The South Asia Channel
Kunduz City Falls
Security in Kunduz did not deteriorate overnight. For more than a decade, the NATO and Afghan government strategy in the province has been clumsy and largely ineffective.
In April 2015, the Taliban surrounded Kunduz city. Augmented by Chechen, Uzbek, and Tajik fighters, the potent Taliban force had been slowly gaining territory in Kunduz for years, but now they threatened to take a provincial capital for the first time since their demise in 2001. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delayed a trip to India and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units rushed to Kunduz to repel the Taliban attack. Within days, the ANSF had secured the city and pushed the insurgents back.
Predictably, the Taliban marketed the event as the beginning of their summer fighting season, claiming that they were slowly consolidating their gains in Kunduz province. They even released a 5-minute video of their exploits titled “Kunduz and Renewed Resolve.” The video included scenes of the Taliban entering abandoned ANSF bases and Afghan Local Police (ALP) members in captivity. Although the Taliban were not able to hold the city, they capitalized on the propaganda value of their ability to send the ANSF scrambling from one province to the next in response to their strikes.
The Taliban found themselves at the gates of Kunduz city again in June. Once more, the National Unity Government (NUG) was forced to address an embarrassing situation but, in the end, the ANSF regained control of the city. Since then, the NUG has done a good job maintaining control of cities but struggled with security in rural areas.
On Monday, however, things changed. A large Taliban force launched a multi-pronged attack, capturing most of the city as the ANSF put up an anemic resistance. Rather than stay and fight, most of the ANSF abandoned their posts, including police stations, the governor’s mansion, the local jail, and other key facilities. The only security elements that reportedly stayed put were members of the Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. According to NBC’s Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski, several hundred Taliban routed a force of 3,000 ANSF. By Monday night, Ministry of Interior Spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi declared: “Kunduz city has collapsed into the hands of the Taliban.” Losing Kunduz, the fifth largest city in the country, has deepened the NUG’s credibility problem.
NATO and Afghan Government Strategy in Kunduz Province
The security situation in Kunduz did not deteriorate overnight. For more than a decade, the NATO and Afghan government strategy in Kunduz province has been clumsy and largely ineffective. Between 2003 and 2013, the NATO mission in Kunduz was supported by German troops. German rules of engagement requiring Berlin’s approval for what most would consider tactical decisions did not help in countering Taliban influence in the province. But, the NATO plan itself, which assigned a few thousand German soldiers to secure multiple northern provinces, was unrealistic. Making matters worse, the Karzai administration shifted a third of the Kunduz provincial police force to Kabul in 2007 and then cut another third in 2009.
NATO officials should have anticipated the troubles playing out today and warned of the risks. The small German contingent, a lone Afghan Army logistics battalion, and police protection limited the district headquarters, coupled with a history of serious Taliban incursions over the past two to three years, should have raised alarms over the rate of Coalition Forces withdrawals much earlier. Inadequate numbers of ANSF and an unrealistic NATO strategy in Kunduz helped create the conditions for the Taliban to return. Further complicating the situation, the Afghan government tried to counter Taliban expansion in Kunduz by leveraging local militias under the ALP banner, in theory paid for and controlled by the Ministry of Interior.
For years, NATO and the Afghan government relied on men like Qala-i-Zal District’s commander Nabi Gechi to provide security. For a while, NATO had funded some of the salaries, but now Gechi has to pay for his 300 fighters by collecting a protection tax. For better or worse, it appeared as if Gechi has been the only reliable security partner in a district that was supposed to be secured by a government force of only 30 policemen.
As early as 2011, U.S. General David Petraeus told the U.S. Senate that the ALP is “arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself.” But, after nearly 14 years of Coalition presence and billions of dollars spent to develop the ANSF, it is hard to believe that the NUG has relied so heavily on warlords to guarantee its control of rural Afghanistan. Particularly in Kunduz, however, the militias have exacerbated security problems in the province. Recently, a Kunduz elder put things in perspective, saying: “Disarming the militias should be the top priority for the new government in Kunduz… it’s because of them that people join the Taliban.”
Fixing Failed Provinces: The Kunduz experiment has been disastrous
Ghani recognized the security challenges in Kunduz early in his term and made “fixing Kunduz” a priority. He fired the provincial governor during a video-teleconference town hall style meeting in late 2014. According to the Wall Street Journal: “President Ashraf Ghani has found a laboratory for his sweeping effort to overhaul Afghanistan’s local governments in the northern province of Kunduz, which is beset by an emboldened Taliban insurgency, a thriving drug trade and prowling militias.” Ghani hand-picked Mohammad Omer Safi as the new governor and personally interviewed and selected the provincial police chief and attorney general.
