The Debacle In Kunduz
One could not help feel horror as the battle over the northern city of Kunduz unfolded a month back, in end September, the first provincial capital to fall to the militants since they were routed by the United States in the war after September 2011
A series of deadly and apparently coordinated attacks in Kabul suggested that the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces, less than a year ago was no better or simpler than it was during the decade long, large scale western military deployment in the country. Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan had made peace talks with the Taliban a priority since he was elected in September last year. No one guessed then that its culmination would be the attack on Kunduz. It would not be unkind to say that President Ashraf Ghani like the proverbial ostrich had buried his head in the sands of Kunduz.
The weakness of the Afghan State is nothing new. But the latent violence tests the proposition that a consolidated array of Afghan Security forces, police and army would be able to keep the Taliban in check after the withdrawal of western troops. There are echoes of the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq in today’s Afghanistan.
One could not help feel horror as the battle over the northern city of Kunduz unfolded a month back, in end September, the first provincial capital to fall to the militants since they were routed by the United States in the war after September 2011. United States war planes were back in the first week of October 2015, conducting air strikes, while Special operations forces were on the ground helping the Afghan Government’s struggling security forces reclaim Kunduz. Nearly a year after the official end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan, this military failure confirms the worst fears about the weakness of the Afghan forces. Some 7000 Afghan security forces and militias were overcome by far fewer Taliban in Kunduz. This victory of the Taliban could embolden the insurgents as well as radicals like the ISIS, to undermine an Afghan government, that however flawed, still offers some chance of stabilizing the country. For the United States, to provide emergency assistance in the fight for Kunduz is one thing. But it must not be drawn back into a war that cannot be ended except by the Afghan government itself. Yet there are signs that this is happening as the security situation has deteriorated according to Gen. John Campbell who commands the NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. Tactical air strikes will help in retaking Kunduz. However, there has to be trained ground forces willing to take the field. Pakistan’s continuing support for the Taliban and its refusal to press the militants to engage in serious peace talks is a major obstacle in resolving this issue. While that and other challenges may be beyond the Government’s control, the reality remains, that the Afghan Security forces have a very high attrition rate, have suffered a fifty percent increase in casualties in the first six months of this year and have been spread thin as the Taliban has opened new frontiers in all parts of Afghanistan.
In a report exactly an year ago there was a clear indication of what has happened in Kunduz recently. With just two months left before the formal end of the thirteen year old combat mission, western officials then insisted in September 2014, that the Afghan force had managed to contain the Taliban. However, the gains made by the Taliban in Kunduz last year presented a different picture. The government under Ashraf Ghani had then acknowledged that the situation in Kunduz was at par with the major battle fronts in the Taliban heavy, south and east. Troop reinforcements were sent from Mazar-e Sharief then. The then Defence Ministry statistics showed a huge rise in combat deaths for the Afghan army and Police forces. The losses in Kunduz pointed out a deeper than expected concern about the ability of the security forces to hold the territory without western troops directly entering the fight. Local residents and officials in three of the previous most challenged areas, Chahar Dara, Dasht-e-Archi and Iman Sahib districts describe a military and police force unable to mount effective operations. Rather than pushing back on the ground, Afghan forces have opted to shell areas under Taliban control, which led to the death of more than a dozen civilians, villagers claimed. The Taliban can take the city anytime they want to, said Haji Aman, a business man in Kunduz. This was exactly a year ago.
Kunduz province is a vital but chaotic crossroads in northern Afghanistan and even when the Taliban had posed a lesser threat, criminal networks had kept it tumultuous. Security, deteriorated there significantly in 2008-2009 amid a heavy Taliban push as coalition forces concentrated their efforts in the south and east. In a regional troop surge, which began in 2010, the United States deployed three thousand troops in north-east Afghanistan and kept up operations there till 2011. The gains made during that period in the last few months. Seem to have all but evaporated.
The fighting in Kunduz did not start this year. Leading the charge of the Taliban, is Mullah Abdul Salam, a native of Kunduz, who was the insurgent’s shadow governor before his arrest by Pakistani forces in 2010. He was set free in a negotiated prisoner release in 2013. Under his leadership this summer, the insurgents have been trying new tactics, showing flexibility in governing rather than relying on fear. Residents and an aid official said that local Taliban commanders had been letting local schools to function and even distributed pens and notebooks even in girl school which were often targets for violence under the earlier Taliban rule in the 1990’s. Insurgents had even given their blessing for international development projects in some areas, formerly unthinkable. They had a parallel system to the government that even approved development projects. A US Aid contractor said, on condition of anonymity-“We cannot do anything without Taliban approval.”Some residents said that Taliban justice had already proved more than that offered by the Government. Their justice is quick and they do what they say. On the military side, the locals said that the Taliban had overrun about 20 police checkpoints in the district since the summer.
In the background of the above paragraphs it is clear that the Afghan army was not capable of holding control against the Afghan Taliban on their own. Obviously there has been a very wrong assessment of the capabilities of the Afghan Army to stand up to the Taliban.
Since early September, the Taliban has swept through north Afghanistan, seizing numerous districts and even briefly, the provincial capital-Kunduz; The United Nations has determined that the Taliban threat to approximately half of the country’s 398 districts is either high or extreme. Indeed by our count, more than thirty districts are already under Taliban control. The insurgents are currently threatening provincial capitals in both north and south Afghanistan. Confronted with this grim reality the United States has decided to keep 9800 US troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016. And 5500 thereafter. The United States has changed course but it is difficult to see how much of a difference this small force can make. The United States troops now in Afghanistan have not been able to thwart the Taliban’s advance. They were able to push them out of Kunduz, but only after a Taliban two week reign of terror. The obvious suggestion is that more troops are needed.
“Allah has promised us victory and the United States has promised us defeat,” Mullah Muhammad Omar,the first head of the Taliban once said. “We shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.” In Afghanistan today, though the majority of Afghans do not identify with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s bold defiance in the face of a superpower is beginning to look prescient. Since early September, the Taliban has swept through north Afghanistan, seizing numerous districts and even briefly the provincial; capital-Kunduz. The United Nations has determined that the Taliban threat to approximately half of the country’s398 districts is either high or extreme. Indeed by our count more than three hundred districts are under Taliban control. And the insurgents are currently threatening provincial capitals in both north and south Afghanistan.
Confronted with this grim reality the United States has decided to keep 9800 United States troops in Afghanistan through much of 2016, and 5500 thereafter. The Unitede States has changed course, but it is difficult to see how much of a difference this small force can make. The U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, have not been able to thwart the Taliban’s advance. They were able to help them push the Taliban out of Kunduz, but only after a Taliban two week reign of terror. The obvious suggestion is that more troops are needed, not fewer.
When justifying his decision last, the President explained that United States troops would remain engaged in two narrow but critical missions-training Afghan forces and supporting Counter terrorism operations against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. But the President has not explained, the full scope of what is at stake. Al Qaeda has already re-emerged. Just two days before the U.S. President’s talk, the Army announced that it had led raids against the Al Qaeda training camps in the south, one of which was an astonishing thirty square miles in size! The operation lasted several days and involved 63 air strikes and more than two hundred ground troops. The army said that they had struck a major Al Qaeda sanctuary in the centre of the Taliban’s heart land. Recently Hossain Abdul Rauf, a chief lieutenant of the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, confirmed in an audio message, that Qaeda’s senior leadership had relocated out of northern Pakistan. The Taliban are not hiding their continuing alliance with Al Qaeda. In August, Mr. Zawahiri pledged his alliance to Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Muhammed Manzoor. Within hours, Mullah Manzoor publicly acknowledged the esteemed Mr. Zawahiri’s oath of fealty. Al Qaeda played a significant role in the Taliban led assault on Kunduz. The United States made many mistaks in the 9/11 wars. After routing the Talibanand Al Qaeda,in late 2001, the United States did not dedicate the resources necessary tom finish the fight against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda.
It is very clear that the United States has lost the game after putting down the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, by withdrawing their forces too soon and not gauging the capability of the Afghan forces to measure up to the persistence and the determination of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. They have not assessed the capabilities of the Afghan forces. The result is that the hard work done by the United States Military has been frittered away by pulling them out too soon. This has enabled both the Taliban and the Al Qaeda to recoup. The Afghan army and Para military forces just do not have the resolution to stand up to the religious zeal of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. The only solution is for the United States Government to extend the deployment of their troops till the Taliban and the Al Qaeda are decimated and reduced to a situation where they would not be able to revive.
By E N Rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF)