Yesterday, the Northern Afghan city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban. This is some of the worst news to emerge from Afghanistan since the of the 14- year old conflict between the Taliban and the western-backed Afghan national government.
In 2001, Kunduz was the last Taliban bastion to fall to the Northern Alliance, symbolizing the final liberation of the country. The recapture of the city demonstrates the resurgence of the Taliban. It is a signal that the insurgents are no longer just lurking in the background, but have the capacity to take the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) head on.
The fall of Kunduz coincides with the one year-anniversary of the National Unity Government under the leadership of President Ashraf Ghani. The new regime was elected on the promise to improve security throughout the country, but the loss of Kunduz will undoubtedly deal a major blow to the prestige of the new government.
“The fall of Kunduz was a failure of both national and international leadership. Unfortunately, the government in Kabul is not taking responsibility for it. I am sure it will impact the National Unity Government very deeply,” says Kabul-based political expert, Haroon Mir, in an interview with The Diplomat.
With each passing hour, the government’s ability to deal with the Taliban threat is more in doubt. It’s now been more than twenty-four hours since the Taliban occupied the city. Reinforcements from the ANSF stationed in neighboring provinces and the capital Kabul have not yet been able to reach Kunduz, due to IED attacks and ambushes by the insurgent group. Kunduz airport, to where most of the city’s administration and military personnel has withdrawn, is also under attack.
“The Taliban will not be able to hold Kunduz in the face of the large-scale military reinforcements, but the recovery of the city will not return stability and normality to the region. The damage to the reputation of the government has already been done,” says Mir. Sher Shah Nawabi, a Kunduz-based journalist, says that “the local inhabitants are in a state of shock and feel betrayed by the government for allowing the Taliban to capture the city.”
The coalition government’s credibility is at an all-time low after the fall of Kunduz. The city is strategically located, serving as an important gateway to northern Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan. Many Afghans see the current situation as a reminder of the bloody decade of the 1990s. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, the country was eventually overrun by the Taliban, despite the best efforts of the Kremlin-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah. The fall of Kunduz represents an unpleasant reminder of that period; not a year after the departure of the International Security Assistance Force, an important city has fallen to extremist insurgents.
Can the Taliban repeat this success in other cities as well? Until recently, people believed that the Taliban, while a dangerous nuisance in the countryside, would not be able to take control of any major city. That certainty is gone. Suddenly, the Taliban looks like a viable and strong opposition which can take on the ANSF in a conventional battle and win.
This is bad news for the morale of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which is supposed to be providing overarching security to the country. There are doubts as to whether the training and equipment provided by ISAF is up to the standards necessary to fight the Taliban. There is a real fear that the Taliban victory in Kunduz will cause an increase in recruitment to the insurgency.
The fall of Kunduz symbolizes that the Taliban has rallied since the death of its former supreme leader, Mullah Omar. Despite rumors that Omar was assassinated by supporters of the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the organization appears to have regained momentum. “Their victory in Kunduz is a much-needed boost to the Taliban. There has been some speculation that the organization experienced an internal power struggle due to the transition in their leadership,” explains Mir. “This will provide the new leadership with legitimacy and prove that the Taliban is still a group is still a force to be reckoned with, despite the death of Omar.”
When Ghani was elected president last year, it was hailed as the first democratic transition of power in the history of Afghanistan. However, the new leadership has so far proved to be as powerless as its predecessor in preventing further violence in the embattled nation. It will be a huge challenge for both the people of Afghanistan and the international community to stem the resurgence of the Taliban.
Afghanistan is once again at a crossroads of history.