The capture of Kunduz is the Taliban movement’s greatest military success since 2001, and the fact that the Taliban held on to Afghanistan’s fifth largest city for several days is already being referred to as a turning point in the US and NATO’s 14-year war in Afghanistan. Against this background, President Obama’s decision regarding the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 is being perceived by many Afghans as a betrayal. America is sentencing the country to an escalation of the civil war.
Kunduz fell under the attack of just a few hundred Taliban fighters, yet the total number of Afghan security forces in the region is more than 5,000. It is impossible to suggest that the militants onslaught on the provincial administrative centre was unexpected. The fact that large numbers of Taliban fighters from many Afghan regions were gathering around Kunduz was known since the spring, but the local authorities’ repeated calls for help received no response from Kabul. This forced one part of the population to flee, and the other to side with the militants. For almost six months, the province has been in the hands of Taliban fighters and out of Kabul’s control. Throughout the occupied territory, the Taliban has established its rules and laws, appointed local administration leaders and imposed taxes. Militant training camps have also been relocated there, of which there are currently more than 30 in northern Afghanistan. And the most surprising is the lack of a military response from the US and NATO, which have combat aircraft in Afghanistan.
An international scandal is currently erupting around entirely different US air operations. In Kunduz, a hospital run by the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières came under bombardment. Twelve hospital staff and ten patients were killed, including three children, and another 37 people, both staff and patients, were injured. Local authorities stated that the Americans attacked the hospital from the air because a band of Taliban fighters had allegedly taken cover there. According to international humanitarian law, however, medical facilities must be protected at all times. The UN referred to the airstrikes on the Kunduz hospital as «inexcusable and possibly even criminal», while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a thorough and impartial investigation. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also called for an objective investigation to be carried out. «We strongly condemn the airstrike against this civilian facility. We demand an immediate, objective investigation into the incident and the punishment of those guilty of this tragedy», said a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The US military has admitted that an unintentional damage to the hospital may have been caused during an air raid against Taliban fighters. Sadly, it is not the first time that civilians have been killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan. There is also another thing that is surprising – America’s indifference to the fact that the whole Afghan region had fallen into the hands of the Taliban. After all, US and NATO forces had been doing nothing to combat the Taliban until the fall of Kunduz.
Kunduz has shown that the Afghan military – having fled the onslaught of small groups of militants – is unable to put up resistance to the Taliban. A similar picture can also be observed in other parts of Afghanistan. Previously, in the south of the country, the Taliban seized the region of Musa Qala in Helmand Province and was only pushed back by Afghan forces a few days later following 24 US airstrikes. In addition, the Afghan government is insisting that the US continue to finance its army. The creation and training of Afghan security forces numbering some 350,000 has cost the United States more than $60 billion, but Kabul is requesting supplemental appropriations «in the new environment».
The Afghan government names organised replacement of Taliban leaders as one of the features of this new environment. According to Kabul, the movement’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was allegedly planning to set up operations in Kunduz. This was reported by the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army, Lieutenant General Murad Ali Murad. According to the Lieutenant General, the Taliban was planning to take control of Kunduz and move Mullah Mansoor there. It also intended to set up a press conference with Mullah to show his presence in Afghanistan. The Lieutenant General said nothing, however, about the low combat capabilities of the troops under his command. He blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which – he believes – is still directing the activities of anti-government forces in Afghanistan, for the militants’ well-organised attack. You might think that the onslaught came as a complete surprise to the General Staff of the Afghan Army. Does it also remain a secret to Afghanistan’s military command that the number of Islamic State (IS) supporters in the ranks of the armed opposition has risen sharply?
According to UN experts, the number of Afghans who sympathise with the group and want to join its ranks has increased in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces. There are already a number of regions where the Taliban is working with IS militants in operations against government forces. Recent military operations in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar resulted in the deaths of 20 Islamic State militants. Local authorities are expressing serious concerns that like the Taliban in Kunduz, IS militants may attempt to seize Jalalabad. It is more than likely that after Kunduz, there may be a tactical shift in the activities of Afghanistan’s armed opposition. Rather than raids, ambushes and sabotage, militants are starting to seize populated areas more and more.
On the evening of 4 October, the city of Maymana, the administrative centre of Faryab Province, was subjected to a large-scale attack by Taliban militants. In many ways, the circumstances were reminiscent of the recent attack on Kunduz: militants attacked the city from three sides. This time around, Afghan security forces were able to withstand the Taliban’s onslaught, although Taliban militants remain on the outskirts of the city. You will note that this province, just like Kunduz, is located in the north of Afghanistan. It is there that the Taliban is embarking on a series of attempts to seize control of populated areas. The day before, Taliban militants captured the district of Kohistanat in the northern Afghan province of Sar-e Pol. Local authorities asked the government to send reinforcements but their request was once again ignored and as a result, the district came under the control of the Taliban. In this instance, two hundred members of the Afghan security forces were surrounded by militants. As yet, there has been no military response by the US to these events, which are happening relatively close to Russia’s southern borders.
Is Moscow going to have to take the situation under its direct control as it has done in Syria? The fact that Taliban and IS militants have not yet formed a terrorist alliance should not make us complacent. Everywhere, the US fight against terrorism has faced a lack of understanding by the local population. In Afghanistan, America’s actions during the 14 years that US troops have been there have added nothing new to this. In 2001, the fight against the Taliban began in Kunduz and in 2015 the city had to be liberated again.