The Fall of Kunduz to the Taliban Is a Sign of Things to Come

Afghan security forces and volunteer militias
Afghan security forces and volunteer militias re-group on their way to Kunduz, Afghanistan to fight against Taliban fighters, October 1. The new leader of the Afghan Taliban says their capture of the northern city of Kunduz was a "symbolic victory" that showed the strength of the insurgency even though the Taliban pulled out of the city after three days. Naim Rahimi/AP

The people of Taloqan are trapped. "We are hearing the sounds of the Taliban, we can hear gunshots in the middle of the night," says engineering student Abobaker Seyar, speaking on a crackling phone line from the city of 73,000 people in the north of Afghanistan. "My family is worried. We are in danger, but we cannot go to Kabul because the roads are blocked."

Taloqan is an hour's drive east from the city of Kunduz, which Taliban insurgents, after multiple attempts, seized on September 28. In the chaos that followed, U.S. air forces mistakenly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital on October 3, killing at least 22 people. The Taliban remain in parts of the city and have pushed into other districts, getting ever closer to Taloqan. "They are so close to [us], they are attacking, and the people are very worried," says Seyar. "We don't have any security. We don't have any military. The electricity has been destroyed and the schools and mosques are closed."

The amount of territory the Taliban control in Afghanistan tends to ebb and flow as they launch frequent fresh offensives, but Thomas Ruttig, co-director and co-founder of the research organization the Afghanistan Analysts Network, notes that it has "increased its activities and scope of territory covered almost year-by-year since 2001." What sets the current offensive apart, however, is that the group is showing more ambition and has altered its strategy. "This time around, the Taliban is targeting urban spaces, whereas previously it was going for rural and largely remote areas," says Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.based policy forum focused on global issues.

The fall of Kunduz—home to 157,000 people—seemed to be a sign not only of the Taliban's new intent but also their capabilities. On October 4, the group launched an attack on Maimana, the capital of nearby Faryab province and home to 84,000 people. Government forces repelled the Taliban fighters, but they remain in the province, prompting fears that another assault is coming. This focus on the north of the country also marks a geographical refocusing for the Taliban, whose strongholds traditionally lie in the south and the east. According to the Long War Journal, a website that reports on the wars following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, of the 11 far northern areas the Taliban are believed to hold, nine were taken or retaken by the militants recently. These gains pose two questions: Why the change in strategy, and how are the Taliban making progress in a traditional government stronghold?

In northeast Afghanistan is Badakshan province, which extends, fingerlike, along the border with Tajikistan until it touches western China. There the Taliban, according to the Long War Journal, currently holds three districts. To the west of Badakshan is Takhar, whose capital is Taloqan. And to the west of Takhar is Baghlan province, which sits directly south of Kunduz. The Afghanistan Analysts Network describes one district of Baghlan, home to an estimated 70,000 people, as "Taliban-infested."

The Taliban's presence in these four provinces makes economic sense. The roads here constitute one of three major smuggling routes in Afghanistan for the country's vast illicit opium and heroin production business. The route leads through Central Asia to Russia and the rest of Europe. According to the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, drug smuggling is a major source of revenue for the Taliban.

A presence in the north also grants the Taliban sway over an area of increasing geopolitical importance. "Northern Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asiaan energy-rich region where a new 'great game' is being played out by China, Russia, the U.S. and other nations," says Kugelman. "By building up a stronghold in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban can impact major geopolitical trends in an area of great international import." A base in the north also keeps the Taliban close to allies in Central Asia. In August, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, announced that its fighters in Kunduz had sworn loyalty to the Taliban, according to the Long War Journal. And later the IJU said that they had fought in the assault on Kunduz.

The push into the north is also giving the Taliban a propaganda boost. The region is traditionally considered home to ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Shia Hazaras, all united in opposition to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.

