Why The Battle Between Afghan Forces and The Taliban For Kunduz City Matters

Taliban militants captured Afghanistan's northern city of Kunduz in a dawn offensive on Monday, releasing more than 600 prisoners, including 140 Taliban fighters, and forcing Afghan troops into a swift counter-attack backed by NATO forces and U.S.

Afghan government forces recaptured parts of the provincial capital's center on Thursday, two government officials said, but the Taliban denied that it had been forced out of these areas.

The Taliban's lightning advance on the city, which had been under attack for several months, and the speed of its fall, sent shockwaves through Kabul's Western-backed government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, who has endured a difficult first year in power after the transition from NATO forces to full Afghan security control. But why is the battle for control of Kunduz between Afghan forces and the Taliban significant?

First city to fall to the Taliban since 2001

Kunduz represents the first major city to fall to the Islamic insurgents since the onset of the war in the country in October 2001, when U.S.-led forces invaded the country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and toppled the Taliban's rule. Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, also holds symbolic value because it was the last to be wrestled from Taliban control when it fell on November 26, 2001, after an assault by the rebel Northern Alliance, supported by U.S. Special Forces.

Taliban still strong after Mullah Omar's death

In July, it was announced that the group's secretive Supreme Leader, Mullah Omar, died two years ago. The Taliban later admitted covering up his death for tactical reasons. The announcement had the potential to erode some of the group's fear factor but the militants quickly returned to carrying out attacks against Afghan forces and picked a new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.

The capture of Kunduz demonstrates that the group remains strong in the country and has the ability to remove Kabul's forces from key territory, says Emily Winterbotham, research fellow of international security studies at U.K.-based security think tank Royal United Services Institute.

"It's just another affirmation of the Taliban's strength," she says of Kunduz. "I've always believed that 2015 was going to be a strong fighting season. With peace off the agenda and with no next steps in relation to the peace process it demonstrates that the Taliban is potentially more in a fighting mode than a talking mode."

Weakness of the Afghan forces

While the U.S. retains 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in a training capacity, the Afghan security forces have taken the lead on keeping the Taliban insurgents at bay after NATO forces departed the country at the end of last year. The loss of a major city to the Taliban for the first time in 14 years is an embarrassing setback for Kabul's NATO-trained forces, regardless of the outcome of the battle for the city, adds Winterbotham.

"It is another wake-up call for the Afghan government and for its NATO allies that the Afghan forces are still struggling to really defeat the Taliban and are still being pushed to a very defensive position," she says. "It is obviously demonstrating their increasing inability to fight on a number of different fronts."

Mixed peace prospects going forward

With the announcement of Mansour as the new Taliban leader, planned peace talks between Kabul and the militant group were pushed to the side despite holding a first round of discussions in Pakistan in July. Fighting has continued with the group capturing and then losing the strategic districtof Musa Kala in the southern province of Helmand last month. The reaction of different factions within the Taliban to the capture of Kunduz and the influence they wield over the group's new leader may shape the peace process in the coming months.

"You could still have a peace process next year but if the Taliban deems itself to be in a position of considerable strength, there will be the hardliners in the movement who gain the ascendancy who say we don't need to have talks because we can win militarily," says Winterbotham.

"On the other hand, there will be the more pragmatic section of the Taliban who would use it as a bargaining tool. It doesn't necessarily scupper the peace process, it could change the concessions that are being made in any peace process."

Time for Afghanistan's new President to show leadership

Ghani faced a monumental task in coming to power and forming a unity government that could rule in Afghanistan. His key election opponent in last year's election, Abdullah Abdullah, holds the role of chief executive in the government and disagreements delayed the appointment of a cabinet for months, an instability that served to embolden the Taliban. There is an interim defense minister in place, but Ghani has yet to fill the role permanently because of the disagreements, crippling policy-making in regard to the country's security.

While this instability has served as his biggest test, the battle to recapture Kunduz is the time for him to show leadership, Winterbotham concludes.

"It has been a tough year for him all round," she says. "These military defeats are symbolically and strategically important and they don't do anything to boost morale in the country but I would imagine he would have been preparing for a very tough fighting season in any case."

"This is a challenge of a different nature. Let's see what happens over the coming weeks. I don't imagine the Taliban will be able to hold Kunduz, especially now we have NATO forces in there," she adds. "However, he will be patently aware that he needs to re-engage and step up again in relation to the peace process because that's the only way that we are going to see a significant level in reduction in violence in the coming months."