There’s a saying in Afghanistan, “If you want to die, come to Kunduz.”
It’s long been a reference to the stifling heat of the northern province. In recent years, however, it’s become a literal warning.
Last year, the provincial capital, Kunduz City became the first urban centre to fall into Taliban hands in 14 years. Since then, it’s been under threat of a Taliban takeover four times, with the most recent offensive taking place earlier this week. Though Taliban fighters have been pushed out of the main city, the battle to fully drive them out has not yet ended.
The continued battle for the city has served as a grim reminder of the struggle the nation’s 352,000 army and police face in fighting back against a resurgent Taliban. It also means it may be time to retire the old saying about Kunduz — and replace it with one popular in the West: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results.”
Regardless of the saying used to describe it, Kunduz poses an important question about Afghanistan: Can the government take on the Taliban now that the Afghan National Security Forces have been left to fight without international backing?
What led to the fall of Kunduz?
The Taliban takeover of Kunduz is a case study in bad leadership, a frustrated populace and excellent timing on the part of the Taliban.
The province is home to several warring militia groups, many of whom are accused of abuses against the people. As with other areas of the country, the government had initially turned to these militias in a bid to keep the Taliban and other armed opposition groups at bay.
But, as with many militias, the commanders in Kunduz quickly grew drunk with power.
The militiamen — including several former high-ranking anti-Soviet commanders — have repeatedly been accused by locals of among other things, extorting money, illegal land grabs, rape and assault.
These militias and their leaders have only grown more powerful as the government looked for low-cost ways to provide the Afghan National Security Forces with extra support since the vast majority of international troops withdrew from the nation in 2014.
These abuses by the militias, whom the people see as supported by the central government, led to increased anger against the Kabul administration.
As the people grew increasingly frustrated, they began to turn to the Taliban for support against the powerful commanders and the hundreds of armed men at their side.
The Taliban, watching from the districts surrounding the city, took advantage of the situation.
When Kunduz fell last September, the governor at the time, Mohammad Omar Safi, was in Tajikistan. Safi, who had spent 10 years as the head of the United Nations’ security office in the North of Afghanistan, was roundly criticised for being out of the country at such a precarious time. There were even media reports claiming he had fled to Europe.
To make matters worse, Safi was the first new provincial governor to be appointed by the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, who was just about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the unity government he heads.
Ghani had hoped that Safi, along with the new police chief, intelligence director, military commander and prosecutor he had appointed, would make Kunduz the model for all of the nation’s 34 provinces.
On the other hand, the Taliban, who had only confirmed the death of their founder and long-time leader Mullah Mohammad Omar a month prior, did something that defied conventional wisdom.
By taking control of the nation’s fifth-largest city, the group reportedly overcame rampant infighting after the announcement of Omar’s death and present a potent challenge to the ANSF.
Ahead of the anniversary, the government was already facing criticism for its inability to bolster the economy — which had suffered from a protracted election and the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign forces the year prior.
It wasn’t just the economy that was on a downturn, there was also a quickly deteriorating security situation in the country.
Add to that the reports of rifts within the unity government — which was created in response to a bitter, drawn out election plagued with accusations of widespread, government-assisted fraud — and the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz became a humiliating PR disaster for a Kabul administration that had already begun facing questions of legitimacy.
This week, when Taliban fighters approached the city centre, it came as Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — who was given the newly created position of Chief Executive as part of the unity agreement — were en route to a donor conference in Brussels.
As the administration was busy signing contracts and trying to assure world leaders that Afghanistan was headed in the right direction, the 300,000 residents of Kunduz were once again locked away in their basements as Taliban fighters walked freely along the main streets of the city.
More troubling was the fact that Kunduz wasn’t the only province dealing with concerted Taliban offensives this week.
Helmand, which is seen as one of the centres of the nation’s illicit drug trade has also faced repeated threats of a Taliban takeover over the last two years. In late August, the US had to deploy more than 100 of their troops to keep its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, from being seized by the Taliban.
But the cat-and-mouse games don’t end with Kunduz and Helmand.
In the last two years, thousands of residents in strategic points across several provinces — Uruzgan (south), Ghazni (east), Baghlan (north, bordering Kunduz) and Faryab (north) — have found themselves caught between the Taliban and the Afghan government. With Taliban taking it over and Afghan forces drawing them out, repeatedly.
Kunduz has become a symptom of a much larger ill affecting the nation’s security.
As per a July report released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — the top US watchdog on Afghanistan — in the first four months of 2016, the armed opposition was able to wrest control of five per cent more territory from the Afghan government.
By the end of May, the armed opposition -- a conglomerate of different forces, including the Taliban -- held 34.4 per cent of territory. This represents the highest amount since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
SIGAR says the loss of government influence in 19 additional districts, comes as the US has spent more than $68 million on supporting the ANSF since international forces withdrew in 2014.
The seizure of Kunduz last year helped the Taliban ramp up their armoury. They took ammunition from the posts abandoned by Afghan forces.
Additionally, in the last year, the group has begun to disrupt travel along many of the nation’s most important highways. Potentially enabling them to disrupt activity across a large chunk of land in the nation.
Among those roads is the route that leads from Baghlan province, through Kunduz and neighbouring Takhar and into Badakhshan province in the extreme northeast.
Contrast that with the difficulties facing the ANSF. They’re losing their men: in 2015, nearly 5,500 were killed and more than 14,000 were wounded. The forces are fatigued, there are reports that they have abandoned their posts during Taliban assaults. For instance, during the attempted takeover of Tirinkot, the capital of the southern province of Uruzgan last month, security forces reportedly turned over their positions to the opposition. The forces are also struggling with a lack of basics, including food and ammunition.
Can Afghan forces hold the Taliban at bay, maybe.
But without a clear negotiated peace — like the one Kabul signed with Hezb-e Islami, the group that spent the last 14 years trailing the Taliban as the second-largest armed opposition movement — a continuation of the war in Afghanistan will mean several more years spent doing the same things and expecting different results for all sides involved.