- The Taliban and other insurgent groups have increased attacks on high-profile targets, such as diplomatic compounds and restaurants in Kabul and other parts of the country since late 2015.
- The Islamic State (IS) will seek to expand its ability to attack foreign interests in east Afghanistan, following a coordinated attack against Pakistani interests in Jalalabad.
- Attacks against foreign interests in major cities are likely to escalate in the run-up to talks in Islamabad on 6 February aimed at resuming peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The recent targeting of multiple foreign interests highlights a heightened threat to foreign embassies, non-governmental organisations and expatriates across Afghanistan. Militant groups carried out six attacks on foreign or diplomatic targets in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e-Sharif between December and 20 January, marking a clear increase in the frequency of attacks targeting foreign interests. At least 25 people died and tens more were injured during the attacks. The attacks targeted the Spanish diplomatic compound in Kabul’s Shirpour neighbourhood, a French restaurant popular among foreigners in Kabul, the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, the Italian embassy in Kabul, and a convoy of journalists near the Russian embassy in Kabul. The Taliban-claimed attacks in Kabul – staged before and after meetings between the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan which were intended to resume peace talks with the Taliban on 11 and 18 January – were likely carried out by moderate factions in a bid to improve their negotiating position ahead of future talks.
The attacks combined suicide bombings, IEDs, vehicle-borne explosives, small arms and rocket-propelled grenade assaults, and lasted between 3.5 and 25 hours. During the attacks on diplomatic targets in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad, the attack locations and surrounding areas faced significant disruption, with individuals either evacuated from nearby buildings or placed on lockdown for the duration of the attacks. The Islamic State-claimed attack against Pakistani interests in Jalalabad on 12 January marked the first coordinated militant attack against Islamabad’s interests, according to Pakistani officials. The attack was also the most complex operation staged by IS in Afghanistan to date and lasted several hours.
The US issued an emergency message for Kabul and Afghanistan more widely on 9 January, citing unspecified plots to attack individuals with US connections, Afghan and US government facilities, foreign guest houses, embassies, restaurants, hotels, airports, civilian institutes, educational centres and vehicle convoys. Under current circumstances, all foreign organisations and personnel should continue to maintain extreme caution and heighten security measures where possible, including limiting movement to essential operations only. India had already increased security across its diplomatic missions in Kabul, Jalalabad, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif ahead of the attacks, which is likely to have prevented a higher death toll in the Mazar-e-Sharif attack on 3 January. The high threat level comes amid longer-term pressure on many Western diplomatic services to reduce costs in Afghanistan, which could further increase exposure to attacks or see a drawdown of diplomatic presence in Kabul.
Foreign interests will continue to face an elevated threat as efforts to resume peace negotiations continue, with the next round of talks currently scheduled to be held in Islamabad on 6 February. The Taliban is divided over participation in negotiations, after making significant gains against Afghan security forces and increasingly holding territory during 2015. Moderate factions in favour of peace talks are likely to increase operations in a bid to improve their negotiating position ahead of a resumption of peace talks. It is also in the Islamic State’s interests for the Taliban to continue fighting government forces, as this will likely fragment opposition to further IS expansion in southern Afghanistan.
In the lead-up to 6 February, public places, foreign vehicle convoys, diplomatic quarters, restaurants and expatriate personnel will remain likely targets. Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Lashkar Gah will remain particularly vulnerable to attacks, as all are surrounded by areas where Taliban or IS militants have eroded government control, providing a staging ground for more sophisticated attacks on major cities. Areas such as Helmand’s Grishk district, Kunar and Kunduz provinces in particular have seen an erosion of government control, heightening the threat of attacks on Jalalbad, Kabul, Kunduz and Lashkar Gah. In addition to major attacks, militants may also target individual foreign personnel, making adherence to security protocols critical to minimise the threat. This is particularly the case for civilian employees of NGOs, who have in the past been targeted by gunmen while travelling without a security convoy. Alongside the threat posed by the Taliban, the Islamic State’s continued expansion in the eastern province of Nangarhar will leave Jalalabad increasingly vulnerable to further coordinated attacks.