War & Peace

The 2015 Insurgency in the North (3): The fall and recapture of Kunduz


Kuduz after the fighting on September 28, 2015. Photo Credit: @ehsan_af (Twitter)

Kuduz after the fighting on September 28, 2015. Photo Credit: @ehsan_af (Twitter)

It took 15 days of fierce fighting for Afghan government forces and their US allies to push the Taleban back out of Kunduz city. Clashes continue in the surrounding districts. The Taleban onslaught on 28 September should not have come as a surprise, given how much territory in the province the group was already controlling. However, the city’s rapid fall and slow recapture by government forces was perplexing. AAN’s Obaid Ali found that internecine struggles, largely among pro-government militias, and government failure to take early action in the face of Taleban encroachment paved the way for insurgents to swiftly overrun this strategic city. 

To understand the rapid fall of Kunduz city, one needs to look at what was happening in the surrounding districts over the previous six months, if not longer, and how that allowed the Taleban to gain a foothold and to exploit the weaknesses on the government side.

A spreading insurgency

As AAN reported in 2014, the Taleban were already menacing Kunduz city last year, but at the time they were pushed back. This year, the Taleban managed to extend and consolidate their hold of the areas around Kunduz from three directions. From late April 2015, during the Taleban’s so-called spring offensive, the insurgents engaged the ANSF in many simultaneous attacks (read our previous analysis here and here). Kunduz received ANA reinforcements in May 2015, but many locals were surprised when the troops did not conduct clearance operations around the city. Instead, the new troops only established check posts at what are called the city’s ‘gates’ on the roads to Ali Abad to the south, Imam Sahib to the northeast and Khanabad and on to Takhar to the east, to prevent the Taleban from getting inside the city itself.

Taleban inroads into government controlled areas continued through the summer. On 24 June 2015 Taleban fighters overran the district centre of Chahrdara. Just a day later Dasht-e Archi district centre fell into insurgent hands (see here and here). The ANSF attempted to retake Chahrdara’s district centre a day after it fell, but the insurgents pushed them back. Locals in Chahrdara told the author that the Taleban did leave a few days later, after local elders’ mediation who wished to avoid fierce fighting during the harvest season. According to villagers the government had returned to district centre, only.

By 28 September 2015, when the Taleban launched their attack on Kunduz city, Chahrdara and Archi districts had been under Taleban control for three months, providing the insurgents a firm foothold as they now controlled the areas to the west and southeast of Kunduz city. It was in Chahrdara, that the Taleban held their first ever mass gathering in the north, on 24 August 2015, when hundreds of militants along with their commanders pledged allegiance to Taleban’s new leader, Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. The gathering was used to show off not only the new leader’s legitimacy, but also the Taleban’s military capability and human resources (video can be seen here).

The one remaining district in the province which the Taleban did not control or have significant influence in – Khanabad to the east of Kunduz city – had in the meantime also started to attract the insurgents’ attention. The local pro-government militias’ in-fighting and aggressive behaviour had already shown up the government’s inability to protect its people, while the rivalry and revenge-taking among different groups of militias in Khanabad was creating an environment of chaos in the district.

Particularly this year, the militias had been targeting businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers for predatory taxation. This widely discredited them and, indirectly, the state which failed to control them.

In many cases, the situation was bad enough to actually provoke some locals to support the insurgents. In Khanabad district, for instance, villages were divided between militias ‘as individuals’ territories’ where they milked the locals for resources to ensure their financial survival. Many villagers told AAN that militia commanders sought to force locals to send their youngsters to fight alongside them against the Taleban.

The local government’s ability to ensure rule of law in these ‘fiefdoms’ has been very limited. In most instances local officials (governor, police chief, provincial council and Wolesi Jirga members) seem to have intentionally not interfered, based on their existing factional and political links with militia commanders. This in turn helped the insurgents gain a foothold in the districts, where in some villages locals sheltered Taleban in the hope of getting rid of pro-government militias. Speaking to AAN, an elder from Khanabad district said that although the Taleban also asked for taxes, they did so only once per year and by a single commander. He went on to say, the businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers in his district had been forced to pay tax four times to four different pro-government militia commanders (read our case study on Khanabad district here).

One of the major militia commanders, Qadirak in Khanabad, was the first target of the Taleban. Qadirak was a well-known commander supported by Mir Alam. According to locals, Qadirak commanded 200 to 300 armed militiamen and had taken part in several offensives against the Taleban in Khanabad. On 9 August 2015, a suicide bomber targeted a gathering where 29 local militias, including Qadirak and four of his sub-commanders, were killed (read short report here).

Just a few days after the attack, the Taleban conducted a large-scale operation against pro-government militia in the Aqtash area of the district. It is a large, strategic area consisting of 40-50 villages a few kilometres northwest of Khanabad district centre. The pro-government militias in Aqtash failed to defeat the Taleban. The fact that instead of cooperating against a common enemy, some mainly wished to see their rivals killed or captured by the insurgents, will not have helped. Haji Nazer, an elder from Aqtash, told AAN some militia commanders had used the opportunity to target rival commanders who were weakened by having to face the Taleban. A sub-commander of a local militia in Aqtash told the author how, when after the fall of Aqtash he and his fighters wanted to flee to Khanabad district centre, they were ambushed by a rival group. One of his followers was killed and two more wounded. The insurgents took Aqtash on 12 August 2015, thus connecting all the dots around Kunduz city necessary to launch their 28 September attack. They could now back up the different fronts and maintain secure supply lines.

