The Taleban’s first major onslaught in their ‘spring offensive’ this year took the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by surprise. But after a few days, they were able to react and push the insurgents back in some areas while the latter held their ground in others. Although the ANSF kept control over Kunduz city and all district centres, AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig argues that the fighting underlined some of the well-known weaknesses of the ANSF: a lack of coordination between different forces (army, police, local police), possibly exacerbated by recruitment problems that are hidden both by corruption (producing ‘ghost soldiers’ and ‘ghost policemen’) and the current reporting system. The fighting also showed the Taleban able to mount large and simultaneous operations in different areas, but also that they were still a long away from a military victory. (With contributions by Borhan Osman, Ehsan Qaane and Obaid Ali.)ALP guarding a road in Imam Saheb (in an area now taken by Taleban) during 2014 operations. Photo: Bethany Matta.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) seem to have ridden out the Taleban’s first massive onslaught this year, in Kunduz province, but with a black eye. The Taleban started attacking ANSF positions there on 24 April 2015, only two days after they had announced their annual spring campaign. They called it “azm” (resolve), not wasting the opportunity to mock their hitherto main adversary, the troops of NATO who have named their own post-combat mission “Resolute Support.” One week later, by 1 May, the fighting seemed to have largely subsided. The Taleban website claimed the last fighting happened on 30 April and stated that they had destroyed a military installation in Chahrdara district and driven the enemy out of “two large villages” – which is a far cry from taking a whole province. On the other hand, the ANSF victory does not seem to be as complete as Afghan media have reported.
AAN heard from Kunduz MPs in parliament on 2 May that, overnight, the Taleban had re-taken some areas. Elders and three ALP commanders from Gortepe, a rural area that is part of the district of Kunduz city, told AAN on 3 May that this whole area was now under Taleban control. Before, it still had government presence, consisting of Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police (ANP), Afghan Local Police (ALP) and nazm-e ‘ama (Afghan National Civil Order Police). Gortepe, which consists of some 40 to 50 villages, is an area with “a long history of instability,” as we wrote earlier, (1) just northwest of the city.
The environment in which the current fighting was taking place: agricultural land just outside Kunduz city…
A surprise attack…
Simultaneous fighting took place in at least five of the province’s districts – Imam Saheb, Chahrdara, Qala-ye Zal, Aliabad and Kunduz city. In some places, it saw concentrations of hundreds, if not thousands of fighters – if local ANSF and other government officials’ figures can be trusted. Figures given to Afghan media ranged from several hundred to up to 2000 fighters involved in single attacks. Provincial governor Muhammad Omar Safi said there were altogether 3000 Taleban in Kunduz.
Using what seemed to have been a moment of surprise, the Taleban initially made some territorial gains. Similar to the round of larger-scale fighting in Kunduz in September last year (see AAN analysis here and here), their move again brought them close to cutting off not only two district centres (Chahrdara again, and this time also Imam Saheb) but also again penetrating areas only some kilometres away from the provincial capital’s centre. These included Gortepe and Bagh-e Sherkat, nowadays also the location of an IDP camp, hosting people displaced by earlier fighting in the region. (In September 2014, AAN reported that the Taleban “managed to secure additional territory around the provincial capital of Kunduz and have been closing in on the city itself. They also gained nearly full control over several districts of the province. … Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi almost completely fell under Taleban control, while the situation in Imam Sahib and Aliabad districts worsened significantly.”)
Local observers told AAN that the Taleban also occupied a former United States Special Forces base in Imam Saheb district. It was not clear whether it had been handed over to Afghan forces or abandoned.
… fields and gardens in Qala-ye Zal district …
According to provincial officials, the fighting has displaced another 2,000 families. This can amount to around 16,000 people, taking eight as the size of an average household. This comes at a time where people were in the middle of their sowing period and, therefore, risks displacing them permanently – if they cannot get back home in time to sow and therefore lose the year’s harvest.
