The strategic city of Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province in north Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban on September 28 – the eve of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG)’s first anniversary in power. A multi-directional well-coordinated attack by motorbike-riding Taliban saw major parts of the city coming under their control by late afternoon. The Taliban hoisted their flag on key buildings and in the centre of the city. The event marked the fall of the first major Afghan city to the Taliban in 14 years. The next day, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation and assured the citizens that security will be restored to Kunduz city.
The loss of Kunduz, a warning of the Taliban’s potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds, is a major blow to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which had acquitted themselves quite creditably since the drawdown of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The event will also, at a critical point in time for Afghanistan and the region, dent the national psyche and accelerate the public’s loss of confidence in the NUG and its ability to provide a secure nation.
The Attack & Counter-attack
The Taliban had been poised to take Kunduz since 2014. The districts of Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi had come under their control last year, along with large parts of Imam Sahib and Aliabad. Later, in April this year, the Taliban’s spring offensive saw Imam Saheb, Chahrdara, Qala-ye Zal, Aliabad and Kunduz city being targeted. The impending nature of the threat to Kunduz and fractious response to it has been the basic cause of unease and worry – this despite the fact that factions and powerful figures within the Afghan NUG have a long history of fighting over Kunduz.
Kabul’s backing this year for anti-Taliban militias to bolster the defences of Kunduz only spurred infighting. In recent months, many Kunduz residents had complained of exploitation by militia fighters. Besides the militias and warlords, drug barons and disastrous governance in Kunduz, contributed to success of the Taliban
After the attack, the Taliban reportedly freed about 600 prisoners, mostly former Taliban members, from jails in the city. A bounty of almost $8million is reported to have been looted from the central and private banks and government and international agency offices ransacked. Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanikzai said that evidence shows that many foreign militants were party to the Kunduz battle and that their war strategy has changed. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) acknowledged that the lack of strategic coordination among the security forces has been the main reason behind the debacle. Analysts believe the fall of Kunduz was the result of a compromise between the attackers and the defenders.
The US deployed its Special Forces (advisors) alongside the ANSF in their counterattack to retake Kunduz from the Taliban. US also carried out several air strikes “to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces in the area”. The Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that “limited coalition forces” were on the ground in the Kunduz area which had been involved in “training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces in accordance with our resolute support mission”.
The US, post the 2014 drawdown, had declared that its remaining combat forces in Afghanistan would desist from engaging the Taliban, unless it directly threatened the US and coalition forces or provided direct support to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. This stipulation had provided space for negotiations with the Taliban on peace and reconciliation. However, events in Kunduz have not only breached the first condition but also seen the involvement of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating in concert with the Taliban
The Taliban had gradually increased their presence in Kunduz in recent years with the help of thousands of battle-hardened Central Asian fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Most of the IMU cadres were pushed into Afghanistan last year by the Pakistani offensive (Zarb-e-azb) on their hideouts in North Waziristan. According to some reports, elements of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups from Pakistan could also have been involved in the attack on Kunduz. The Islamic State elements on the other hand, have continued with their operations against the ANSF in the south-east of the country.
While the Taliban would have presented the Kunduz attack as a show of unity, it is the semblance of cooperation and coordination amongst various militant groups against the ANSF, which would worry the analysts.
The Taliban attack is one of those few occasions when the group has sought to capture and hold territory. In the hours after the insurgents’ victory in Kunduz, they served public notice that the city would be a showcase for a more tolerant style of Taliban governance; announcing a new court system and promising amnesty for government employees. Taliban leader Mullah Mansour wrote an open letter to the Afghan public promising that his forces would not commit the sort of atrocities which the Taliban has done in the past.
As the ANSF retook from the Taliban most parts of Kunduz city, the Taliban were still in control of Kunduz province, with only Imam Sahib contested. The Taliban are also in control of a handful of districts in Badakhshan and contest several districts in Baghlan. They have also claimed control over the Khaki Safid district in the south-western province of Farah. The group has seized five districts in three provinces (Khak-e-Safid in Farah; Yangi Qala, Ishkamish, and Bangi districts in Takhar; Khanabad in Kunduz) even as it battled the ANSF in Kunduz. These operations demonstrate the tenous nature of ANSF control in the crucial region.
Kunduz’s fall is also expected to alarm Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and key regional power Russia. It could convince Moscow and its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies to strengthen ties with major power brokers and their militias across northern Afghanistan; and to pander to the whims of Pakistan.
Pakistan, interestingly, since the Murree talks and declaration of the death of Mullah Omar appears to shaken off its persona of the ‘puppeteer of the Taliban’ and joined the ranks of victims and bystanders in the region. It continues, though, to demand aid and military assistance – more as a victim of terror rather than for its influence on the Taliban and to bring peace to Afghanistan.
India with its fresh strategic commonality with the US (and the new developing alignment between Russia-Iran-Pakistan) would watch with bated breath the developments in Afghanistan.