In essence, Kunduz reflected the model leadership team that Ghani wanted to roll out to other provinces. The president promised to deliver on political, economic, and security reforms, and to recapture territory from both insurgents and rogue ALP elements. The plan was ambitious, and the current situation in Kunduz shows that the NUG approach to fixing failing provinces does not work. Unfortunately, the NUG over-promised and under-delivered reform in Kunduz province.
Also, even though Ghani recognized that using local warlords was creating more problems than it was solving, he continued to fill security gaps by using militias to temporarily augment the ANSF. In fact, Ghani expanded the use of local defense forces throughout in northern Afghanistan
Kunduz Will be Recaptured But This failure is Significant
While the Kabul government is still pushing for peace talks with the Quetta Shura, Taliban fighters who were posing with locals for “selfies,” looting police stations, and freeing prisoners have dealt the NUG a serious political blow, capturing Kunduz city exactly one year from the day on which Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah took power. Afghan political analysts are livid at the mismanagement of the situation in Kunduz, and nearly every commentator on Afghan TV news has called the NUG incompetent. Afghan lawmakers have increased the temperature a notch, calling for the prosecution of Kunduz government officials and for the execution of some local officials on charges of treason.
The Taliban’s capacity to overwhelm the ANSF in Kunduz this week has been a source of massive embarrassment for the NUG and NATO forces. Ghani was quick to point out that the ANSF had already started retaking government buildings, while asserting that operations were hampered by the Taliban’s use of civilians as human shields. But news of the ANSF’s decisive actions were drowned out by rumors of Governor Safi escaping to Tajikistan and trying to make his way to London.
The Taliban are using social media to distribute pictures of fighters moving freely throughout the city. This will undoubtedly embolden the Taliban in other parts of the country, raising the concern that other insurgent commanders will follow the Kunduz attack with similar attempts to capture district centers in other parts of the country. This is a very real possibility in the near term, considering the effort and resources that have been shifted to Kunduz. Ultimately, although ANSF elements (including Afghan Special Forces) and U.S. airpower had already begun recapturing portions of the city Tuesday morning, the Kunduz debacle has cast doubt on the theory that the NUG’s handpicked governance team and the combination of ANSF and local militias can deliver stability in the restive province.
Moving forward, the Afghan government and the NATO allies should reconsider their approach to tackling Taliban expansion. For starters, peace talks with the Taliban should be postponed indefinitely and the Afghan government should not pursue such efforts at this point. The Taliban “selfies” from Kunduz city should make it clear to anyone that Pakistan and the Quetta Shura are either not serious about peace talks or do not represent the interests and intentions of Taliban field commanders.
Washington, meanwhile, should come to grips with the fact the U.S. and NATO missions should be significantly larger than the small embassy security team that President Barack Obama has envisaged. General John Campbell, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who is scheduled to testify in front of Congress in October, recently provided several options to the Pentagon for what the U.S. presence in Afghanistan could look like in 2016 and beyond. To most observers, the current footprint of roughly 10,000 U.S. troops seems barely capable of helping the ANSF avert catastrophe in places like Kunduz.
Additionally, the NUG must focus more of their efforts towards the professionalization of the ANSF and less time handing out weapons to local militias. A year after the NUG took power, Afghanistan still does not have a minister of defense — Massoom Stanekzai is still only the acting minister after failing to receive a confidence vote in parliament. No doubt, General Campbell will be asked some tough questions in Congress about the ANSF tendency to retreat rather than defend their posts in places like Musa Qala and Kunduz, only to spend enormous energy retaking terrain with the assistance of Coalition air support. Similarly, it is hard to make the case for a $4 billion annual ANSF budget when the NUG uses local militias to hold ground.
Finally, civilian governance initiatives have lagged behind. Many provinces are still operating with acting governors. Ghani and Abdullah must agree to a strategic shift out of an interim government status and follow through with a more comprehensive strategy and objectives. The failure in the Kunduz laboratory has exposed the cracks in the NUG experiment.
Ultimately, Ghani and his team have a limited time to repair the political damage caused by the fall of Kunduz city. Today, parliament questioned Afghan security officials about the Kunduz debacle; emotions ran high. Ghani is correct in taking a cautious approach to the recapture of the city, as the risk of civilian casualties during urban warfare is high. But the NUG must rethink its approach to Kunduz, dismiss those responsible for the epic failure, and put people of substance in leadership positions in order to stabilize the province.
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