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Lesson from Kunduz: Afghanistan's civilian & military heads must come together

Enayat Azad | Updated on: 3 October 2015, 4:22 IST

The fall

  • Afghan National Security Forces managed to drive away Talibans from Kunduz
  • But the fall of Kunduz raises several questions
  • Kunduz is at a strategic location; it fall will endanger other areas

What it means

  • The fall of Kunduz turned attention away from the govt completing a year
  • Civilian and military authorities kept squabbling
  • More in the story

After three days of intense fighting, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) seized the provincial Capital of Kunduz back from the Taliban. But the fact that the Taliban could take over and hold on to a prominent province, considered relatively secure, is worrying for Afghanistan.

In the early hours of 28 September, the Taliban achieved their greatest victory since their government's fall when they took over Kunduz city - the capital of the province. The same day Afghanistan's National Unity Government (NUG) completed a year in power.

Around 3 am Monday, the Taliban launched attacks from three different regions. After 12 hours of fighting, they defeated the NATO-trained ANSF and took control of the centre of the city.

Within hours, the Afghan social media space was flooded with pictures of Taliban fighters celebrating and raising their flags in Kunduz. Even "selfies" of civilians along with the Talibs were circulated.

By Wednesday, the ANSF were fighting to marginalise the Taliban. They were supported by US air strikes. Taliban fighters, however, were advancing to capture the city airport as well as surrounding districts.

They had already taken in control Bala Hisar fortress - a strategic military base. On the other hand, security forces from Kabul and other provinces on their way to Kunduz were ambushed by the Taliban and could not reached the city.

American drones took part in the operation. But with the Taliban entrenched in homes of locals, it was difficult to target them.

According to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, the conflict resulted in 43 civilian fatalities and nearly 338 were injured. The United Nations said around 6000 fled their homes.

Other reports suggested that Kunduz did not have electricity for three days. Most shops and supermarkets were forced to remain shut, which increased prices of essential commodities substantially. Unconfirmed reports also stated that Taliban members broke into gold shops and detonated gates of bank branches to steal.

Local reports suggested that, once in control, the Taliban attacked offices of the government and foreign NGO offices like UNAMA, the police headquarters and the court in Kunduz. But perhaps the act that brought back uneasy memories of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, was shutting down the women-run radio television 'Roshani'.

Another video footage on social media showed that the Taliban had freed several hundred prisoners from the central jail of this province. Rahmatullah Nabil, head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), said "Of the 700 freed, 110 prisoners were members of Taliban."


Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at a press conference on 29 September. Photo: Mustafa Bag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Why is the fall of Kunduz significant?

In Afghanistan, conflict had been ongoing for the last 14 years despite the fall of the Taliban. The country has seen several districts that fell to Taliban and some of them remained under their control for many years. But the fall of Kunduz was more than just the loss of a province or a city.

For one, it was the capital of a province, and the first central city to fall to the Taliban in 14 years. The fact that it happened exactly a year after the National Unity Government assuming power raised a symbolic question on the government's stability and control.

On a day when otherwise the local and international media would be discussing the success and pitfalls of a US-tailored government, they were instead talking about Taliban gaining power.

Kunduz province is a strategic region in Afghanistan and serves as a corridor to the northern provinces in the country. Its fall can reduce access and increase threat in several provinces including Takhar, Baghlan, Badakhshan and even Balkh.

The NDS said earlier this year that the Taliban wanted to make Kunduz and Badakhshan centres of international terrorism operations - an obvious threat to neighbouring countries.

On the other hand, this isn't the first time that security in the province has deteriorated to this extend. It is the third time in six months that this city has faced serious Taliban threats.

In April, the Taliban approached the gates of the city but Afghan forces were able to restrain their entry with the help of forces from neighbouring provinces.

What led to the fall of Kunduz

A lot has been attributed to the eventual fall of the Kunduz city - from weak central powers to the rise of a new Taliban chief. While they all contributed to the eventual disintegration of security in the north, a lack of coordination between government and security forces is one of the immediate cause for the fall of Kunduz.

There is an evident lack of management and cooperation among the various Afghan security arms and the government. The NUG, despite having been in power for a whole year, has failed to appoint a defence minister.

Similarly, the conflicts between the President and the CEO of the NUG often percolated to the provincial level. In Kunduz, the mayor was appointed by President Ashraf Ghani, while the police chief of commands was supported by NUG CEO Abdullah Abdullah. The two have had serious problems getting along and haven't been together when Kunduz fell.

Retaking Kunduz

The last 14 years have been testimony to the fact that the Taliban can't control a major city and districts for more than a week.

After 12 hours of the fall of the province, President Ghani and government officials including the defence minister, the minister of interior affairs and the head of NDS announced in a joined press conference that Afghan security forces in a operation were going to take the city back.

"We expect tonight or tomorrow to take control of this province." And they did. But on early Thursday morning. While the fighting is still ongoing, ANSF have regained major parts of Kunduz, and several casualties have been reported among the Taliban.

However, experts believe that Afghans will continue facing these security threats in the coming years if the problems between government leaders and military chiefs aren't solved soon.

First published: 3 October 2015, 4:22 IST
Enayat Azad @Enayatazad

Enayat Azad is an Afghan journalist working in Kabul.