Taliban Wages Psychological Warfare With Targeted Assassinations: Experts

By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
August 10, 2021 Updated: August 10, 2021

NEW DELHI—Since launching its offensive in April, the Taliban has been targeting journalists, pilots, artists, and senior government officials for assassinations more frequently, as part of an asymmetric strategy that experts call psychological warfare.

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. watchdog in Afghanistan, in its quarterly report to Congress beginning from June, expressed concern regarding the targeted assassinations of Afghan pilots when they’re off-base.

“Another worrisome development concerning AAF aircrew was a media report that the Taliban is deliberately targeting Afghan pilots. According to Reuters, at least seven Afghan pilots have been assassinated off-base in recent months,” SIGAR stated in the July 30 report (pdf).

Enayat Najafizada, founder and CEO of the Kabul-based Afghan Institute of War and Peace Studies, told The Epoch Times that the Taliban, in its bid to circle and pressurize the government at Kabul, has already followed a strategy of taking over the districts first, followed by the provincial capitals. Targeted assassinations prolong and intensify this strategy of placing pressure on the government.

“Their targets are soft. They target women, individuals from different sectors. For instance, journalists, civil society activists. The day before yesterday, they killed the government’s media Information Center’s Director. So by targeting key individuals who are very popular, they want to demoralize the general public,” Najafizada said.

A Kabul-based source told The Epoch Times, on condition of anonymity, that in the month of June alone, 51 targeted killings by “unknown men” were reported around the country.

The Taliban hasn’t been taking credit for most of the targeted killings, which are of civilians, since the U.S.–Taliban peace deal was signed in February 2020. The deal limits the kind of attacks the terrorists can conduct, and the Taliban strategy of not taking credit for the assassinations is linked to the peace-talk diplomacy, according to a report in January by Gandhara.

Members of civil society, journalists, and government officials in large cities such as Herat, Kabul, and Mazare Sharif are afraid of being targeted by the Taliban, and the organization’s campaign of terror and targeted assassinations will continue in the coming months, according to Najafizada.

The Taliban has also warned that more targeted attacks will be carried out against government leaders.

Epoch Times Photo
Afghan security personnel arrive at the area where the director of Afghanistan’s Government Information Media Center, Dawa Khan Menapal, was shot dead in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 6, 2021. (Rahmat Gul/AP Photo)

Rajiv Dogra, a former Indian diplomat and the author of “Durand’s Curse,” a best-selling and critically acclaimed book about the division of Afghanistan by the British empire, told The Epoch Times that the targeted assassinations carry a message from the Taliban: “Resistance would invite violence.”

“The Taliban use the entire range of asymmetric warfare tactics. They have indulged in suicide bombings, targeted high-ranking government officials, and fought against army units. Women and children have been a large proportion of casualties in the first half of 2021. Targeted assassinations and improvised explosive device attacks accounted for many of the civilian casualties,” Dogra wrote in an email.

More recently, the Taliban has carried out targeted assassinations with so-called sticky bombs, which are actually magnetic bombs stuck to vehicles of the victims and detonated remotely.

The most recent victim killed by a sticky bomb was an Afghan Air Force pilot Hamidullah Azimi, who was killed on Aug. 7. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Reuters.

Azimi was trained in flying the U.S.-made UH60 Black Hawk helicopter, which gives the Afghan National Forces leverage in the war, as the Taliban has no air force.

The UH60 Black Hawk is meant for “primary medium-lift utility transport and is also an air assault aircraft” that can be equipped with a variety of weapon systems, according to the equipment details by Military.com, a resource website for military members.

High-Profile Killings

The Taliban brutally executed Reuters photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Danish Siddiqui, of India, in Afghanistan on July 16 while he was on an assignment. He wasn’t the first journalist to be killed during the conflict. The Taliban claimed responsibility for Siddiqui’s death, but there were others before him who were killed by unidentified gunmen.

The most recent is the slaying of Toofan Omari, the editor-in-chief of the Paktia Ghag Radio station, who was killed in the Deh Sabz District of Kabul on Aug. 8, while another journalist was taken hostage in Helmand Province by the Taliban. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for Omari’s killing.

“The ‘Doha surrender’ (in my opinion) signed by Khalilzad on 29 Feb. 2020, was ironically taken as a carte blanche by the Taliban to step up its attacks. In this phase, target killings of intellectuals, media people, high government officials became a priority. The residences of the Defense Minister and President Ghani also came under the Taliban attack. Basically, they want to wipe out all liberal forces and all those who stand for democracy,” Dogra said.

Another targeted assassination that shook the conscience of the Afghan public was that of comedian Nazar Mohammad, popularly known as Khasha Zwan, who was taken out of his home and later killed by unidentified gunmen.

The Taliban initially denied involvement in the assassination, but later claimed responsibility for it.

Najafizada said that people are escaping from the territories being taken under control by the Taliban because the organization is resorting to violence to terrorize them.

The terror, Najafizada said, is partly due to the makeup of the Taliban, which is “a movement held by the foreign fighters from different international terrorist organizations, from neighboring countries. They don’t have a national agenda, local agenda, an Afghan agenda.”

The Taliban is using the barrel of the gun to force people to accept them because they have nothing to offer to the public and they can’t provide “rule of law,” according to Najafizada.

“From the Southwest, I have just received an audio message of a Taliban commander speaking in a mosque a couple of days back, when they overran the provincial capital of the Zaranj. They asked people to bring their daughters to marry their fighters because they think that they have been fighting for religion. That’s why they give themselves the right,” he said.

Dogra said that the size of the Taliban’s forces and the military equipment they are using show that they’re supported and advised by an “organized state body,” and pointed to Pakistan.

“The strategy and quick change of tactics is another pointer of high professional input. A third indication is that the Taliban are using some of the tactics, like target killing, that groups like LeT [the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba] have employed in Kashmir,” Dogra said.

“If any further proof of the Pakistan Army’s involvement is needed, it is provided by the body bags of Pakistani soldiers that are regularly being brought back to Pakistan from Afghanistan. Taliban’s regular consultations with the ISI are the final proof of who pulls the strings.”

Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.