September 2015 saw the Taliban seize control of the key northern provincial capital of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in a major victory for them after their hard-line Islamist movement was toppled from power in 2001. Taliban fighters hoisted their flag over Traffic Square, the main intersection of the city of around 300,000 people.
“The insurgents launched a surprise, three-pronged offensive before dawn and by evening had captured the governor’s compound and provincial police headquarters”, said Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban.
Shortly after, the Defence Ministry injected new troops into the area while residents said soldiers were conducting house-to-house searches and had removed the Taliban flag from the central square, replacing it with government colours. It was the first report of on-the-ground clashes between the Taliban and foreign troops supporting their Afghan allies during heavy fighting for control of the strategic city of 300,000. Wahidullah Mayar, a spokesman for the Public Health Ministry said on Twitter that 30 people had been killed and 340 injured in Kunduz fighting, with around 90% of them believed to be civilians. Many fled during the surprise attack but thousands still remain trapped. Beleaguered security forces in Kunduz had been banking on support from other provinces, but in a well-coordinated operation, the Taliban disrupted some supply routes.
Battles between government forces and the Taliban were raging about 500 metres from the governor’s compound, the deputy governor said, after he had fled to the city’s airport where Afghan forces were regrouping. Shortly afterwards Zabiullah Mujahid stated on Twitter that “Our fighters are now advancing toward the airport”. A senior Afghan security official said about 100 members of U.S. special forces fought off Taliban attackers threatening to breach the airport. Wreckage from the battle was visible outside.
Soon U.S. military planes hit Taliban positions on the outskirts of the city in order to defend it and to eliminate threat to coalition and Afghan forces operating within the vicinity. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency said in a statement that an airstrike had killed Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Kunduz and 15 others on the outskirts of the airport.
However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said, in a post on Twitter, that insurgent fighters had seized control of a 200 bed hospital in a district in the south of the city. The Afghan Ministry of Defence said that Taliban fighters had attacked the hospital and were using the building ‘as a human shield’ after it was hit by a U.S. air strike in response, but the medical group Doctors without Borders (MSF) denied this, pointing out that it would be a war crime not to treat the wounded. MSF also implied that the US intentionally launched air strikes in an attempt to kill civilians.
US President Barack Obama called President Ashraf Ghani and MSF President Joanne Liu to express regret for the loss of life in the attack that killed 22 people and injured 37 others. Earlier, MSF called for an independent international commission to investigate the attack, which it deems a war crime. The medical charity said that the inquiry would gather facts and evidence from the US, NATO and Afghanistan, as well as testimonies from MSF staff and patients who survived the attack. Only then would MSF consider whether to bring criminal charges for loss of life and partial destruction of its trauma hospital, which has left tens of thousands of Afghans without access to healthcare, it said. “If we let this go, as if [this] was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank cheque to any countries who are at war,” Liu said in a news briefing. Earnest said Obama told the group that the US, if necessary, would make changes so such incidents are less likely to happen again.
A predominantly Pashtun movement, the Taliban came to prominence in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1994. The Taliban’s promise – in Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan – was to restore peace and security and enforce their own version of Sharia, or Islamic law which had once been in power. While the Taliban present themselves as a reform movement, they have been criticized by Islamic scholars as being poorly educated in Islamic law and history and even in Islamic radicalism, which has a long history of scholarly writing and debate. Their implementation of Islamic law seems to be a combination of Wahhabi orthodoxy and tribal custom. However the Taliban is finding itself an increasingly splintered organisation that is also threatened by the rise of Isis.
In July 2015, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency announced that it believed that Taliban leader and founder, Mullah Omar, died in 2013 in Pakistan. Rumours of his death had been frequent, and he had not been seen for several years. The Taliban confirmed Omar’s death and on July 31st announced that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had taken over as the group’s supreme leader.
It was the second time in the year that the Taliban have besieged Kunduz, a city defended by Afghan forces battling largely without NATO’s support after it officially ended its combat role in Afghanistan last year. NATO had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at its peak, but most had withdrawn by the end of 2014 and the now much smaller mission is designed to “train, assist and advise” local forces. However fighting continued throughout the city, which raised questions over whether NATO-trained Afghan forces were ready to go out alone now most foreign combat troops have left.
The assault came a day before President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government marks its first anniversary, and will further complicate efforts to resume stalled peace negotiations and acts as a significant embarrassment to Ghani’s government. In Kabul, Afghan lawmakers called on Ghani to resign over his government’s “shameful” handling of the battle, whose first year in office has been marred by political infighting and escalating violence. Ghani announced in a televised address that more reinforcements were on their way to regain the city, which he said had fallen partly because government troops had shown restraint to avoid civilian casualties. “The government is responsible, and cannot and will not bomb its own citizens.” Questions concerning how ready Afghan forces were to tackle the insurgency alone began to rise.
Despite assurances by the Afghan government that progress was being made in Kunduz, the assault marks a troubling development in the insurgency. The lack of reinforcements as Taliban fighters dug into positions around the city and mined roads to prevent reinforcements from reaching weary Afghan forces point to a potentially long and bloody fight.
The colours on the flagpole over Traffic Square, the city’s central square, have changed four times since the fall of the city, according to local officials, as the front line moved back and forth, ending up with the Taliban’s white flag, according to residents in the area reached by telephone.
Residents of Kunduz managed to come out of their homes in a secure environment to buy necessary household items and take a peaceful breath,” said Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, at a news conference in Kabul. However, a military officer stationed in the centre of Kunduz said that claim was inaccurate. “None of the streets in the south or north of the city are secure enough for our security forces to walk on,” he said. “As soon as they go out on the street, they get attacked.” Residents, as a result, were staying indoors in most of the city, he said.
The fall of the provincial capital, Kunduz City, to the Taliban was partly born of years of disgust with and distrust in the main representatives of the central government there: a succession of corrupt or ineffective governors and aides, and a horde of Afghan Local Police militiamen who were more often abusive than responsible. Individual units tended to be from a single ethnicity: Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara or Turkmen. So rather than each group reflecting the diversity of the province, they reflected its divisions. Most often those they intimidated were Pashtuns, who were often seen as allied with the Taliban whether they were or not. That in turn made Pashtuns more hostile to the government and heightened their feeling of being ethnically disadvantaged in Kunduz.
In one sign of how disaffected some in Kunduz had become, when the Taliban came knocking on people’s doors, some residents opened them and let them in, according to local officials and witness accounts. For Kunduz residents, it all added up to a lot of men with guns.
Kunduz Province is a microcosm of Afghanistan with its ethnic patchwork, its long history of armed commanders of all stripes, and its uneasy relationship with the central government. It is also a strategic key to controlling north eastern Afghanistan, with roads that lead north to the Tajikistan border and south to Kabul. It is a place the government can ill afford to lose.
The city has been only partly reclaimed by the Afghan security forces and Afghan generals say the city will not be truly safe until all of Kunduz Province is reclaimed. Locals believe that too.
Image credit: flickr.com/dvids