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Taliban Capture Major Afghan City For First Time Since 9/11

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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.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Afghanistan is and always has been a black hole. A tribal community in an area the the west has called Afghanistan. There is no sense of country only a sense of tribe. The US has learned nothing from from past adventures there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  2. grumpy realist says:

    We’re just throwing money into a black hole there. We should get out and let them fight each other.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    It will show that not even the weak-kneed Islamophile dithering of the Kenyan-usurper-in-chief can staunch our resolve to stand against all form of terrah and terrahism. That, and a few (thousand?) more other people’s children to water the tree of liberty, and we’ll be ready to move our phone service industry from India to the newly-minted beacon of freedom and entrepreneurship that will be Afghanistan. What more could we need or want?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Scott says:

    I agree we need to cut the cord in Afghanistan. There has to be cold calculation of sunk costs and an exit strategy. Not that we will get anything out of it anyway. The Chinese are investing heavily. Maybe they can send in support to defend their investments. Also, invite Putin back it. Because it worked out so well last time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I know we’re supposed to treat our military with unquestioning reverence, but I want to renew a point I made sometime back: our military sucks at training foreign forces.

    Certainly @Ron Beasley is right that this is at heart a problem of a tribal mentality and a lack of national cohesion, but the British made excellent use of foreign troops in their day, in India and elsewhere. I’m not convinced that Nepalese troops (Gurkhas) are inherently superior to our Afghan tribes, nor did they have particular motivation to fight for England or the Raj, so I really think we should look a lot more critically at how we train the locals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Scott: I agree. The Chinese want to exploit the natural resources of the country- let them spend their blood and treasure in an attempt to make that possible. My guess is they will decide it’s not worth it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Removing the Taliban, setting up a government more to our liking, training our replacements, and then leaving Afghanistan, secure in the knowledge that the country won’t return to its pre-2001 condition after we leave, has never been a viable strategy in Afghanistan. It wasn’t in 2001 or in 2009 and it isn’t now.

    The alternatives have always been:

    1. Let Afghanistan be Afghanistan complete with hosting Al Qaeda training camps (or nowadays DAESH). Bomb occasionally to show we’re paying attention. This wasn’t deemed politically acceptable in 2001.

    2. Leave what Ralph Peters has described as a “compact lethal” force in Afghanistan indefinitely with the joint missions of counter-terrorism (not counter-insurgency) and force protection. Subsequent to the invasion it’s what I (and Rory Stewart) advocated.

    3. Bomb the country until there’s nothing left to blow up. When something shows up, blow it up, too. Although this is what some (not me) wanted, I still don’t think it’s politically acceptable.

    I think we’re going to take the first option after squandering thousands of lives on a fool’s errand.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. Slugger says:

    Where does the current Taliban get financing and support? I have read that in the past they shielded Al-qaeda and got diplomatic recognition from Saudi Arabia. At one time they were opposed by Iran, but more recently they were getting support from Iran. What is Pakistan doing with/for/against them?
    Again and again I get the impression that the whole region is a basket full of poisonous snakes. Reaching into this basket to pull out the good ones ends with getting bit and you have trouble knowing which one bit you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    3. Bomb the country until there’s nothing left to blow up. When something shows up, blow it up, too. Although this is what some (not me) wanted, I still don’t think it’s politically acceptable.

    I’ve been of the opinion for this war, and the Iraq war, that this is basically the only viable option, the only way that would lead to anything we could call victory. A harsh, brutal assault that annihilates opposing military forces and reduces the civilian population to dependency. That’s Part 1. Part 2 is optional: a tough, long-lasting, and socially-transformative occupation. Not because I think it’s moral, but because it’s the only effective way to do the job. Either a massive, obliterating retaliation, or complete regime change down to the level of the local imam.

    I have no faith in this surgical war we keep trying to pull off. We are not good at it. This is not how we Americans have ever won wars. We’re fighting as if we’re trying to prove a point, as if we expect the enemy to do the math and realize he can’t win. But of course the enemy does the math and the math tells him he’s still alive, still has sanctuaries, and is fighting an enemy who won’t commit.

    The purpose of war is to destroy the enemy. Destroy. Kill. Subjugate. And had we fought both of these wars that way we’d have fewer US dead, very likely fewer locals dead, and we might just have pulled off a real win. Our “humane” war is not humane, it encourages the enemy to fight on forever.

    The politicians want quick and easy, the military has its theories of how to manage that, and they’re both wrong. If – and that should be a very big ‘if’ – you’re going to war, go to war. We’re trying to square the circle of kinder, gentler war, and it cannot be done, not if we are looking for victory. And tactically we’re playing Persians to the Spartans, squeezing our vastly superior force down into a narrow channel which drastically reduces our advantage.

    What we should have done in Afghanistan is nuke the mountain passes leading to the Pashtun strongholds. Then walk away with the reminder that we’ve got plenty more nukes. I know, I know: barbaric! But it would have worked, would have cost us nothing, would have cost fewer lives and would have scared the hell out of anyone contemplating attacking the US.

    No more ‘proportional’ responses, no more quick and easy, no more panic over every misplaced smart bomb or dead soldier. If we are not emotionally prepared for real war we should stay the hell home. And if it’s a necessary war we should prepare the American population for the results.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    The purpose of war is to destroy the enemy. Destroy. Kill. Subjugate. And had we fought both of these wars that way we’d have fewer US dead, very likely fewer locals dead, and we might just have pulled off a real win. Our “humane” war is not humane, it encourages the enemy to fight on forever.

    I don ‘t think that kind of war is possible for us in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Heck, it wasn’t possible for us in the age of Walter Kronkhite and the CBS Evening News.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    It would have been possible in the immediate aftermath of 9-11.

    We need to figure out how to fight wars and win them or resign ourselves to being slowly pushed off the world stage. I have no patience for honorable defeat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  12. Tyrell says:

    Looks like Hillary is going to have her plate full: Afghanistan, Russia, ISIS, Syria, Iran, China, North Korea, maybe even Japan. And Europe could get real intense.She needs experienced staff. Jim Webb would make sense as the vp. We need leaders with military experience.
    Meanwhile, Putin goes to the UN and tells the world, “watch me”
    We don’t need a rerun of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Berlin ! Once is enough.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  13. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tyrell: So, I take it that you’re ready to send your kid or grandkid to Russia to oust Putin and install…what exactly?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Stonetools says:

    Doug is good at describing the problems of our current Afghsn strategy. What he is not good at is describing what he would do if current strategy fails, the Taliban win and the jihadists re establish training camps in Afghanistan. It would be nice to think that non intervention would work, but non intervention is exactly what led to al Qaeda setting up shop there and 9/11.
    Instead of thinking about transforming Afghanistan , let’s think instead of the Dave Schuler option. I’m thinking also the Roman garrison of Britannia. They didn’t transform Britannia but they were there four centuries keeping the barbarians from more vital areas like Gaul and Spain. Maybe the best that can be expected from a military intervention is not setting up a successful foreign client government but simply establishing an imperial outpost aimed at stopping the barbarians from striking the center. I’ll take that over withdrawing and hoping that the conditions for another 9/11 don’t reoccur. As they say in the military, hope is not a plan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It would have been possible in the immediate aftermath of 9-11.

    And our leadership squandered the opportunity with too light a footprint and too-heavy reliance on local forces, then completely lost focus with the idiotic blunder into Iraq.

    IMO we are pretty much stuck between not being able to win with the minimalist approach and not being able to win because we’re politically unable to bring sufficient force to bear.

    Wars end when one side accepts defeat, and that requires near-total destruction of their ability to wage war. In 1991 we pounded the Iraqis from the air for six weeks and then executed a flanking maneuver into southern Iraq that obliterated entire divisions. When the armored brigade to which I was attached came upon a dug-in Iraqi tank division, we didn’t plink a couple of their tanks and wait for the Iraqis to come out with coffee and baklava, we blasted every single vehicle in the division. We fired non-stop for 45 minutes and hit them with everything we had.

    We’re the best at the “scalpel” option, WHEN IT IS WARRANTED. Our problem recently has been grabbing the scalpel when we need the sledgehammer. But, again, I am coming to believe the sledgehammer is no longer permitted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    I’m thinking also the Roman garrison of Britannia. They didn’t transform Britannia but they were there four centuries keeping the barbarians from more vital areas like Gaul and Spain.

    Well, actually (a) the Romans did transform Brittania, the area that’s now England and Wales, which was the Roman-settled section of Brittania, was thoroughly Romanized, and the only area they didn’t settle was present day Scotland which was north of Hadrian’s Wall, so that 1500 years later you can still see the enduring Roman influence in the cultural and economic differences between those two cultures, and

    (b) there were no “barbarians” in Britain that were any threat to Gaul or Spain. Roman Britain was as peaceful and Romanized as those areas, and the Picts and other tribes north of the Wall were poor, militarily weak, not powerful or expansionist, and had no interest in any large-scale raiding.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  17. Stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Humph . You are right about all that come to think of it. Don’t post when you are sleepy. Maybe Roman garrisons along the border with the Parthian Empire and along the Danube and the Rhine might have been a better analogy. Better still , maybe there is no good historical analogy.
    Anyway the point is that we might have to have a plan for Afghanistan that isn’t total withdrawal and hoping for an Afgan government that can survive independently of US military support. That plan might be a long lived US Miltary presence aimed at preventing the re-establishment of jihadists that might strike at the US and vital US interests. I don’t like that plan but I liked 9/11 even less.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. michael reynolds says:

    @Mikey:

    IMO we are pretty much stuck between not being able to win with the minimalist approach and not being able to win because we’re politically unable to bring sufficient force to bear.

    That’s it in a nutshell.

    But, I think the problem is lack of political leadership. I was remarking in another thread on the notion that people can be overwhelmed by tough pictures – abortion opponents and their fetuses – and I made the argument that while the pictures are disturbing, people soon get over them. People are tougher than politicians think, especially people who watched the towers come down.

    The American people could have been convinced, instead they were told to resume ordinary life and go shopping. It was a squandered moment, and frankly an insult to the American people. So we went the route of the Northern Alliance, essentially backing one tribal group over another. Imagine if FDR had told us on December 8, 1941 to go shopping. Jesus wept.

    There’s no way to prove a contrafactual, but had we brought the hammer to Afghanistan we’d have saved ourselves a lot of subsequent trouble and almost certainly have saved lives.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. bill says:

    well, there’s no oil or anything we need- maybe some “rare earths” but aside from that and opium- what good are they? so let them go back to oppressing women and everyone else that doesn’t “think” like them.

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  20. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Wars end when one side accepts defeat, and that requires near-total destruction of their ability to wage war.

    Sounds like a 1950s solution to a 21st century problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Stonetools says:

    Note to the sledgehammer crowd-the USSR tried the sledgehammer approach 1979-1989 and it didn’t work out for them at all. The British tried the client state with Miltary support approach 1838-1842. That didn’t work so well either. Truth be told, maybe nothing will work. I’m honest enough to say that I can’t figure out what’s the best approach. I sure don’t envy our foreign policy team.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Mikey says:

    @Ebenezer_Arvigenius:

    Sounds like a 1950s solution to a 21st century problem.

    I’m not sure there is a solution to the 21st century problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. michael reynolds says:

    @Stonetools:

    The Russians did not try the sledgehammer, they did the same thing we’re doing: half-assed invasion, occupation, and a show of technology and power which was supposed to cow the yokels. The yokels were not cowed and the Russians had to go home.

    We should not have occupied. They (Al Qaeda by way of Taliban) hit us, we should have hit back with orders of magnitude more power. Proportional response is an absurd and self-defeating approach. When you get smacked in the face, you put the man in the hospital. When you lose 3000 civilians in a single morning in New York, Pennsylvania and DC, you nuke the mountain passes which destroys the Pashtun economy and lifestyle for a generation and leaves them helpless before their local enemies.

    The game is not ‘rational response we can justify at the UN,’ the game is, ‘obliterate threats.’ Had we brought the hammer to Afghanistan we would not have needed an air cap on Saddam, or sanctions on Iran, or to attack Libya.

    You know why you don’t step on the Mafia guy’s toes? It’s not because you think he’ll step on yours in response, it’s because you have reason to believe he’ll kill you and maybe your family.

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