KABUL — As they did in 2016, the Taliban are again concentrating on overrunning Afghan cities this year. By the end of February 2017, the Taliban had already launched an attack on Mehtar Lam, the capital of the eastern Afghan province of Laghman. And according to a confidential report exclusively obtained by The Diplomat, the Taliban have amended their tactics in view of an allegedly imminent assault on Kunduz City, where also U.S. and German forces are deployed.
On February 28, weeks before the usual insurgent spring offensive that traditionally starts in April, militants attacked Mehtar Lam, with fighting reportedly reaching as close as two kilometers to the center of town. Only two days later, on March 2, the governor of Laghman acknowledged that, at first, militants had managed to overrun several outposts, but he then assured that these outposts were retaken by government forces and that the attack had been successfully repelled. However, a statement from the provincial government released on March 13 again claimed to have foiled the Taliban’s plan to capture Laghman, implying that fighting continued at least until recently. And reports from March 18 even indicated that the insurgents were still just outside Mehtar Lam.
This, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise. Since the Taliban managed to briefly overrun Kunduz, the capital of the northern province with the same name, at the end of September and beginning of October 2015 – which marked the first time since the overthrow of their regime in 2001 that the Taliban had seized a provincial capital – they have continuously kept cities in their sights. During 2016, insurgents pressured the capitals of the provinces of Kunduz, Faryab, Farah, Helmand, and Uruzgan. While they managed to temporarily enter Kunduz and Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan, fighting was limited to the outskirts of the other cities.
Usually, the Taliban’s tactic was to seize the surrounding rural areas before launching a larger assault on the cities themselves. However, according to a confidential report exclusively obtained by The Diplomat, the Taliban have amended this tactic while preparing a renewed imminent attack on Kunduz. The report indicates that this time the insurgents will concentrate on infiltrating the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in order to also assault the city from within. In addition, the report states that insurgents are focusing on completely blocking the main roads to Kunduz prior to the intended attack on the city itself. While insurgents had at least partly blocked main roads in previous assaults on Kunduz, the report suggests that the militants are preparing to do this more effectively this time. In any event, the report asserts that government forces have already put effective counter-measures into place and that Kunduz will not collapse again.
Corroborating this report, a high-ranking source within the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in Kunduz, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Diplomat that there are indeed Taliban infiltrators among the police force in Kunduz. However, he also mentioned that this had been the case in the past and could not say whether infiltration has increased. The same source also received reports that the militants intend to completely block the accessory roads to Kunduz, but could not confirm to what extent the Taliban had actually implemented such tactics. He did, however, indicate that Qari Shafiq, known as Dawood, the newly appointed Taliban commander for Aliobod, a district directly to the south of Kunduz City, recently ordered attacks on the main road that connects Kunduz to the rest of the country. This included one attack on a government outpost near Kunduz airport, which lies just outside the city and also hosts the Afghan National Army’s 20th Division. The source further added that it is expected that the Taliban will launch another assault on Kunduz in early April (he mentioned a specific date, which this author decided to withhold due to security considerations).
On the other hand, a source within the Afghan National Army in Kunduz insisted that counter-intelligence had successfully prevented any insurgent infiltration into the Afghan military (he had no information regarding the police force), partly corroborating assertions of effective counter-measures mentioned in the confidential report. The same source further alleged that the Taliban in Kunduz have been and continue to be pressured by government operations and have been significantly weakened, leaving them incapable of launching a successful attack. In this regard, he also referred to the demise of Mullah Salam, the Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz and reported mastermind of previous assaults on Kunduz City, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz’s district of Dasht-i Archi on February 26.
However, the source also mentioned that currently U.S. and German forces are stationed in Kunduz, which might be a hint that the situation is not as good as the ANA source portrayed. The deployment of coalition forces near Kunduz, including German and U.S. soldiers, has been confirmed by U.S. Navy Captain Bill Salvin, director of public affairs of Resolute Support, the NATO-led international coalition. According to Salvin, those troops perform a train, advice, and assist mission in favor of Afghan forces. It could not be determined when, exactly, coalition forces were stationed in Kunduz and whether this happened in connection with worries about a renewed insurgent offensive.
Also seemingly contradicting an optimistic view, an observer who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Diplomat that insurgents had deployed 200 professional fighters to Kunduz for the imminent assault. This was partly corroborated by the above-mentioned security source, who alleged that around 150 insurgent fighters from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are stationed in Chahor Dara, yet another district of Kunduz. In this regard, it has to be noted though that, while such Taliban forces may constitute more professional and better organized fighters, they are – although media reports often label them “Taliban special forces” – a far cry from special forces in a modern military sense.
Be that as it may, the Taliban’s staunch concentration on overrunning cities appears to be, to some extent, odd. Many analysts agree that the Taliban – while capable of threatening or maybe even again overrunning a city – are unable to hold an urban center. In fact, this was corroborated by a briefing of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies based on November 2016 interviews with “seven well-connected Taliban figures representing different constituencies within the movement.” In this context, the briefing also noted that “many Taliban commanders worry that military gains are not sustainable” and that “tactical victories have come at great cost,” with Taliban interviewees having “pointed to heavy Taliban losses over the past three months [apparently referring to the autumn of 2016] of fighting in Farah, Faryab, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kunduz” that “left many in the movement questioning the utility of the military sacrifices.”
Hence, this raises the question of why the Taliban nonetheless focus on assaulting cities. Of course, the propaganda effect of taking a city, even if only very briefly, is immense. However, from a military standpoint, the costs seem to outweigh such benefits.
Nevertheless, given the past year and the most recent developments from Laghman and Kunduz, it has to be expected that the Taliban will continue to attempt to overrun provincial capitals throughout 2017. And the first major Taliban operation of 2017 might very well be again launched soon in Kunduz, also affecting the U.S. and German forces that are stationed there.
Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. He writes on a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. He can be followed @franzjmarty on twitter.