Some of the features of the Kunduz fighting seem to indicate that it was indeed more massive than in September 2014: 500 ALP fighters were surrounded in Imam Saheb and called for help from there in distress; the government closed schools in the embattled areas, including in Kunduz city; shops were closed and streets empty in the provincial capital. AFP reported:
The streets of Kunduz city were deserted, with shops closed and local administration officials deserting government buildings, residents said as fears of a Taliban takeover grew. “We are really worried that the city could slip into the hands of the Taliban … and all the gains over the last 13 years will be lost,” Ahmad Luqman 35, a shopkeeper in the city, said.
People in Kunduz city confirmed these reports to AAN. They say that in the first days after the fighting broke out, major businesses like jewellery markets and the money exchange were closed; only small shops were open. There were not the normal crowds in the streets, although they were not completely deserted. Offices were either open with minimal presence of staff or completely closed. Particularly high-ranking officials did not report to work. A local reporter contacted by German Deutsche Welle radio said “people who have not fled the city have locked themselves inside their homes” as “loud explosions and gunshots [were to] be heard in the city”. The same sources contacted again by AAN on 2 and 3 May say the situation had not fully gone back to normal yet, particularly in the districts and Kunduz city’s outskirts.
For some days, at least, there seems to have a feeling among the city’s population that the situation was close to tipping point. The Deutsche Welle contact commented that “memories of the civil war days have come to haunt” the Kunduz population. Also, officials and former high-ranking officers sounded clearly alarmed. Kunduz’ chairman of the elected provincial council, Muhammad Yusuf Ayubi, said the Taleban controlled 65 per cent of the province and there was a “serious risk” of the province “falling to the Taleban.” Zalmai Wisa, the former commander of Afghan National Army (ANA) forces in nine northern and north eastern provinces, warned: “It’s not only Kunduz that can fall – but everywhere else where the armed forces are not professional.” The fighting also delayed President Ashraf Ghani’s departure on his first official visit to India for several hours on Monday, 27 April. He scheduled instant consultations with the Resolute Support command, apparently asking for air support.
However, the government was able to bring in some 2,000 additional Afghan forces. These included Afghan special forces from Kabul and units from neighbouring provinces, including Balkh and Badakhshan. Some of the units from Badakhshan had earlier (10 April) been sent there from Kunduz after the Taleban had started a more local operation in Jurm district, reportedly involving 250 fighters (see here and here). NATO dispatched fighter jets that, however, “dropped no munitions.” These reinforcements were reportedly able to push back the Taleban in Kunduz rather quickly, in some areas in their first night of operation. Once more, the Afghan government has been able to prevent the fall of an important population centre, be it a district or provincial centre, to its enemy. For the Taleban, taking Kunduz city, however fleetingly, would have been a prestigious and morale-boosting victory.
… and the main street in Qala-ye Zal’s district centre, Photos: Thomas Ruttig (2007).
Not only Kunduz
Noticed far less by at least the international media, also other provinces experienced some heavy fighting simultaneous to that in Kunduz. Further west, in Qaisar district of Faryab province, another long-standing focus of insurgent activity, the Taleban reportedly made some gains, although both sides claimed they had inflicted casualties on their opponents. But the commander of the local ANA corps confirmed that security forces had to retreat in some areas after Afghan Local Police (ALP) fighters surrendered, or defected, to the insurgents, and spoke about a lack of coordination between the ALP and the regular Afghan National Police (ANP). Fighting also took place in the province’s Pashtunkot district. In Farah and Kunar, hundreds of Taleban attacked and stormed police posts, although without threatening larger population centres.
[Amendment on 4 May 2015: The intensity of this fighting is reflected in increased casualty figures. According to US and Afghan officials, the ANSF have suffered record casualties this year, with the figure of killed or wounded increasing by 70 per cent in the first 15 weeks of 2015, compared to the same period last year.]
Simultaneously, more government officials were attacked in assassination attempts, in Kabul, Kandahar, Nangrahar (here and here), Paktia and Laghman. On 26 April, the second (acting) police chief of Uruzgan province was killed within six weeks. The numerous attacks and assassination attempts, however, do not constitute a peak but rather normal even though often under-reported practice.
A usually well-informed and pro-government Afghan military observer reported on 27 April on Twitter that the ANSF were involved in 18 “unplanned operations” throughout the country. This adds to 14 anti-Taleban “counter-insurgency clearing operations” mentioned by the MoD’s deputy spokesman, Dawlat Waziri, currently underway, including what he called two large-scale operations, Badr, in Zabul and Ghazni, and Shahin 22 that continues in Badakhshan’s Jurm and Warduj districts. Altogether, Afghan media reported fighting in at least twelve provinces early this week, in Ghor, Khost, Zabul, Wardak, Baghlan, Takhar and Jawzjan, Helmand, Ghazni, Nimruz und Farah (already mentioned above).
… despite early warnings
To counter the depressed mood in Kunduz, government spokesmen sent out soothing messages. At a press conference on 29 April, Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Sediqi said, “The main core of the insurgents in Imam Sahib district have been destroyed and the situation in Kunduz has completely changed.” Waziri, the Defense Ministry’s deputy spokesman added, “No district or province will collapse, and I assure you that security forces are capable enough of controlling the situation.” Interior Minister Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi visited Kunduz city on 1 May. (There is still no Afghan defence minister.)
This fighting, however, raised – or reinforced – some points of concern with regard to the readiness of the ANSF. The first is how the Taleban were able to stage such a massive attack, which necessitated pulling together large numbers of fighters prior to it, and still caught the government forces by surprise.
Interior minister Ulumi had warned weeks ago in parliament that the insurgency was “moving north.” (This assertion, however, was later denied by the MoD’s Waziri – and indeed, as the battles listed above show, the insurgency continues to be active countrywide.) However, since last summer, additional fighters had been noticed arriving in the north and northeast, adding “a substantial level of additional military punch to the local Taleban,” as AAN reported from Kunduz province (see also here). This reportedly included fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had been pushed out of Pakistan’s tribal areas as a result of this country’s military operations in Waziristan. They seem to have moved into Afghan areas where co-ethnics are living; Kunduz, with its large Uzbek population, was therefore an obvious choice (although this was also not the only destination of such fighters.) They were already said to be involved in the Kunduz fighting in September last year – when Taleban also made some (temporary) gains in Kunduz (see AAN analysis here).
The second reason for concern is that, after the withdrawal of most NATO combat forces, it was obvious and widely expected that this year, the Taleban would test the resolve of the ANSF. Again, Kunduz, with the movement having a strong base in a number of districts, was an obvious choice. It is also not impossible that the Taleban’s 10 April operation in Jurm, in the same north-eastern region, during which some 33 ANA soldiers were killed and some even beheaded, was designed to divert the ANSF’s attention from Kunduz. Particularly the beheading looked like a deliberate attempt to provoke the ANA soldiers. If that was the plan, it worked and triggered a Ministry of Defence announcement that ‘revenge’ would be taken.
The Afghan leadership should also have been warned by Taleban attacks in other areas. There was not only Jurm, but also heavy fighting in Helmand as early as December last year and again in February this year. Then, the ANA had to push back Taleban who had returned to districts in the province’s north which had earlier been – as it turned out only temporarily – cleared by British and US forces. In Sangin district, for example, the fighting was so intense that reportedly “few civilians remain.”
The domestic dimension
The Taleban attacks have also been instrumentalised in domestic politics. Some MPs as well as former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, on his Facebook page, now a leading and often the most radically outspoken opposition politician, accused the government of having deliberately delayed their military reaction in the north in order to – as Saleh put it – ensure the defeat of “the armed networks of Jamiat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan and the commanders of the armed resistance [ie against the Soviets and the Taleban] who have volunteered again for the local police.” (Jamiat, along with other tanzims like Vice President Dostum’s Jombesh and Vice CEO Muhammad Khan’s wing of Hezb-e Islami all currently on the government’s side, indeed run many, if not most, of the ALP units in the region; it is rare to hear a major politician admitting this in public as it is illegal for a political party like Jamiat to be armed.)
