The South Asia Channel

The Regional Roots of Kunduz’s Collapse

The Regional Roots of Kunduz’s Collapse

Now that the Afghan security forces, with the support of their American backers, have replaced the Taliban’s white flag in Kunduz with Afghanistan’s national flag, one frequently asked question is: Will the Afghan National Army be able to keep the Taliban at bay from other key cities once the remaining 10,000 U.S. troops leave the country by the end of 2016?

Apart from a serious blow to President Ashraf Ghani’s one-year-old government, the fall of Kunduz City, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan, shocked Afghans who slowly and gradually came to believe in the strength of their country’s armed forces and the will of political leadership to shore up the nascent political process.

On the contrary, it proved a greater morale boost for the Taliban, who were already divided over the issue of peace talks with the Afghan government and further fragmented over the question of whom was to be their post-Mullah Omar amir.

While the somewhat controversial appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the new Taliban chief is now applauded among the Taliban rank and file, Ghani’s popularity is on the decline among Afghans who want him to be a military strategist in addition to a technocrat (a technocrat who is struggling to end corruption and stop mismanagement in his own administration).

For months, the northern provinces of Jawzjan, Faryab, Badakhshan, and Kunduz — the last a vital hub for drug smuggling into Tajikistan — have been the centers of Taliban activity as well as the training grounds for other militant outfits such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the so-called Islamic State.

To believe that the Taliban came all of a sudden in the pre-dawn on Sept. 28 and took over the city is to deny the stark reality that the Taliban threat was very much visible and lurking for months, but serious steps were not taken to avert it. In the words one Kunduz resident told me: “They [the Taliban] did not come. They just sprouted.”

Weeks before the takeover, the militants had started amassing arms and ammunitions in residential areas inside the city and brought in young fighters, mostly Tajiks and Chechens. They were successful in dodging the security agencies who failed to detect the actual level of threat and initiate action.

The security situation in Afghanistan’s once relatively peaceful north started deteriorating after the Pakistani security forces launched the much sought-after military operation in its North Waziristan tribal district in mid-June 2014.

As a result, hundreds of Chechen, Uighur, Uzbek, and Tajik militants left their historical sanctuary in North Waziristan and crossed into Afghanistan, moving to the north where they curated a strong support base as they once had in North Waziristan.

“In Jawzjan villages, [the Taliban] are freely roaming around and even join marriage and burial ceremonies,” I heard from one resident in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where a former warlord and now governor of Balkh province, Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, is keeping the militants at bay.

Apart from Balkh, Samangan is the only other province in the north where the Taliban and IMU activities are hardly visible. In the rest of the region, the IMU, in support of the Taliban, has strong footholds in the rural areas where they openly run their training camps and recruit youth.

Currently, hundreds of Uzbek fighters are running training camps in Faryab province. Locals say the militants in Faryab are not engaged in fighting and do not carry out regular attacks on Afghan security forces or governmental installations. They are mostly focused on training, showing their intentions for a future major battle.

Although the Afghan security forces have announced they’ve retaken the city of Kunduz, the situation in the north may erupt at any time unless the Afghan government comes out with a comprehensive plan to deny safe havens to all local and foreign militants.

If allowed to exist and even launch attacks on key cities, such as Kunduz, the Taliban-IMU-ETIM alliance may win over the support of local populations — not because of any love for their agendas, but out of fear and hopelessness.

Notwithstanding some selfies local young men took with Taliban fighters as they entered Kunduz City, the militants did not receive the welcome from the local population that they used to receive in their heyday of the early 1990s when they were capturing city after city and advancing from south to north. This, in a way, is the only negative sign for the Taliban and their allies.

Right now, one alarming signal for the Ghani administration and the international community is that the local drug mafia, some local warlords, and corrupt security officials are already providing and selling light arms and ammunition to the militants while young men, who have only heard tales of the Taliban regime from others, are finding a natural inclination to bring back those “good old days.”

The rest depends on the strategy of the Afghan government, the will of Afghan security forces, the good intentions of Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers, and support of the international community.

It’s time for Afghanistan to make it or break it.