taliban is attempting to pressure the Afghan government into concessions at the negotiating table by continuously conducting these attacks on a regular basis,” says Hugo Kaaman, an independent researcher focused on SVBIED design and tactics by militants and terrorist groups.
Kaaman has documented at least 50 Taliban SVBIED attacks in Afghanistan since August 20. That, on average, is about three SVBIED attack every week.
“The Taliban is showcasing that they have the capability to conduct these attacks far more often than they have actually done previously, and that it will continue like this until they give up,” Kaaman says.
‘Taliban’s Most Powerful Weapon’
Experts say SVBIEDs are effective at causing mass casualties and are notoriously difficult to stop.
The vehicles used are often either flatbed trucks or U.S.-built Humvees – armored vehicles given to Kabul by the U.S. military that have been captured from Afghan government forces by the Taliban.
The trucks usually are equipped with armor plating to protect the vehicle for as long as possible. Once a vehicle is driven into its intended target, the driver detonates explosives packed inside to trigger a powerful blast.
Experts say the explosives are being carried by the vehicle rather than the driver. Although a driver may also wear a suicide bomber’s vest in addition to the vehicle’s explosive cargo, suicide vests are never the main charge.
Kaaman says the Taliban’s use of Humvees as SVBIEDs is “particularly scary” given that the vehicles are sometimes able to pass through security checkpoints and gain access to government military facilities before they are detonated.
Taliban suicide drivers often prepare for the attacks by shaving off their long beards and wear captured uniforms from the Afghan National Army, he says.
“It’s the Taliban’s most powerful weapon,” Kaaman says. “It’s a force multiplier that allows them to knock out hardened positions despite a technological disadvantage.”
Besides SVBIEDs, the Taliban’s usual arsenal also includes rockets, mortars, small arms, and the group’s signature weapon -- improvised explosives devices (IEDs).
Kaaman says the main reason the Taliban has been increasing its use of SVBIEDs is to expand the territory under its control.
“They’re trying to seize land and using SVBIEDs to knock out crucial Afghan Army bases and outposts in their way using one of the more effective ways to do so,” he says.
The Taliban has carried out most of its SVBIEDs against military targets in its traditional strongholds in the country’s south and east where the militants retain larger resource bases and operational capabilities.
In the most recent attack, the Taliban rammed a captured military vehicle packed with explosives into an Afghan Army post in the southeastern province of Ghazni on December 9, killing at least three Afghan soldiers and wounding five others.
A week earlier, on November 29, a Taliban SVBIED attack killed at least 30 Afghan security personnel at the entrance to an Afghan Army base in Ghazni.
“The pace of such attacks seems likely to continue, both because of the large numbers of casualties they cause and the demoralizing effect they have upon the Afghan security forces,” says Ted Callahan, a security expert on Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s growing use of suicide vehicle bombs comes as part of its intensified wave of attacks across Afghanistan.
In recent months, the Taliban has launched major offensives aimed at seizing control of two provincial capitals in southern Afghanistan: Lashkar Gah and Kandahar City.
Involving hundreds of Taliban fighters and lasting for weeks, the onslaughts were eventually quelled by U.S. air strikes.
The Taliban has also been behind a surge of targeted killings and assassinations in Afghan cities that have targeted government workers as well as journalists, rights activists, cultural figures, moderate religious leaders, and women in public roles.
The attacks are a violation of the U.S.-Taliban deal, which is thought to include a Taliban pledge to reduce violence.
U.S. forces have retaliated by increasing air strikes against the Taliban. That has provoked a war of words between the U.S. military and the Taliban, which alleges that the air strikes violate the U.S.-Taliban deal.
The U.S. military said it reserves the right under the deal to defend Afghan security forces who come under Taliban attack.
Observers say the Taliban is likely to continue its attacks because violence is the group’s main leverage in the Doha peace talks.
The militants, analysts say, will resist a cease-fire because violence is a source of new recruits and motivates its fighters.
But the Taliban’s relentless violence has sapped a fragile trust between the two sides.
Afghan and Taliban negotiators had been deadlocked for months. In a small breakthrough on December 2, the two parties reached an agreement on the rules and procedures for the talks to go forward.
But they have yet to agree on an agenda for the negotiations. Talks on substantive issues appear to be a long way off.