By showing that they can take districts in the north, as well as a major city, the Taliban seem to be demonstrating the full extent of its growing power. "The psychology of the Taliban taking Kunduz is huge," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Speaking to Newsweek from Kabul, she adds: "[Kunduz's] impact is far bigger than the Taliban's push in Musa Qala [Helmand province] this year or last year."

Who's to blame for this northern surge? Waiting anxiously in Puli Khumri, the capital of Baghlan, civil society activist Atef Arefyan thinks he has the answer. "There aren't enough security forces in Baghlan," says Arefyan, who worked for the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission during the 2005 Afghan parliamentary elections and the Electoral Complaints Commission during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2010 respectively. "We asked Kabul to send more forces, but none have arrived." Arefyan is ready to flee should the Taliban come any closer. He says that if Taliban fighters find him and identify him as a former employee of two electoral commissions, they will kill him. He says they are now just three miles away.

Afghan security officer
An Afghan security officer walks past a Taliban fighter's dead body after retaking Kunduz from the insurgent group on October 4, 2015. Afghan officials said 150 Taliban militants were killed and dozens of others wounded in the operation in northern Kunduz. Jawed Dehsabzi/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The Taliban's assault on Kunduz came on the eve of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's one-year anniversary in power and appeared to be timed to emphasize the weaknesses of the current administration. Critics have noted that Ghani is yet to appoint a defense minister. On July 4, the Afghan parliament rejected Ghani's third nominee for the role, indicating, perhaps, that he has little control of parliament.

Parliamentary discord isn't Afghanistan's only concern. According to the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International, corruption is a major problem in the country. In 2014, the organization placed Afghanistan's public sector third from last in its global Corruption Perceptions Index. On December 4, a day after the report was published, Ghani told delegates at a conference in London: "You, our partners, do not need to remind us that corruption is a problem."

Afghanistan's security forces have come under particular criticism. "There are serious problems of corruption and combat motivation among Afghan security forces, especially the police," says Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, which is based in New York. Following reports that government forces apparently abandoned Kunduz, Ghani said in a statement published October 1 that "those who have neglected their duties will be punished."

For now, Kabul has some valuable allies in its war against the Taliban. U.S. and NATO troops have a continued presence in the country, though the latter now only train, advise and assist. While U.S. forces are carrying out bombing raids against the Taliban, the number of troops in the country has fallen, down to 9,800 from a high of 100,000 in 2011. The U.S. has also reduced its amount of airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Those U.S. strikes can mean the difference between victory and defeat. U.S. bombing attacks on Taliban forces in Kunduz and Badakshan prevented more of the north falling into Taliban hands and allowed Afghan forces to retake much of Kunduz, says Felbab-Brown. "Significant reductions in U.S. assistance in troops or intel and air support will greatly increase the chances that major successes of the Taliban...will happen again," she adds.

U.S. forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2016. The withdrawal would inevitably reduce the government's defensive capabilities, and it could give the Taliban the expectation that they will face even less opposition once the U.S. has left. Scheduled withdrawals, Biddle says, can have a secondary effect of postponing settlement talks. Knowing that U.S. troops will be out of the country soon, the Taliban are likely to wait and see what the consequences of full withdrawal are before going to the negotiating table with serious intent.

This leaves the Ghani government in a difficult position as it begins its second year. Buoyed by their initial success, the Taliban show no sign of giving up on northern Afghanistan. According to the Long War Journal, the group is still contesting 11 districts in Badakshan, Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhar, as well as 25 others across Afghanistan.

Increasingly this will be a fight between Afghan forces and the Taliban. Though the U.S. is willing to provide some support, the Afghan government can no longer rely on the international intervention it received in former years. But in order to combat the insurgents, the administration will need to improve its security forces, which Kugelman describes as "not up for the task." When the estimated 500 Taliban militants stormed Kunduz, thousands of Afghan troops fled. As the group turns its attentions to regions elsewhere in the north, the government will need to ensure that the country's protectors stand their ground.