The Taliban capture of Kundus, Afghanistan’s main transportation hub in the North and the first major city controlled by the Taliban since 2001, is a major setback for government forces. Just how dire is the situation?
Afghan Security forces gathering at the road outside Kundus
— Sabiq Jihadmal (@Sabiq_JL) 28. September 2015
This week saw the surprising attack of Taliban forces on Kundus. Apparently, the city was overrun from multiple sides, while Afghan troops were out on an operation. The Taliban quickly seized important parts of the city, freeing combattants from the hospital and prison, while government forces retreated to the nearby airport.
Taliban fighter with flag
Taliban flag at main traffic roundabout
Prisoners released by Taliban walking down road
Alas – it was not really that surprising. The province had been under attack for months, since German troops handed control officially over to local forces two years ago. Since then, the situation had deteriorated for pro-government forces. Since April, Taliban advances on Kundus intensified, to an extent that allowed observers to predict an imminent attack on the city itself:
August 13, Taliban started a new full-scale offensive in the Kunduz province and captured the most of the Khanabad district, including 60 settlements. The city of Kunduz will be the next target of militants. Since this spring, the Taliban has already captured part of the Chahart Darah, Qual’ah-ye Za districts. The Afghan government made an attempt to launch military operation in order to recapture the ground from militants, but clashes ended unsuccessfully. Thus, Taliban controls at least 40% of the province.
Considering this, Wiegold’s claims that German security officials should have been aware of the situation seem reasonable. The surprising element is not the fall of Kundus, or the Taliban attack itself – but rather, how well it was organised. An attack while government forces were absent and/or disorganised implies impressive intelligence capabilities by the insurgents. Furthermore, a three-pronged attack, utilising local insurgencies and allied groups, shows that cleavages among insurgents and splits within the Taliban might have been overstated recently – the Taliban’s alliance-building skills are noteworthy, to say the least. They are acting more and more like a disciplined military force, rather than a terrorist group.
7. We are told the Taliban have set up a 500-member Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in Kunduz, which is unprecedented. 8. Highways are choked.
— Subel (@svbel) 28. September 2015
US airstrikes have been necessary, partly due to Taliban forces taking control of weapons, vehicles and possibly even tanks. Additionally, the insurgents seem determined to not intimidate locals; according to the Guardian, they offered amnesty to defecting government forces. With desertion rates high amongst Afghan troops, often taking weapons and equipment with them, this could be an important strategy to win support.
So far, Insurgent’s activities have been focused on the outskirts of the country, strengthened by the Pakistani offensive driving insurgents across the border. However, if they should maintain control of Kundus, it would open up new possibilities for them.
As an agriculturally important province, it would provide the Taliban with resources to fund their “shadow government”, which had yet to prove it can pull off anything as effective as IS in Syria/Iraq (i.e. governance beyond military operations by independent cells and factions). Kundus being an important transportation hub, access to major drug routes would fill their war chest, and also inhibit movement of government forces in the norther part of the country. So far, the Taliban have mainly bothered government forces through guerilla attacks – surprising raids on villages, car bombs and suicide attacks in major cities, and so on. Now, controlling a major city that the government will want to take back, they can use more defensive strategies – slowing government movement by using roadblocks and boobie traps, thus binding larger government forces in the north, allowing for increased activities in other areas.
However, this also has some major setbacks. Controlling open area means that the insurgents are more vulnerable to airstrikes. And despite some strategic advantages, the Taliban remain vastly outnumbered by government forces, who are backed by Western intelligence, training, money and weapons. The Pakistani advances have further limited Taliban movement across borders, while their struggle with IS intensifies. If they do not act carefully, they might well find themselves under pressure from both the government and IS – a three-way struggle that has so far hassled government forces, but may become more of a problem if the Taliban overreach.
Long story short? Both Taliban and government have something to win from successful peace talks, to avoid an even bloodier three-pronged war. Someone should tell them.