Taliban Capture Major Afghan City For First Time Since 9/11
For the first time since the U.S. invasion after the September 11th attacks, the Taliban have captured a major Afghan city, and it’s raising serious questions about the ability of the government in Kabul to defend itself:
KABUL, Afghanistan — After months of besieging the northern Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, Talibanfighters took over the city on Monday just hours after advancing, officials said, as government security forces fully retreated to the city’s outlying airport.
The Taliban’s sudden victory, after what had appeared to be a stalemate through the summer, gave the insurgents a military and political prize — the capture of a major Afghan city — that had eluded them since 2001. And it presented the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has been alarmed about insurgent advances in the surrounding provincefor a year, with a demoralizing setback less than a year after the formal end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials vowed that a counterattack was coming, as commando forces were said to be flowing by air and road to Kunduz. But by nightfall, the city itself belonged to the Taliban. Their white flag was flying over several public areas of Kunduz, residents said.
Announcing their victory, the Taliban issued a statement saying that the group “has no intention” of looting or carrying out extrajudicial killings.
But witness accounts and videos posted to social media showed some scenes of chaos. The insurgents had set fire to police buildings, and witnesses reported that jewelry shops were being looted, though by whom was unclear.
The Taliban also appeared to have freed hundreds of inmates from the city’s prison. One video showed a crowd gathered around the city’s main traffic circle, responding to the chants of a Taliban fighter. “Death to America! Death to the slaves of America!” the fighter shouted into a megaphone, as the crowd responded: “Death to Mir Alam! Death to Nabi Gechi!” Both of those men are local militia commanders fighting on the side of the government.
The Taliban’s largest victory in years came just over a week before the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, is expected to return to Washington to testify before Congress about the course of the war and what America’s continued involvement should be. Some 10,000 American troops are in the country, many of them focused on training or advising the Afghan forces, and the White House has not yet decided whether to keep a force of that number here for another year or begin pulling them from the country in the coming months.
Hanging over that briefing will be the fall of a significant Afghan regional center that came about not so much because of an overwhelming offensive by the Taliban but because of a collapse under pressure by the country’s Western-trained security forces.
For a year, local officials had been sounding the alarm about the insurgents’ advance toward Kunduz, even as some Afghan and Western officials had sought to describe the Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan as marginal and largely confined to rural areas, far from population centers.
One security official briefed on the situation in Kunduz estimated that the Taliban force in the city numbered 500, a small fraction of the thousands of government security forces and allied militiamen based in the city and in the surrounding areas.
A district governor who had retreated to the airport on Monday, Zalmai Farooqi, estimated that the government may have had as many as 7,000 troops in the area. “The problem wasn’t lack of security forces,” Mr. Farooqi said, “but there was no good leadership to command these men.”
Now, the fall of Kunduz, which was one of the centers of the American troop surge five years ago, stands as a direct challenge to assurances by American and Afghan officials that the Afghan security forces can hold the country’s most important cities.
There are reports today that a counterattack is underway, assisted by American air power, but even if the Afghan’s are eventually successful in dislodging the Talban from Kunduz, it seems fairly clear that they will still have suffered a defeat. For one thing, news of a relatively small band of Taliban fighters taking a major city from a numerically superior Afghan force is likely to boost morale among besieged Taliban forces, and lower morale among Afghans. In many respects, a loss like this isn’t all that dissimilar from what we saw in Iraq last summer when the Iraqi Army was defeated in battle after battle by ISIS forces that were inferior in every respect. While morale in the Afghan Army doesn’t appear to be in nearly as bad a shape as it was in Iraq last year, a defeat like this can hardly help the situation. Additionally, even if the combination of Afghan arms and American air power is able to retake Kunduz, the fact that it took American help to accomplish the task isn’t likely to bode well for the morale of the average Afghan solider, and it raises questions about just how prepared the Afghan’s are to take over their own defense against the Taliban going forward.
The primary concern that the fall of Kunduz raises, of course, is what it might portend for the future of Afghanistan after American forces leave for good. As it stands, the original plan for the withdrawal of American forces has slowly fallen by the wayside as it has become clear that the Taliban were becoming more resurgent in various parts of the country. It wasn’t long after the agreement to keep forces in the country through the end of 2016 was announced that President Obama was announcing that the pace of withdrawal would be slowed in response to the security situation in the country. Earlier this year, it was announced that this pace would be slowed even more in the wake of a meeting between President Obama and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Perhaps most significantly, though, are the reports that have come out that make it clear American forces have been more deeply involved in the fight against the Taliban than the new plan had represented, largely out of necessity to aid Afghan forces. If the capture of Kunduz is any indication we’re likely to see future announcements from Washington regarding the planned withdrawal, if not an announcement that the December 2016 deadline had been pushed back altogether. Increasingly, it is looking like America’s involvement in Afghanistan will span into a third Presidency, and it’s not exactly clear what it will have accomplished.