Second Deputy CEO Muhammad Mohaqqeq demanded that the defence ministry should be given to a mujahed. Both he and Saleh are tapping into widespread feelings among the former mujahedin that they are being further sidelined by the current government (a claim raised already from the beginning of the Karzai government, and now raised again, also by other heavyweights like Abdul Rassul Rabb Sayyaf and Ismail Khan), and that the ‘security ministries’ – ie defence, interior and NDS – have been given to former ‘communists.’ (2)
For the time being, the ANSF has withstood another massive Taleban onslaught. The Taleban, on the other side, again proved unable to take over larger population centres, including district centres (although these may not even be big enough to be towns) – assuming this was their aim in Kunduz. But there was some critical delay in the ANSF response, and the situation certainly felt close to the brink, judging from the reactions of officials and the population of Kunduz city.
Judging from Afghan media reports, it was the ANP and ALP that bore the brunt of the Kunduz fighting on the government’s side up to Monday, 27 April. This hints at coordination problems and puts in question at least the Afghan government and NATO’s claims that the ANSF are able to effectively resist the insurgency. The continuing lack of a new, legitimate defence minister may well have exacerbated these problems.
Another possible reason for the shortcomings in ANSF coordination is laid out in the two latest quarterly reports of the US Government’s Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; here and here). It says, based on audits of the ANA’s and the ANP’s personnel and payroll data, that neither the US nor the Afghan government knew exactly how many soldiers and policemen are at its disposal. It adds that there is a number of what are usually called ‘ghost soldiers’ (also ‘ghost policemen’ and ‘ghost ALP fighters’) defined in the report as “dead, deserted, or non-existent soldiers kept on rolls by error or intention — whether to augment a superior’s pay or to enable a dead soldier’s family to go on collecting pay in lieu of a death benefit.” How high their figure might be is left open.
The latest official figures (from February 2015) for the numbers of personnel (which will include the unknown number of ghost soldiers) are 167,024 for the ANA (not including civilian personnel) and 154,685 for the ANP. In the case of the ANA, this is fewer than the 169,203 in November last year that was already down by 8.5 per cent compared with the February 2014 figure; this amounts to about 15,000 men, “roughly equivalent,” said SIGAR, “to a full Afghan army corps.” In turn, that November figure was “the lowest assigned ANA force strength since August 2011.” SIGAR gave desertions and increased casualty rates as the main reason for the attrition.
On the Afghan National Police (ANP), the latest report says that “there is still no assurance that personnel and payroll data are accurate.” It adds that “SIGAR analysis indicates a change in how ANP numbers are calculated that raises questions about the accuracy of these numbers and the validity of the reported increase in personnel this quarter.”
These figures must translate to actual fighting capacity at the regional and even local level: it is difficult to imagine that the MoD and Ministry of Interior (MoI) leadership can be sure at every moment how many ANA and ANP (not to speak about ALP) they can count on in a given area. On the other hand, the better trained and better supported 15,000 strong Afghan special forces seem to have proven reliable once more.
The ANA also continues to be ridden with corruption, as an on-going investigation by the Afghan government into what looks to have been a widespread fuel procurement scandal shows. MPs and the Administrative Board of the parliament’s lower house alleged in mid-April that this had had immediate effects on the ANA’s ability to operate and that, during the Taleban ambush in Jurm district in April, the embattled Afghan soldiers were unable to retreat because “their vehicles’ fuel was sold out by the corrupt and the plunderers,” as the house’s deputy secretary, Erfanullah Erfan, said. A member of the Wolesi Jirga’s economic committee had earlier confirmed:
I have witnessed a scene in Farah province in which the Afghan National Army soldiers could not move because their vehicle was out of fuel.
MoD deputy spokesman Waziri, however, rejected these reports and said, “We don’t have any incident where our operations were cancelled due to a lack of fuel.”
And the Taleban?
Taking into consideration that fighting not only took place in Kunduz but, on a relatively large scale also in Badakhshan, Jawzjan and Farah, the Taleban have also shown, not only their presence, but ability to hit various areas simultaneously, in one province and in various provinces. With all caution with respect to the figures given, they seem to again be able to pull together large formations of fighters, possibly as a result of the fact that, after the end of the ISAF mission, there is less danger of them coming under NATO air assault. (See also the above mentioned statement that NATO fighter jets were sent to Kunduz, but apparently did not directly take part in the fighting.)
It further became evident that Kunduz province remains one of the Taleban’s major focuses of operations – the very province in the north where they continued their resistance longest after the US-led 2001 intervention. They still enjoy support in the significant pockets of the province populated by Pashtuns, particularly so after the Pashtun population in the north became targets of Northern Alliance fighters and officials who are dominating the political and military scene throughout the region from 2001 onwards, leading to many northern Pashtuns feeling sidelined in the ‘new Afghanistan.’ (On this, see early reports by Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group as well as AAN reports here and here.) This feeling might even have been exacerbated by the growing influence of Uzbek-dominated Jombesh after its leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum became vice president in the current government. AAN has also been reporting for years about (often ethnically-based) ALP units persecuting members of other ethnic groups (only a few examples here and here; more in our freshly composed Kunduz dossier, here).
In contrast to those ALP units, the Taleban are often seen as less abusive, as AAN has been told repeatedly (see for example here and here). For the same reasons, they also remain popular among parts of the population for their system of ‘justice,’ as opposed to the corrupt (and ethnically biased) government courts and have gained a say in the education system, influencing curricula and the choice of teachers.
According to information received from region by AAN, madrassas close to Hezb-e Islami (a predominantly Pashtun party which split into a fighting group and a group which ‘came in from the cold’ and joined the political mainstream) around the provincial capital have played a role in harbouring Taleban fighters.
Another recurring feature of the recent fighting were reports about the participation of foreign, mainly IMU fighters displaced from their (previously) safe haven in Waziristan. Kunduz’ governor said on Monday 27 April, “20 militants, the majority of them foreigners, have been killed including three Uzbek women and Turkish nationals, Chechens and Kyrgyz nationals.” Another unnamed Afghan official was quoted as saying by ToloNews that “six foreign militants who were killed in the attack come from the north-western Faryab province, four of them were from Tajikistan and two were Chechens.” Their overall number and exact role in this fighting remains unclear, but there were recurrent reports that they brought in additional financial resources for the insurgents.
Given recent tensions between the Afghan Taleban and IMU, the reports of cooperation between both must be taken with some caution. The IMU has recently started distancing itself from the Taleban of which it was a declared ally since it received shelter during the Taleban emirate in the late 1990s, after being pushed out of its country of origin and from Tajikistan where it had supported the Islamist opposition to the regime in the 1990s civil war (see our latest dispatch here). Instead, it drifted closer to the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State, falling short, so far, from declaring full allegiance. (3) Particularly the public announcements by the IMU that it had doubts the Taleban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was still alive (posted on a pro-IMU Facebook side but inaccessible now) (4) will not have gone down well with the Taleban. Under these circumstances and despite possible local links, it is doubtful the foreign militants in the area and the Taleban fully coordinate their fighting.
In the first fighting after the declaration of the Taleban’s 2015 (1394) ‘spring offensive,’ the ANSF have gained the upper hand after being initially wrong-footed and forced to concede some territorial gains to the Taleban. This victory has not proven without doubt, however, that the ANSF will be able to withstand the insurgents. The Kunduz MPs’ reports indicate that the fighting in that province might not be over yet.
Moreover, the civilian population’s reaction in Kunduz flagged that the widespread public support and optimism about the ANSF shown over the past year (again there are reports about blood donations offered by Kabulis for the soldiers wounded in the fighting, here) is more defiance than a deep conviction that they are sufficiently able to withstand the Taleban.
