In the early mornings of September 28th, the Taliban launched a surprise attack on the strategic northern city of Kunduz. By the end of the day, the city had fallen to Taliban control. As Afghan forces retreated to the nearby airport, an attempt to recapture the city with American and NATO reinforcements failed. As the battle for Kunduz raged on, the Taliban launched another offensive on the city of Baghlan, near a former NATO base. Could this be the beginning of a series of attacks by the Taliban across the country?
Why is it important?
Even though most of the media’s focus has shifted from Afghanistan in the past decade to new global hot spots, the occupation of a major city center by the Taliban since their downfall in 2001 marks a turning point in the Afghan war. This can be a foreshadowing of what is to come. There are four major points behind this strategic Taliban offensive.
The US and NATO Campaign Ended, Right?
October 7th will mark the 14th year of the war in Afghanistan by the US-led coalition. The Afghan campaign has been the longest war in US history and was officially “concluded” in December 2014. Yet a sizable contingent of American and NATO forces are still remaining until the end of 2016 in an advisory/training role. The US ended the war on the basis that the Taliban were reduced in threat and the Afghan government forces had reached a level of quality and quantity to carry out operations on their own. Yet despite these claims, the Afghan troops have suffered its highest casualty rates thus far.
Despite all the money and effort placed into training and preparing the Afghan forces for the past 14 years it appears it was of very little benefit. The US and NATO plan of withdrawal by the end of 2016 will now be questioned. The problem is the US and other foreign countries could never go on fighting forever. If the massive contingent of foreign forces could not achieve peace, how could a fraction of that force accomplish it?
New Taliban Leadership
Earlier this year, the Afghan government announced the death of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Shortly after, the Taliban confirmed that the leader had died “some time ago”. The death sparked an internal succession battle within the Taliban. On one side of the battle are Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, and the other Mullah Omar’s brother and son. Even though the leadership council eventually elected Mullah Mansoor to head the insurgency, the cohesion and unity that was preserved by the one-eyed mystic leader of the Taliban began to unravel.
In order to refocus the insurgency back on the war and away from a potential split, it is of no surprise that Mullah Mansoor orchestrated such a brazen attack on Kunduz to help create a “rally around the leader” effect. This attack can be seen as a way to divert the insurgents from the internal squabble by focusing on the front lines again. The quick and sudden victory by the Taliban only helps further legitimize his authority amongst the rank and file of the Taliban.
The death of Mullah Omar not only created dissent amongst the Taliban’s leadership but also a power vacuum in Afghanistan. Chaotic and anarchical war zones create the ideal condition for even more extreme groups to join the fray, enter Islamic State (IS). IS stepped into Afghan (or Khorasan as IS refers to the region’s ancient name) scene emboldened by the conditions on the ground. Not only were they willing to take on the US-backed government but the Taliban as well. Several clashes this year demonstrated the brutality they were willing to exert on anyone in their way.
The combination of a rival insurgent group as well as fissures within the Taliban does not bode well for the future of the insurgency. But the capture of Kunduz and the potential fall of Baghlan (another northern city) have reinforced the premise that the Taliban are the only potent insurgency in the country.
The Lesser of Two Evils
So how is it that the once hated Taliban, especially in the North where the ethnic minorities reside, were so easily able to capture the strategic city of Kunduz?
Simply put, if the choice is between the Afghan government or the Taliban, it appears the people of Afghanistan choose the lesser of the two evils. It was not always this way. Shortly after the US and NATO forces liberated Afghanistan, there was a sense of euphoria and hope. The misogynistic and horribly extreme society the Taliban had created was gone. But the newly instituted Afghan government was filled mostly with warlords, rapists, thugs, and criminals that had perpetuated the atrocities and war crimes that led to the Taliban sweeping in a decade earlier. Even though the Taliban were ideologically extreme, they created a secure and safe environment that people thirsted for.
Since the establishment of the Afghan government in 2002, nothing has truly changed on the ground for the majority of Afghans. The new Afghan military is the same forces that comprised the Northern Alliance. These former criminals and warlords have become soldiers and diplomats. Even the current Co-President of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, is a former warlord from the Northern Alliance. With their new found power, they have gone into former Taliban territory and instituted a campaign of rape, robbery, corruption, and murder. A recent article by the New York Times discussed how US troops complained to their superior about prominent and wealthy Afghans in the government and military that were raping and killing children without any reprisal or repercussions. A corrupt Afghan government that is raping, robbing, and murdering its people rather than protecting them has, no surprise, led to the resurgence of the Taliban. The Taliban have coupled this with a new campaign of promising women’s education and integrating more of the country’s minorities into its ranks. These supposed neo-Taliban are now winning over people in the North.
Afghanistan’s future appears to be very bleak. With the US almost out, the Afghan army’s failures, and a general distrust of the Afghan government amongst its people; many Afghans view the situation reminiscent of the days when the Soviets withdrew and Afghanistan plunged into internecine warfare. Afghanistan appears to be on the brink of another civil war perhaps as soon as all the foreign troops withdraw. These developments not only paint a desolate future for Afghanistan but also for her neighbors Russia, China, India, and Iran. During the Taliban tenure in power, all of these neighbors were worried about local Muslim separatists being trained in Afghanistan and returning to engage in civil upheaval.
As the United States and the international community began to withdraw from Afghanistan, they cannot afford to ignore it once again like before. Instead the international community along with Afghanistan’s neighbors needs to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure a peace plan is achieved, otherwise the withdrawal will lead to another nasty civil war, which in would result into disaster for the region and perhaps the globe once again.
Image via Alchetron