The Taliban’s rout Monday of Afghan forces in the northern city of Kunduz carried an eerie echo of recent battles in Iraq, where another U.S.-trained army has collapsed in combat despite massive support from Washington.
After months of fighting around the provincial capital, the insurgents rolled into the heart of Kunduz while Afghan troops retreated to the nearby airport. It marked the first time the Taliban had captured a city since it was toppled from power in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The fall of Kunduz dealt a major blow to the government in Kabul and its Western sponsors, and it may force U.S. President Barack Obama to drop his vow to pull American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year.
For months, the U.S. administration has been debating plans for a drawdown of the 9,800-strong force in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon favoring a slower withdrawal that could leave several thousand troops on the ground after Obama leaves office in 2017.
But the discouraging news from Kunduz could tip the discussion against an early exit, despite Obama’s campaign promise to wrap up the 14-year war.
“I find it nearly inconceivable that President Obama will now proceed with planned reductions in US forces in Afghanistan,” Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, wrote Monday on Twitter.
U.S.-led forces “should stay,” he said.
American commanders believe Obama’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011 was a strategic blunder, helping to create a security vacuum that was later exploited by Islamic State extremists. And both Republicans and Democrats in Congress — anxious to avoid a repeat of Iraq, where Baghdad’s forces have been hammered by Islamic State militants — are urging the White House to move more prudently in Afghanistan. The lawmakers cite the threat posed by the Taliban and other extremists, which now include militants with links to the Islamic State.
The defeat in Kunduz was the result of an overly hasty drawdown plan that could produce “the same tragic outcome that we watched in Iraq after 2011,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who has repeatedly blasted Obama for scheduling the troop pullout.
“It is time that President Obama abandon this dangerous and arbitrary course and adopt a plan for U.S. troop presence based on conditions on the ground,” the Republican senator said in a statement.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long portrayed the Taliban as unable to move beyond its strongholds in rural areas to capture major population centers. But with the Taliban’s white banner flying over buildings in the center of Kunduz, the battle has raised serious questions about the staying power of the Afghan security forces, which have been trained and armed over the past decade by U.S. and NATO troops.
Both the Iraqi and Afghan armies have received billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, hardware, and instruction from the United States. But Pentagon officials have rejected drawing any parallels between the two, arguing that the Afghan security forces have shown a will to fight and a sense of national identity missing from Baghdad’s sectarian-riven military.
U.S. officers said the Afghan army and police had taken heavy losses in the fighting in Kunduz, which began with a dawn blitz by the Taliban from several directions.
“There have been a lot of casualties” among the Afghan government troops, one senior officer told Foreign Policy.
However, unlike in Iraq, U.S. warplanes did not come to the aid of the Afghan forces around Kunduz, Pentagon officials said.
Since the bulk of American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014 and handed over the fight to Afghan government forces, new rules of engagement allow for U.S. airstrikes to safeguard American troops, target remnants of al Qaeda, and help Afghan forces in dire situations.
But it was unclear why the advance of the Taliban in Kunduz did not trigger air raids, and U.S. officials did not indicate whether drones or other aircraft would be ordered in to bomb Taliban positions for any counterattack.
Afghan officials vowed to undertake a major counteroffensive to recapture Kunduz, which straddles an important northern route to neighboring Tajikistan.
“We are prepared, and measures have been taken to recapture the city,” the deputy interior minister, Ayoub Salangi, told reporters in Kabul.
For the Taliban, the outcome was a propaganda coup after months of infighting and defections following the death of its leader and founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The insurgency recently admitted that it covered up its leader’s death for two years to safeguard morale among its fighters.
The Taliban issued a statement attributed to its new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, in which he congratulated his fighters while telling the citizens of Kunduz that they had nothing to fear from the insurgents, according to a translation by the SITE monitoring service. But the militants reportedly looted jewelry stores, set fire to U.N. buildings, and freed hundreds of prisoners from the city jail.
The setback in Kunduz also cast doubt on the wisdom of a U.S. troop surge ordered by Obama in 2009 that concentrated on the country’s south, said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal.
“Little attention was given to other areas of Afghanistan, including the northern provinces, where the Taliban have expended considerable effort in fighting the military and government,” Roggio wrote in the Long War Journal.
Photo credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images