The Battle for Kunduz
Summary: The Taliban launch ground operations in Kunduz province. The capital may be surrounded, but Kunduz will not be allowed to fall. An inconclusive stalemate may ultimately favour the government in the long-term
Since the 24th April, Taliban fighters have been engaged in large-scale ground operations in Kunduz (aka Konduz) province, reportedly surrounding the province capital (also called Kunduz). The action is part of the Taliban-announced and anticipated commencement of “Spring Operations”, which they declare every year and came a few days after this declaration.
Fighting looks to have taken the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by surprise, certainly according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The Taliban are broadly pushing in towards the Kunduz city, in the centre of the province, from the north and south, with some early gains outside the capital being made in the districts of Chahara Dara, Imam Sahib and Aliabad.
New York Times, 28 April 2015: The Afghan government has rushed thousands of troops to the northern province of Kunduz in recent days as a fierce Taliban offensive has surrounded the regional capital city, officials said. An entire battalion of the Afghan National Army was reported to be surrounded by the insurgents, and the authorities stripped troops from other provinces to reinforce Kunduz.
There have been many reports of the limited capabilities of the ANSF – local forces being ill-equipped, under-supplied and un-supported.
New York Times, 28 April 2015: Of the other districts under fire, Imam Sahib, to the north, has been the worst hit. Large numbers of insurgents, including Uzbek, Tajik and Chechen militants, advanced on the district center from three directions, according to Amanuddin Qureshi, the district governor, who has fled the government center there.
At a military base in Imam Sahib, the insurgents have cut roads and supply routes, and one battalion of about 400 Afghan National Army soldiers is surrounded, with resupply possible only by air, according to Mr. Qureshi and two other local officials. But Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kabul, insisted that the battalion had not been stranded. “If we don’t get reinforcements, the town will fall into the hands of the Taliban,” Mr. Qureshi warned in a telephone interview.
In response, the BBC reported on 7th May noted that the ANSF had “launched a major offensive”against the Taliban. At this stage the city appears to be cut off and many thousands of the civilian population have been displaced.
Analysis and Outlook
This is a large and reasonably bold Taliban offensive, the scale of which I do not think I have seen in the north-east of the country for many years. Weaknesses within the ANSF – morale, training, logistical failings, planning – have been well-documented. ISAF pulled out last year and only a residual force of US troops remain, seemingly determined to avoid getting sucked in. BBC reporting on 7 May 2015 stated currently that the only safe way into the provincial capital is by flying. Much of the local populace has been displaced by the fighting, with international agencies attempting to assist.
Reports also suggest the fighters loyal to Islamic State (IS) might also be operating alongside the Taliban.
This apparent emergence of IS in Afghanistan is a new and worrying development, but we should treat this with some caution at present. It is difficult to give an accurate assessment on the extent of this IS presence. This may be little more than disgruntled local insurgent fighters attempting to find a more successful “brand” to attach themselves to reinvigorate morale and resources. It is plausible that some Taliban and local insurgent groups are shifting their allegiance to a force considered more powerful and more fundamentalist. But does this mean the Taliban are going to benefit from this, or face a fragmentation of their forces and perhaps even an inter-insurgent civil war?
But it does also highlight a wider problem of getting access to reliable reporting. Since ISAF withdrew its provincial and district outposts and media interest in Afghanistan has declined, we are now dependent on less reliable Afghan government and local security force claims. Are there thousands of Taliban fighters or hundreds? Local government officials are prone to exaggerate problems (“we are surrounded”, “IS and Chechens are here”, “we need reinforcements”, etc) in the hope of gaining more resources.
Ruttig mentioned the myth that “Chechen” fighters had ever been involved in fighting in Afghanistan (presumably either with the Taliban, HIG, Haqqani or Al Qaeda). He said he had researched every lead and suggestion and found them wanting. As far as he was concerned, the Chechens had never fought in Afghanistan.
Determining whether an area has been “captured” amidst the claims and counter-claims is problematic – particularly when the definition is often based simply on whose flag may or may not be flying from the district police station.
It seems like an initial shock for the ANSF is turning into a stalemate. One analyst at least thinks Kunduz might be a decoy and that Taliban operations in the south – Helmand and Kandahar – might be the next step for the Taliban. I do not think that Kunduz will “fall” as such, but this a larger operation from the insurgents. It goes beyond the more “traditional” Spring operations of complex urban attacks and suicide bombings.
There are light echoes of 1989 here. Then, the victorious Mujahideen, buoyed and over-confident following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, flung themselves into an ill-considered, poorly planned and ultimately very costly, ground assault against Jalalabad. The government forces were predicted to collapse but, dug-in and well-resourced, courtesy of the departing Russians, inflicted thousands of casualties on the Mujahideen in an embarrassing defeat. The US is avoiding involvement at present but if the situation deteriorated further, I am sure the ANSF would not be allowed to fail. An unresolved stalemate might weaken Taliban morale at a time when they are trying to demonstrate power while engaging in tentative talks with the Afghan government in Qatar.