War & Peace

New Taleban Attacks in Kunduz: Less coordinated, still well-placed to threaten the city


In one of the attacks in early July 2017 a group of Taleban fighters targeted several government security check points along the highway in Khanabad district. Photo credit: Khanabad district centre by the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, under creative commons

In early July 2017, the Taleban carried out several simultaneous attacks against the Afghan security forces in Kunduz province, in an attempt to, once again, inch closer to the provincial centre. The attacks were less coordinated and sustained than they had been in the past years (including in 2015 when Kunduz fell and in 2016 when it almost did) and, for now, the fighters have been repelled. AAN’s Obaid Ali (with input from Thomas Ruttig) explains how a series of air strikes and night raids that killed several key commanders has affected the Taleban’s command structure and their ability to threaten Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) positions. The reach and strength of the Afghan security forces, however, also remain limited and dependent on US-supported air strikes.

Taleban attempts to regain territory so far largely repelled

In the beginning of July 2017, the Taleban again launched several attacks against Afghan government positions in Kunduz province, focusing on Dasht-e Archi district and several areas around the provincial centre.  According to the UN around 3500 people were displaced by the fighting. The attacks left Kunduz residents worried that the Taleban were encroaching on the city again.

The first attack took place in the early morning of 1 July 2017, when the Taleban conducted a large-scale offensive against Dasht-e Archi from three different directions – north, south and east – in an attempt to overrun its district centre. The clashes continued for several hours until the Afghan air force was called to join the battle. According to Nasruddin Sahdi, the district governor, the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Local Police and Public Protection Force all came together to jointly protect the district. He also told AAN that the air force played a major role in targeting the Taleban from the air and pushing them back.

Archi is considered a hub for the insurgents and was home to the late Taleban shadow governor, Mullah Abdul Salam Baryal. Over the past two years the ANSF have made several attempts to push the Taleban away from the district centre, which has changed hands between ANSF and Taleban several times (for instance, read a short report here).

The second assault, in the early morning of 2 July 2017, was against the security forces in Talawka, an area only four kilometres north of the provincial capital (read short report here). The attack was an attempt to overrun this strategic area that connects the insurgents’ fronts with Gurtepa in the west and Aqtash (which has recently come under Taleban control) in the east, thus providing a staging ground for the Taleban to control parts of the Kunduz-Imam Saheb highway, to the north of Kunduz city.

Talawka had already fallen into Taleban hands in April 2015. In June 2017, the ANSF, along with American forces, conducted a large-scale clearance operation and pushed the militants back. Mahfuzullah Akbari, spokesman for the northeastern 808 Spinzar police zone, told AAN that on 2 July 2016 an Afghan National Army base had been besieged by the Taleban, that reinforcement had been deployed and that they had defeated the insurgents’ attack. According to security officials more than 40 insurgents were killed in the battle, and more than 50 others were wounded. Tariq shah Bahrami, the acting defence minister, said the “enemy,” along with their foreign fighters, had gathered forces from neighbouring provinces to attack the security forces in Talawka. Further, he said, the Taleban faced serious losses: “Key Taleban commander Qari Hassan was killed and a famous Taleban commander in Talawka, Qari Amir, was wounded.” According to him the attack against Talawka was led by a foreign fighter from Tajikistan, Hekmatullah Tajikistani, who was also killed in the area. Locals from Talawka told AAN that on 7 July serious clashes were still ongoing.

On the same day the Talawka attack started, on 2 July, the Taleban also tried to block two highways. From the east a group of fighters in the Charkhab area of Khanabad district targeted several government security check points on the Kunduz-Takhar highway. The clash continued for a several of hours; eventually the Taleban were repelled.

The other attempt took place on the Baghlan-Kunduz highway, in Aliabad district, southeast of Kunduz city (read short report here). The Taleban established mobile check points in Shanbeh Tepa, an area only three kilometres north of Aliabad district centre, and blocked the highway for several days, until the ANSF conducted a counteroffensive and managed to reopen the highway on Friday (7 July). According to local security officials, the Taleban check points were removed and the militants suffered serious losses (23 militants killed and 13 wounded; read media report here). Omerkhel and Madrasa villages of Shanbeh Tepa area of Aliabad district were, and still are, under Taleban control and they frequently set up mobile check points to search vehicles for ANSF service members or to block the highway for ANSF reinforcements.