How the Taleban captured the city

On 28 September 2015, the Taleban stormed various ANSF locations in Kunduz city from the three different directions they had spent so long preparing. At around 4:00am a group of insurgents, led by a local commander from Chahrdara, took over an Afghan Local Police (ALP) check post in Now Abad, south of Ali Khel village, around three kilometres southwest of the city. They then entered Zakhel village, again inching closer to the city centre. A second group, coming through Qarya-ye Yatem from the northwest, wiped out the ALP check post that was stationed in the old ISAF PRT base, in order to reach another village called Old Zakhel. The third prong of the attack came from the east and was coordinated by Khanabad district insurgents through Khowjah Ghaltan village. The Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) base in Kala-ye Gaw village, only a few kilometres away from the main roundabout in Kunduz city – known as the Chawk – initially withstood the attack, but after several hours of fierce fighting the insurgents eventually broke through in mid-morning and entered the Shahr-e Kohna (Old Town) area of the city.

It is clear that the areas through which the Taleban launched their attack had long been vulnerable. Qarya-ye Yatem village had been mostly under Taleban control, except for a small ALP check post that was not capable of resisting even for a couple of hours. The Taleban’s large presence in Khanabad in the eastern part of the province had helped them freely exercise their power and besiege the city from that direction. The Taleban’s southwestern front received a lot of fighting strength from local Taleban in Chahrdara. The government presence in this district had been limited to the district centre. After the fall of Kunduz city, the remaining ALP and governmental officials fled these areas and went towards Kholm district of Balkh.

The simultaneous attacks on the city and the collapse of check posts at the city ‘gateways’ destroyed the confidence of the ANSF inside the city in their ability to stand against this unexpected offensive. In the face of the well-organised and coordinated insurgent operation, most held out for only a few hours. A chaotic environment quickly spread and government officials, ALP commanders and some of the ANA officers, fled to the military base at the airport, leaving Kunduz effectively leaderless. They were joined by senior NGO workers and some local journalists.

By this point, the insurgents, sensing they had the momentum, started directly targeting the military bases that were located in strategic areas inside the city. The Bala Hisar base, located on a hill in the north of the city, was besieged by Taleban for two days. ALP forces stationed here had fled on the first day, leading a security official speaking to AAN to accuse the commander of making a deal with the insurgents. (AAN tried to speak to the ALP commander to hear his side of the story, but his phone appears to have been switched off). The only remaining government force at the Bala Hisar, the ANA, resisted for two days, but eventually the Taleban took over the base, gaining a strategic location from which to target the rest of the city.

Now that the city is retaken

Re-capturing a city, once lost, is always more difficult than defending it in the first place. For Kunduz, it has meant two weeks of fierce fighting – the first urban warfare Afghanistan has seen since the city fell to the Northern Alliance in November 2001. The fighting was apparently carried out on the government side by official forces only – ANA, ANP and ALP – with the help of US special operations forces on the ground and airstrikes from the air. According to Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for the Kunduz police Chief, local pro-government militias were not involved in the operations, nor were volunteer commanders from further afield allowed to fight.

Several commanders from Kabul and Parwan provinces, mainly former Jamiati commanders, had gathered men and announced their readiness to defeat the Taleban in Kunduz. These included MP and former police chief (now reappointed) Amanullah Gozar and former commander Jan Ahmad Haqjo (whose illegal cache of weapons was destroyed in a US airstrike on 29 June 2015 to his and his comrades’ outrage ). Videos and pictures of a gathering circulated on social media, which prompted President Ghani to, while praising the commanders’ support, insist that “volunteer fighters should work under the ANSF command. They should be instructed to go to ANA and ANP recruitment departments to work within the ANSF framework”. This was reiterated by the spokesman for the Kunduz police spokesman, who said that only the ANA and ANP were involved in the clearance operations in Kunduz. “There is no need for individual commanders to fight the Taleban,” he told AAN.

On 12 October 2015 the police spokesman said that the ANSF had managed to clear the Taleban out of most parts of the city and on 13 October 2015 he said Kunduz was free of insurgents. Unlike previous premature announcement by the government that the city had been retaken and cleared of insurgents, this time the news was confirmed by local residents. It was also confirmed by the Taleban, who claimed they had left the city to protect civilians.

The Taleban are now pushed back in the same three directions from which they conducted their 28 September assault on the city. The ANSF are trying to retake the district centres they had lost.

For Kunduzis, these have been days of fear and death and destruction. Many now feel very vulnerable. Members of displaced families from Kunduz told AAN it was not easy to imagine returning to a city where, in the past two weeks, hundreds of people had been killed. “I went to my house a few days ago to see if it was possible to take my family back,” said one man, “but the main part of the house had been destroyed and what was left, was still smoking.” Another member of a displaced Kunduzi family, now in Mazar-e Sharif, told AAN that even though they are safe in Mazar, when someone knocks the doors his children are afraid and try to hide. “We never experienced anything like this before in Kunduz, he said, “such fierce urban fighting – not even during the civil war.”

Kunduz was taken back after 15 days of fighting, but the real recovery will take much longer. To ensure the stability of this northeast province, and the provinces that surround it, the government will need to take strong measure to ensure the stability of the vulnerable areas around the city.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace