The Taliban's offensive in Kunduz province is a diversion that will serve to distract the Afghan army away from the real goal -- Helmand province.
- By M. Chris MasonDr. M. Chris Mason, PhD, a retired Foreign Service officer who served in 2005 as political officer for the provincial reconstruction team in Paktika, is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
For the past week, the Taliban has been conducting a coordinated offensive in Kunduz province, reinforcing their control in two districts (Dasht-i-Archi and Chahar Darreh), enlarging their areas of control in two others (Khanabad and Imam Sahib), and taking firm control of a lush and fertile farming area just north of the provincial capital (Gor Tepa) which sits in the strategically important crossroads of Route 2 and Route 302 — the only north-south/east-west crossroad in the area. The Taliban’s synchronized attacks have put pressure on the capital city itself and alarmed city residents.
The attacks in Kunduz were launched shortly after the Taliban’s announcement of their annual “Spring Offensive” earlier this month. Taliban activity in the province is nothing new. Before this offensive, the Taliban already controlled about half the ground area of the province, and fighting between pro-government and insurgent forces there has been going on for years. As recently as October 2014, warning signs of extensive Taliban control in Chahar Darreh, Dasht-i-Archi, and Imam Sahib districts were reported. (Only one of these districts, Chahar Darreh, is predominantly Pashtun — the ethnic group virtually all Taliban members are from.) The Taliban used the winter months since then to infiltrate some 2,000 additional guerrillas into the areas they control, and stockpile weapons and ammunition in the largely Taliban-friendly Pashtun villages scattered throughout the province.
However, Kunduz city and Kunduz province are not likely to be the main Taliban focal point this year. The northern province is too far from the main Taliban sanctuaries and sources of supply in Pakistan, and it is strategically unsuitable as the point of return for a Taliban government. The local base of support for the Taliban in Kunduz is formidable, but strategically it hardly seems the place which the Taliban would choose as its anchor for a permanent position in Afghanistan. Only about one-third of Kunduz’s 800,000 residents are Pashtuns, and the other ethnicities rarely, if ever, support the Taliban. The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group overall in Kunduz, true, but the province is a genuine hodgepodge of ethnicities. And in terms of “enlarging the ink blot,” Kunduz is the only province in the north in which the Pashtuns make up such a large percentage of the population. Thus, Kunduz is hardly fertile soil from which to grow the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Why then commit so many resources to it? The Taliban are not inept at the operational level of war. They understand these operational limitations. Logically then, the offensive in Kunduz is a classic military diversion. It is intended to have exactly the effect it is already having: Reorienting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to the north and forcing the Ministry of Defense — still without a minister nearly a year after the last presidential election — to rush reinforcements to Kunduz.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense, not nimble at the best of times, has already committed thousands of soldiers from its scant force reserves and three commando battalions, and is now focusing its limited logistics capabilities to bolster the defenses of the province, Kunduz city in particular. Kunduz city is in little danger of falling into Taliban hands, perhaps more a result of intent than capability. Managing and administering Afghanistan’s fifth largest city in northern isolation is not likely a near term Taliban goal. Nevertheless, the ANSF is struggling to counter the Taliban offensive in the areas surrounding the city. On Thursday last week, Mohammad Ali, a local militia commander, told reporters: “the government hasn’t even made one step forward,” after he visited two districts that were only three miles from the provincial governor’s compound.
There has been some local success: the Taliban leader of the Imam Sahib district, Mullah Mustafa, was reported killed in the district on Wednesday. Imam Sahib, despite being a key drug smuggling route to Tajikistan, was one of Kunduz’s safest districts until 2010, firmly in control of Uzbek militias. Under such tight Uzbek control, any Taliban success there is worrisome. But in a larger sense, the Afghan government and ISAF bungled the counterinsurgency effort in Kunduz from the beginning of the Taliban resurgence, creating the hated and poorly-managed Afghan Local Police (ALP), and failing to prosecute their massive human rights abuses. The ALP militias rob and rape with impunity and are so disliked that villagers in Chahar Darreh district supported the Taliban eliminating at least 20 ALP checkpoints. In addition, indiscriminate shelling by the Afghan National Army on Taliban-controlled areas caused civilian casualties which further alienated the people. The Pashtuns in Kunduz had already suffered a decade of discrimination and abuse at the hands of their Northern Alliance neighbors after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and the guerrillas now have no shortage of Pashtun recruits seeking badal, or revenge.
However, the Taliban main effort this fighting season, which the Taliban have dubbed Azm, or determination, will come not in Kunduz but rather again in Helmand province. There they are adjacent to their Pakistani ISI-run supply lines and likely to garner almost unanimous popular support from the virtually all-Pashtun province. The disproportionately-Tajik ANSF in Helmand was battered in the summer and fall of 2014, and control of the Sangin district center hung by a thread on at least two occasions. After the Ministry of Defense completes its pivot to the north, when every soldier is committed to the fight and the Ministry locked into a pattern of logistical support in Kunduz, the Taliban will open their second, and main front, in Helmand province. This year in Helmand, without U.S. close air support, as the defenders of Wake Island famously radioed, “The issue is in doubt.” Perhaps not this year but soon, Helmand province and the city of Lashkar Gah in particular have all the hallmarks of the ANSF’s own version of the epic French disaster at Dien Bien Phu.
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