BACKGROUND: In a pre-dawn attack on September 28, the Taliban took control of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. A regional trading hub, Kunduz is a strategic city, which has played a key role in various phases of the Afghan civil war. It was the first city to fall to the mujahedeen in 1988, the first city in northern Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban in the 1990s, and the last city to slip out of Taliban control before they were ousted from power in November 2001. And it has now become the first major urban center to be taken by the Taliban in almost 14 years. By wresting control over Kunduz, a city located outside traditional Taliban strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have scored a major psychological, political and military victory.
The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz did not happen overnight. They were in control of roughly 70 percent of the province and had begun massing their fighters at the gates of the city in recent months. Taliban control of the city will likely be short-lived. As of October 9, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), backed by US air strikes, are said to have recaptured parts of the city. Still, this is a major setback for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and could not have come at a worse time. It fell to the Taliban on the eve of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG)’s first anniversary in power. The sight of the Taliban’s white flags flying across Kunduz gave the Ghani government little to celebrate.
As the government grapples with the immediate fallout of the debacle in Kunduz, another crisis has emerged. U.S. air strikes on a hospital run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) in Kunduz left 22 people, including 12 MSF staff and 10 patients, dead. Emotions are running high in Afghanistan over the bombing of the hospital and the Ghani government’s stock has plunged to an all-time low.
IMPLICATIONS: Since December 2014, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ended its combat role in Afghanistan, the ANSF has performed reasonably well in face-to-face encounters with the Taliban. However, it failed spectacularly in defending Kunduz. Some 7,000 security personnel could not hold the city against an assault by a few hundred Taliban fighters. It lays bare the ANSF’s weakness in fighting in urban settings. Analysts observe that the fall of Kunduz is not so much the outcome of the Taliban’s fighting abilities as of the ANSF’s failures, poor leadership, and low morale.
After Kunduz, the U.S. is expected to revise its plan for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. The plan was to reduce the number of U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan from the current 9,800 to about 1,000 security personnel based at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by the end of next year. Given the situation in Afghanistan and particularly in light of the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz, the Obama administration will likely go slow on this withdrawal time-table. The shape and scope of the U.S. military mission will be discussed and debated not only in the context of Kunduz but also the bombing of the hospital.
The Taliban’s victory at Kunduz took the world by surprise, since the group was widely believed to have weakened considerably after infighting in the wake of the death of its founder-leader Mullah Omar and the rising influence of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIL) in Afghanistan. ISIL’s battlefield successes in Iraq and Syria are said to have inspired younger Taliban fighters to defect to ISIL in recent months, but the Taliban’s spectacular victory at Kunduz could potentially stem its loss of fighters to ISIL. Indeed, Kunduz constitutes the Taliban’s most significant military victory since 2001, which will boost the stature of its new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, and enable him to consolidate control over the group. After all, even the legendary Mullah Omar was not able to capture an urban center as has Mansour.
The assault on Kunduz indicates a shift in the Taliban’s strategy. The group previously focused on rural Afghanistan and it did not attack urban centers with the intent to hold them. The victory in Kunduz could prompt the Taliban to attempt similar assaults on other cities as well. Indeed, Kunduz has likely boosted the Taliban’s morale, inducing the group to believe that Kabul’s capture is a matter of time and that a military victory is possible. This could make the Taliban less amenable to dialogue and compromise, making Kunduz a major setback also to President Ghani’s peace initiative.
With the Taliban scoring a major victory in Kunduz, public and political support for Ghani’s strategy to engage the Taliban at the negotiating table and to rope in Pakistan to facilitate this effort, which was weak to start with, has nosedived. The immediate priority of the Ghani government is to reassert its control over Kunduz. While this should be possible in the coming weeks, driving the Taliban out of Kunduz province will likely prove more challenging.
Afghanistan’s northern neighbors are justifiably concerned over the Taliban’s expanding control over Kunduz province. Even if Kunduz city reverts to government control, the Taliban could use the rest of the province as a spring board to extend its reach into Central Asian countries and China. Islamist militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other countries who participated in the Taliban’s military assault on Kunduz will be useful in its expansion plans.
CONCLUSIONS: The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz, even if only temporary, has far-reaching implications for all the major actors in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, whose stature has changed after Kunduz. While the Taliban has emerged stronger, the Ghani government’s failure to defend the population of Kunduz, numbering roughly 300,000, has eroded its credibility immeasurably. The fall of Kunduz will push the ANSF to beef up its capacity to fight in urban settings.
The capture of Kunduz has also provided the Taliban with a shot in the arm. Over the past two years, ISIL has been capturing the headlines. Kunduz again put the Taliban in the international media spotlight. The Taliban’s success at Kunduz has likely raised its stock among Islamic militants worldwide, and could intensify the Taliban-IS contest.
Image Attribution: www.bbc.com, accessed on Oct 15, 2015