Also other well-known, grave problems remain – coordination, recruitment, corruption. Maybe the widespread public support and continuous (although somewhat self-serving) praise by NATO (see in media reports here (on Kunduz) and here (in general)) has even bolstered the ANSF leaders’ self-confidence too much. The continues (and possibly exaggerated) pointing out of the role of foreign fighters is partly a way of diverting responsibility by blaming the usual ‘foreign hand.’
NATO’s training for the ANSF so far seems to have born insufficient fruit, particularly on the coordination between the ANA, the ANP and the ALP. With the some hundreds of trainers, many of them bogged down by heavy security restrictions, NATO’s post-ISAF mission might simply be too small to achieve this. On the other hand, to step this up would come too late now. The withdrawal seems to be somewhat delayable, but not reversible, given the waning public and political international interest and support for Afghanistan. The solution lies in the ANSF themselves and their leadership. They need to face, and rectify, their own shortcomings, as highlighted by the Kunduz fighting.
Comparing this offensive with the Kunduz fighting in September 2014 even raises doubts whether it really epitomised a new quality. In that sense, the offensive was a logical continuation of regular attacks in Kunduz that did not even really see the normal lull during the winter. The reported ‘move north’ of Taleban is also not a new phenomenon, but has been a steady development since at least 2007/08 (see AAN’s 2010 report “The Northern Front”). Kunduz province – where the Taleban are well-entrenched and have so far resisted all attempts to push them out for good – will remain one of the Taleban’s major focuses of operations, but of course they will also continue to target the whole country.
(1) There was some confusion about the exact location of Gortepe area, putting it as close as three kilometres from Kunduz city. In fact, Gortepe is a large area consisting of some 40 to 50 villages, some of them very close to the city indeed.
Gortepe also has seen earlier counter-insurgency operations, for example in late 2010/early 2011 (see here), apparently with no long-term success. One source says there are Uzbek-Pashtun land conflicts, after Pashtun families were displaced from there, into Bagh-e Sherkat IDP camp (which also hosted Gujar and Pashtun families from Takhar province), and Uzbeks moved on their land. (The same source incorrectly puts Gortepe into Dasht-e Archi district, though.) The name Bagh-e Sherkat is linked to one the country’s main industrial enterprises, the Sherkat-e Spinzar, or White Gold (eg, cotton) Joint Stock Company, founded in the 1930s by the Nasher family, a family of Pashtun naqelin (forced resettlers). It was linked to Abdul Majid Zabuli, the Afghan businessman often called “father of Afghan industrialisation” who founded the Afghan National Bank in 1936 and encouraged the country’s traditional traders to invest into industries by setting up joint stock companies (sherkat). The Nasher family is in exile in Germany now. Bagh-e Sherkat housed some 800 IDP families between 2002 and 2010 and continues in this function. There were no later figures available, though.
(2) The new interior minister Ulumi was one of the highest-ranking generals under the PDPA regime, and the current candidate for the MoD, General Abdullah Habibi, was also trained in the Soviet Union and served under that regime. His USSR training, however, was under President Daud (1973-78), and in the 1990s. Under President Karzai, he served under Bismillah who was for many years chief of the general staff and a former leading mujahed himself.
(3) According to media reports in late March 2015, a local IMU group in Faryab province led by a certain Sadullah Urgenchi (Urgench being a city in Uzbekistan, on the banks of river Amu), “claiming to be from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU),“ said his group was recognising Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their leader. Reports that the whole of IMU, through its leader Usman Ghazi, has done so has only been sourced to one Uzbek intelligence official who definitely is interested in playing this issue up:
On 6 October 2014, an Uzbekistan law enforcement official told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) Usman Ghazi had declared his group’s support for Islamic State.
(4) The statement allegedly by IMU chief Usman Ghazi was published on 24 November 2014 under the title “Usman Ghazi be-dark budan-e Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahed-ra e’lan kard” (Usman Ghazi announced the unavailability of Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahed) which, however, falls short of a denunciation of IMU’s earlier pledge of allegiance to him.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020