Looking at these attacks it seems the insurgents are trying to regain control of areas they lost over the past year. In October 2016, after Kunduz city almost fell to them for the second time, US and Afghan forces conducted several counteroffensives against the Taleban to push back the militants. This campaign, that involved night raids, targeted killings of Taleban commanders and airstrikes, resulted in the weakening of the Taleban’s position and the death of several key commanders. The security situation, however, is still vulnerable and areas around the provincial centre continue to be controlled by the Taleban. The insurgents, moreover, seem to have increased their focus on targeted killings of government security forces (see this report here).

Insurgency dynamics

Over the past few months, particularly after the announcement of the Taleban’s spring offensive, the insurgents have faced challenges to expand their territory in Kunduz. The militants conducted several attacks against security forces in Imam Saheb, Qala-ye Zal and Khanabad districts, but these assaults had limited results. The Taleban have, in particular, been hit hard by the night raids and the airstrikes carried out by Afghan and US forces in the province (read reports herehere and here). In February 2017, a US airstrike targeted and killed Mullah Salam, the then Taleban shadow governor of Kunduz province (read this earlier AAN analysis on Mullah Salam’s background). In May 2017, a US airstrike killed the Taleban’s shadow governor for Qala-ye Zal district, along with seven militants (read short report here). In the same month another Taleban key commander for Dasht-e Archi, Mullah Ismail, was killed in a US airstrike, as was Mawlawi Muhammad Nur (alias Haqqani), reportedly the head of the Taleban military commission for Chahr Dara, who was targeted and killed in a US airstrike in Chahr Dara (read media report here).

The killing of Mullah Salam and other key Taleban commanders negatively affected the insurgency, not only on the battleground but also politically. Apart from being a skillful military commander, Salam was an important political player who managed to handle the Taleban network, as well as relations with other militant groups (including Jundullah and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) for the last four years. He led the Taleban forces when they overran Kunduz city for two weeks in 2015 and, again, when they seized parts of the city in 2016 (read our previous analysis here and here).

The appointment of Salam’s successor has created serious tension among the militants in the province. According to a source close to the Taleban, the Taleban in Chahr Dara are pushing for the appointment of Mawlawi Rahmatullah (alias Muhammad), the current acting shadow provincial governor and a Pashtun from the Omarkhel sub-tribe of Chahr Dara district. The ‘Kandahari’ (1) Taleban of Dasht-e Archi oppose Rahmatullah, and have instead endorsed someone from their own ranks. This, local sources said, has disrupted the chain of command among Taleban commanders across the province and is affecting their ability to conduct coordinated attacks against the ANSF.

The Taleban’s recent assaults against Kunduz city and Dasht-e Archi district centre, however, indicate that the insurgents still want to probe and assess the capacity of the ANSF, for instance by the kind of simultaneous attacks witnessed earlier this week. Despite the loss of key commanders, the Taleban still control three newly established districts (Gurtepa, Aqtash and Galbad) and have the capacity to target vulnerable district centres like Dasht-e Archi, Qala-ye Zal, Imam Saheb and Chahr Dara, as well as areas around the provincial centre. Additional Taleban presence in areas around the provincial centre (Zakhel, Kanum, Gurtepa and Omarkhel) and along the highway connecting the provincial centre to Baghlan in the south and Takhar in the east, means that they are still well-placed to try to target the provincial centre and to block reinforcement from both directions.

Despite the challenges the Taleban in Kunduz currently face – the internal divisions and the external targeting through air strikes and night raids – the capacity of the ANSF to protect the province’s vulnerable areas and to ensure the safety of the highway remains limited and dependent on US-supported airstrikes. The province, including its centre, thus remains vulnerable.

(For AAN analysis of the Taleban attacks on Kunduz in 2015 and 2016, see our 2016 dossier “Insurgency and governance in Afghanistan’s northeast.”)

 

(1) ‘Kandahari’ refers to Pashtuns naqelin, or forced resettlers, who were resettled from the south in the past and now form a distinct local population.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace