The Fall of Kunduz and What it Means for the Future of Afghanistan

October 7, 2015

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After months of taking a backseat to numerous other geostrategic hotspots, the recent Taliban seizure of Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth largest city, has thrust this troubled country once again into international headlines. The Taliban’s first instance of overrunning a provincial capital comes at an inopportune time for the National Unity Government (NUG), which just completed its first year in office. While it now appears as though the Afghan security forces have retaken much of the city, the incident raises grave questions about the viability of the Afghan state, the U.S. approach to state-building, and U.S. plans to withdraw significantly from the country by the end of President Barack Obama’s term. Before drawing firm conclusions, it is important to understand the specific factors that led to this unfortunate event and place it in the proper national context.

With 2015 designated as the year that the NATO coalition would step back from combat operations, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) faced a tough endeavor functioning wholly on their own for the first time. Regrettably but unsurprisingly, the ANSF have suffered high casualty rates and struggled to deter an increasingly active insurgency. In particularly contested areas, the ANSF have struggled to hold district centers and have been tied up in tit-for-tat engagements that required “tactical retreats” until enough reinforcements could be mustered, oftentimes aided by coalition air support and intelligence. Forced essentially into either a defensive or reactive posture, the ANSF has rarely been able to dislodge the Taliban from locations where they have traditionally held de facto sway.

In Kunduz, the Taliban have successfully maintained influence in districts where they have for years enjoyed support and capitalized on a concerted effort to expand their influence to the point where Taliban fighters found themselves on the doorstep of the eponymous provincial capital. The seizure of Kunduz did not develop overnight and removing the threat to the city — and to the country as a whole — will require far more than forceful military operations.

Setting the Scene

The abruptness of the Taliban offensive on Kunduz notwithstanding, a host of factors have long been at play that made the province a candidate for such a significant setback. From a human terrain standpoint, Kunduz is a microcosm of Afghanistan with similar parts Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns, as well as lower proportions of Turkmen and Hazaras. The province is also one of Afghanistan’s more economically stable, blessed with fertile farming land and mineral deposits. Finally, it sits at an important logistical crossroads. Not only is it on the main east–west road across the country’s northern areas and along the primary north–south route to Kabul, but its border with Tajikistan provides lucrative smuggling routes to Central Asia. All of these dynamics make for an environment where political and economic interests collide, rivalries are deep-seated, and achieving broad consensus is nigh impossible.

With regard to security, because of its location in the comparatively quiet north, the resources traditionally devoted by both the ANSF and NATO coalition forces can best be described as “economy of force” despite the large area of operation. The 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army is responsible for covering nine provinces across a vast stretch of the country. Complicating matters are reports that the allocation of these limited resources is dictated by competing concerns. Late last year I spent a couple of days in Mazar-e Sharif, a larger northern city, where coalition advisers said that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense would at times intercede directly when it came to the placement of army battalions in the region. The explanation given was that at the senior-most levels, some government officials were influenced by their own interests in the region, like the rich and contested mining sector in Badakhshan. Protecting these interests from rivals often trumped countering insurgent threats.

Additionally, the region is home to many entrenched anti-Taliban warlords and militias who tend to maintain amicable yet largely conditional ties with Kabul and remain key power brokers. For a number of years now these militias have been called on to augment, and in some areas outnumber, the undermanned ANSF and have been the object of numerous accusations of predatory practices and extrajudicial activities under the guise of providing security. An attempt to add an air of formality by enlisting some of these groups into the nationwide Afghan Local Police (ALP) program only made matters worse. Communities in predominantly Pashtun districts, where resentment of the government was high, largely refused to take part. To fill the gap, ALP units dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks were employed. Their subsequent involvement in illegal activities, now under official imprimatur, only further eroded the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of many of the locals.

Aside from the quasi-official and informal militias who relish their independence, it is apparent that like so many other places in the country, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police do not coordinate well or particularly trust each other. Last October while I was visiting the 209th Corps Headquarters in Mazar-e Sharif, a senior army official criticized the police for being incapable of repelling insurgent attacks. He then deemed the ALP “terrible” and the cause of many problems in the region. Hardly a ringing endorsement for a security infrastructure charged with repelling a growing insurgency.

It is not surprising, then, that Kunduz has for years provided the Taliban with fertile ground for recruitment and support despite being across the country from their traditional heartlands in the south and east. And while the pieces were in place for an escalation of insurgent pressure against pro-government entities long before the last election, a couple of developments that occurred in its run-up and aftermath may have contributed to at least the timing of the attack on Kunduz.

Enter the National Unity Government

Prior to the 2014 election season in Afghanistan, it was clear that Kunduz was an area of particular vulnerability and that the Taliban had made important inroads into some of its districts. By the time the NUG was formed in the fall of 2014, things had come to a head in Kunduz. The previous fighting season had seen the Taliban effectively surround the provincial capital, and the Afghan officials were expressing genuine concern that this would happen again. A common refrain among Afghan officials I talked to in Mazar-e Sharif at the time was that the provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan (immediately to the south of Kunduz) were the army’s strategic priority in the region. Coalition officials, who by then were drawn down significantly and confined to neighboring Balkh province, echoed that Kunduz had experienced increased insurgent activity.

The urgency also permeated into Kabul, where President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah agreed to an awkward power-sharing arrangement under the National Unity Government (NUG). Upon assuming office, Ghani identified Kunduz as a top priority. To show that he meant business, he fired the majority of the provincial leadership wholesale and replaced them with handpicked men. Mohammad Omar Safi, a Pashtun from Balkh province, would become the first provincial governor appointed by the new president. Safi embodied the type of leadership Ghani wanted to instill throughout the country: an educated professional unsullied by previous involvement in corrupt senior-level politics or the warlord culture that stymied Afghanistan’s progress toward modern statehood. The new provincial chief of police, a Tajik appointed by the Abdullah camp in corresponding with the theme of “balance” adopted by the NUG, was appointed shortly thereafter along with a new director of intelligence, army commander, and chief prosecutor.

In her comprehensive report on governance in Kunduz under the NUG, Bethany Matta provides behind-the-scenes insights on Ghani’s approach to executive leadership. With little time to waste, Ghani called a video teleconference with the new Kunduz provincial leadership in late December 2014, three weeks after Safi’s appointment. During the 30-minute call Ghani was briefed on 17 issues, though security was the primary topic. Ghani then delivered a deadline to the collection of newly minted officials: In three weeks, security had to be improved. Such a statement was indicative of Ghani’s ambitious, take-charge style since coming to office. It was also doomed to failure.

Safi’s authority in the province was challenged the moment he was appointed. Local powerbrokers bristled at not being consulted and were diametrically opposed to Safi’s vocal desire to disarm and disband any militia groups not tied to the state, thus sealing his fate. This disagreement was shared by the new provincial chief of police as well as the long-serving deputy governor, each of whom shared close ties with influential militia leaders. Apparently the rhetoric from Kabul held little sway with political realities on the ground.

Flash forward a few months and the Taliban made Kunduz the opening salvo in their annual fighting season. By late April, the provincial capital was under direct threat. Making matters worse, reports of an increase in foreign fighters pushed out of neighboring Pakistan and cooperating with the Taliban (rumored for months) are now substantiated. Desperate not to lose the very province it prioritized, by May reports surface that the Ghani government was not only supporting but openly recruiting local militia fighters. Throughout the summer Kunduz remained a flashpoint. In June, the Chardara and Dasht-e-Archi district centers fell in quick succession, placing the insurgents just two miles from Kunduz city, before being pushed back once again by ANSF reinforcements. Yet lacking the ability to generate a truly disruptive offensive, it was arguably only a matter of time before the levy broke.

What does this mean?

Despite forecasted difficulties associated with the security transition in Afghanistan, the loss of a provincial center is unprecedented in the post-Taliban era and delivered a significant blow to both the burgeoning NUG and the ANSF. Instilling some semblance of trust among a populace that was already wary presents a tremendous challenge. While the immediate priority of retaking Kunduz city is military-focused, accomplishing this will not independently resolve the challenges threatening the viability of this embattled country. Ensuring the sustainability of any gains and mitigating against similar breakdowns will require tackling a broad array of root issues that have collectively contributed to instability.

It is important to stress that the seeds that enabled recent events in Kunduz were planted well before the NUG came to office. Nevertheless, a reassessment of some of its policies and methods is warranted. For President Ghani in particular, a higher level of precision when it comes to prioritization is vital. An all-encompassing and uncompromising agenda, accompanied by a “scorched earth” policy of personnel management, makes for good headlines but ignores obvious resource constraints and ground truths. In Kunduz, none of the 17 issues he was briefed on by the new provincial leadership in December 2014 had been improved by the following June. If positive change is to come to Afghanistan, it will be incremental and require political tact. Oftentimes this entails the begrudging acceptance of how local politics works in Afghanistan that cannot simply be done away with by decree.

More broadly, the NUG needs to take a hard look at the policy of “balance” that has thus far influenced political appointments at every level. Ensuring the equitable inclusion of all of Afghanistan’s ethnic constituencies may be the right course of action. Those deciding on nominations, however, must also conduct due diligence to gauge the compatibility of the individuals they are appointing. Kunduz demonstrates that diversity for the sake of diversity cannot only prove ineffective but also dangerously counter-productive.

As for the ANSF, their performance this year has been generally in line with what many suspected for 2015: suffering through high casualty levels and struggling to hold certain (typically rural), contested areas. As I mentioned, in instances where the ANSF have been forced to retreat, a concerted counter-offensive has been able to reclaim a district center. The Taliban assault on Kunduz, however, signals a troubling departure from this. For years now, one of the positive traits of the ANSF has been that they are adept at providing the resources and maintaining a level of coordination that allows for the “layered” security necessary to protect the country’s urban centers from large-scale attacks. Though the security resources allocated to Kunduz are not at the level of larger cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat, the Taliban’s success in overrunning the city will likely embolden the insurgency. Moreover, retaking an urban area with a population of nearly 300,000 is no simple task and will likely place great stress on ANSF resources that could impact capabilities going forward.

If there is a silver lining from the U.S. perspective, it is that, unlike in Iraq, coalition troops were still on hand to witness some of the deficiencies of the security forces that can only be revealed in the heat of battle. What is needed now, however, is a thorough and honest assessment of what transpired and where exactly things went wrong, followed by a determination of what the United States is able and willing to do to be a part of the solution while it draws down its forces. Undoubtedly many widely known deficiencies of the ANSF came into play: insufficient equipping, poor coordination, and questionable leadership, to name a few. Yet obtaining a firm grasp of the detailed nuances of what transpired is necessary to differentiate between problem areas that are institutional and those specific to more local factors. Particular emphasis should be placed on instances where coalition assistance was deemed imperative. What kind of support was needed and to what degree can this dependency be addressed under the current mission? Such an assessment would be impactful as the White House deliberates its post-2016 policy options.

Determining what the attack on Kunduz means for the rest of Afghanistan remains difficult due to one glaring omission from this equation: the posture, cohesion, and objectives of the Taliban. The recently confirmed death of Mullah Omar and increasing reports of the involvement of the Islamic State in Afghanistan raised some doubt that the Taliban could maintain their clout. Internal squabbles over the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mansour as Omar’s successor seemed to substantiate these. The Kunduz siege has completely altered the narrative and, regardless of its outcome, provides the Taliban with a clear victory that could help to build a strong consensus around the new leadership. What remains to be seen is whether the motivation behind the events in Kunduz was to instill solidarity among the fighters or part of something larger. What is readily apparent is that losing Kunduz city, even temporarily, has exposed a number of shortcomings within the Afghan government and security forces. In the aftermath of this, Afghan officials and their coalition partners need to ask some hard questions about where their efforts have gone wrong and what can credibly be done to recover from the most significant blow yet to the post-Taliban Afghan state.

 

Jason H. Campbell is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Follow him on twitter: @JasonHCampbell

 

Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia

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