As I write this, Afghan security forces are battling Taliban militants for control of the city of Kunduz, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan and the first major urban center to fall to the insurgents in the 14 years since the U.S. invasion in December 2001. Reports emerged that the city had fallen to the insurgents late on Sunday night and, for the moment, the actual situation is uncertain.
Late on Tuesday, there are conflicting reports that the Taliban have managed to seize control of most of Kunduz airport from Afghan commandos. NATO has reportedly also conducted air strikes against Taliban positions in Kunduz, setting back their efforts somewhat. Though much remains unconfirmed about the tactical situation on the ground — more on which can be gleaned from The Diplomat‘s interview with an eyewitness in the city — the fall of Kunduz has broader significance that merits consideration.
First, the Taliban’s operational success in taking over Kunduz, even if it turns out to be short-lived and reversible, invalidates much of the optimism surrounding the group’s “succession crisis” following the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death over the summer. It’s notable that just a little over a week before the attack on Kunduz, reports emerged that Omar’s son and brother, Mullah Yacub and Mullah Manan, had pledged their allegiance to Mullah Mansour, Omar’s successor as Amir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful). During the uncertain weeks of the succession period, there was a relative lull in the group’s activities, short of an attack on a prison in Ghazni and a particularly brutal spate of suicide attacks in Kabul.
For Washington, seeing Kunduz slip away is another reminder of the failure of its 14-year-long state-building project. U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan under the auspices of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which comes up on its one-year anniversary soon. Restoring Afghan government control over Kunduz will be the top U.S. priority.
Meanwhile, the nightmare scenario for the Afghan government is that Kunduz’s seizure by the Taliban ends up taking on the sort of significance that the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State last summer did for the Iraqi government. If the Taliban manages to entrench its presence in the town and build on its traditional strongholds in the Pashtun-dominated southeastern regions, Kabul will find itself surrounded. The Afghan government has a challenging task ahead of it as it tries to retake Kunduz (particularly given reports that the Taliban have mingled among the civilian population). For the Afghan government and U.S. policymakers, defeat at Kunduz should be unthinkable.