The fall of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz to the Taliban on September 28 was a humiliation for the Kabul government. The insurgent movement prevented the government from retaking the city for 15 days and on October 13 announced that it was withdrawing voluntarily. But the main issue now is not Kunduz; it is the entire north of Afghanistan. The Taliban has managed to open a number of new seams of opposition in this region, in addition to its traditional strongholds in the south. The developments suggest a strategic shift on the battlefield in the Taliban’s favor. More importantly, how they came about is rooted in the dysfunction of Afghanistan’s political leadership at almost every level.
The attack on Kunduz should not have been a surprise. In April, the Taliban had tried to take the city but was pushed back after reinforcements were sent by the government. Afghan forces had spent the first months of 2015 trying to weaken the Taliban by carrying out operations in the south. The first attack on Kunduz represented a strategic shift and demonstrated that the group had also gained a foothold in the north.
After the first attack failed, the Taliban consolidated its presence in several districts near Kunduz city and waited for the next opportunity to attack. Kunduz province is the only one in the north with a majority Pashtun population. Local political and security structures, however, are dominated by non-Pashtuns. A large part of the security apparatus consists of local militia groups that were coopted in the anti-Taliban fight under internationally funded programs such as the Afghan Local Police (ALP). Years of abuse by these structures have left Pashtun communities feeling vulnerable and marginalized. The central government has done nothing to address concerns. Instead, local powerbrokers have been protected in Kabul by their patrons, and at times shielded from prosecution for crimes and human rights abuses.
The withdrawal of international advisors and funding have left former ALP units without supervision or funding. These forces have increasingly preyed on the Pashtun population. A report published by the United States Institute of Peace in January 2014 warned this was “likely to further contribute to Pashtun feelings of marginalization and in turn may invite overtures of protection from the Taliban, in which case further clashes can be expected. When the time comes for the withdrawal of US forces, the balance of power among local armed groups may change once again in favor of Taliban insurgents.” While the Taliban appear to have been pushed out of much of Kunduz city, they remain present in several Pashtun-dominated districts around the city.
For the Taliban itself, the attack on Kunduz had a greater strategic intent than protecting local Pashtun populations. First, it was a demonstration of strategic patience: the Taliban proved able to accomplish its goal after failing in April. For the government, the fall of Kunduz meant that the narrative of Afghan national forces “holding their own” during the first fighting season without international troops could no longer be sustained. Second, the successful attack probably solidified the position of Mullah Mansour, named in early August as the successor to the deceased Mullah Omar. Mansour was not known as a battlefield commander, but now has burnished his credentials. Third, Kunduz is a resource-rich province that is strategically placed on major trading routes for both legal and illegal goods. If the Taliban is able to establish and hold an enclave in the province, it could serve as a self-sustaining domestic sanctuary, bolstering its claims to domestic political legitimacy and reducing its dependence on Pakistan. In the meantime, it has been reported that more Afghan districts—half of the country—are rated as “high risk” or “extreme risk” than at any time since 2001.
From Kabul to Kunduz
The new Taliban front in the north is a disaster for the “national unity government” in Kabul, which reached its first year anniversary the week that Kunduz fell. The power-sharing arrangement between president Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah was brokered by the United States after last year’s controversial presidential election led to threats of violence from within the ruling elite. This government has, however, failed spectacularly to inspire confidence, spending its first year mostly bickering over political appointments. The failure to agree on appointment of a minister of defense while in a state of war underscored its indifference to the multiple existential crises it faces.
A divided center has encouraged centrifugal forces around the country. Afghan national security forces were not only unable to defend Kunduz, but the local security forces that contributed to creating the problem are continuing to act autonomously from the state. Former mujaheddin leaders are agitating in Kabul to be allowed to lead the fight against the Taliban in the north with their irregular militias, though so far these calls seem more like bluster than ability; years of growing fat on corruption and predation may have blunted them as fighting forces, in particular against Taliban units that have shown themselves to be cohesive and disciplined. Nor would it be a positive development if these factions led the fight as it would contribute to the further disintegration of state authority.
The Widening Chasm
The fall of Kunduz occurred precisely as the Obama administration is deciding whether to extend its military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016. There are currently around 10,000 US troops with the mission of “train, advise, and assist,” but playing no combat role. In a briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 6, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan all but stated that the troop presence needs to be extended, though the tragic US bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz underscores the limits of international military support.
Kunduz marks the beginning of what could be a great unraveling of progress made in Afghanistan. In general, the withdrawal of the international presence, both military and civilian, has revealed the hollowness of the capacities that were supposed to have been built over the past decade and a half. The international presence was a glue that kept powerful centrifugal forces in check. Without it, the center is not holding. This is a moment of truth for Kabul’s elites. The power over which they have fought so energetically among themselves is being rapidly depleted. They are running out of space and time to salvage something of the mess they’ve made.