War & Peace

The Fall of Kunduz: What does it tell us about the strength of the post-Omar Taleban?


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)

The capture of Kunduz by the Taleban has surely written off any idea of the movement having been seriously undermined or fractured by the death of Mullah Omar and the leadership dispute that followed. His successor, Akhtar Mansur may still face some resistance from dissidents within the movement, but on the battlefield, the Taleban under Mansur have shown strong signs of operational resilience. The new leader has also asserted his authority in terms of ideology and rhetoric. Apparently unafraid of antagonising hardliners, in his Eid message, he raised the possibility of peace talks and also spoke authoritatively about the need to reduce civilian casualties. AAN’s Borhan Osman reports (with input from Obaid Ali and Kate Clark).

The Taleban under Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur’s command have maintained, indeed increased, their military momentum. Operationally, the movement has emerged as no less capable of fighting than before the confirmation of the death of Mullah Omar on 30 July 2015. After a relative lull in fighting in the countryside from late July to early August, when most senior commanders had to travel to Pakistan to attend gatherings on the succession issue, the battles have resumed in full force.

In the north, the Taleban’s takeover of Kunduz on 28 September 2015, symbolically on the day before the one year anniversary of the national unity government, was their first attempt on this scale to capture a provincial capital in 12 years of insurgency. The fighters entered the city and overran government buildings with little resistance. They then broke into the central prison of the province, setting free hundreds of inmates which they claimed included a large number of Taleban (something which the National Security Directorate has denied). The capture of Kunduz seems to have been well-prepared, unlike previous Taleban operations where they would often show up on the outskirts of the city and then withdraw swiftly as they met resistance. In this case, the Taleban had already fortified their positions and secured their supply lines from almost all sides of the town.

Military background to the capture of Kunduz

In hindsight, the Taleban’s earlier encroachment into the outskirts of the city, on 24 April 2015, seems to have been an important tactical move prior to the over-running of Kunduz city on 28 September. In the April encroachment, the Taleban took control of Gortepa, a large area of 40-50 villages which extends from one or two kilometres away from the city centre to fifteen kilometres to the north-west, and that proved a strategic launch pad for one prong of the attack on 28 September. This long area of land, bordered by rivers on two sides, connects with Chardara and Qala-e Zal districts (captured at the end of July), the first almost entirely run by the Taleban since their April campaign and the latter partially. Afghan forces, when they responded to the Taleban attack in April, did not clear Gortepa or the nearby surrounding areas. Instead, they set up a base on the road to Gortepa to try to prevent the Taleban from entering Kunduz city centre. This, however, according to local residents and officials who spoke to AAN, did not prevent the Taleban from strengthening their hold on the strategically located areas around Kunduz city.

As a result, the Taleban managed to besiege and threaten almost all the government’s land supply lines to Kunduz, while securing their own supply routes to the town. They also strengthened their hold on Imam Sahib district to the northeast, Khanabad district to the south-east, and lately Ali Abad to the south, which did see serious fighting – it is populated by a largely anti-Taleban, pro-government Tajik population. One recent gain of territory for the Taleban, a prerequisite for the taking of Kunduz, was the capture of the Aqtash area of Khanabad district connecting Takhar to Kunduz in mid-August 2015.

Communication-wise, the insurgents’ messaging from the early hours of the raid onwards indicated they were bent on taking the city. The fighters were supplied with megaphones and called on the city’s residents in the early hours of the morning of 28 September to stay at home. A member of the Taleban’s health commission instructed fighters on social media to “pay attention” to hospitals in the city. A week earlier, starting on 20 September 2015, social media accounts that could be traced to Kunduz-based Taleban, were talking in veiled terms about a major piece of upcoming news, with talk of an “approaching victory” and a “surprise during Eid” (which was celebrated from 24 to 26 September 2015). That the Taleban had been preparing for the operation was apparently confirmed by acting Minister of Defence Masum Stanekzai in a press conference on 29 September 2015 (watched live by AAN), when he described how the militants had sneaked into town disguised as civilians and settled there during the Eid holiday.

Additionally, a day before the attack, the Taleban released a short video clip on social media in which an unnamed commander of the province’s ‘commandos’ (also referred to as the ‘red unit’ – this is something like a quick reaction force set up by the Taleban this year) addressed Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum in response to rumours that Dostum would visit the province on a military campaign – as he had done in the summer in Faryab and Sar-e Pul. The commander can be seen breaking into mocking laughter and saying: “I will deal with Dostum in a way he will remember forever.” He also gives the full address of the area where he was allegedly speaking from (Chardara’s Qarya-e Qasab village in Sarak Bala area), to show he was not afraid.

The Taleban swiftly issued a statement in Mansur’s name after the fall of Kunduz (the Taleban leader giving a statement on the occasion of a military development had previously been a rarity). (1) In the statement Mansur urged his fighters to treat civilians and the “defeated enemy” well in Kunduz. How much these were treated as actual orders and whether they are being followed, is yet to become clear. Electricity cuts have meant that many mobile phones are off in the city and there have been contradictory reports on how the Taleban are behaving. There has been looting of some government and NGO offices, but by whom is not yet known. However, whether or not the Taleban are trying to take a moderate approach to the people of Kunduz, the fall of the city, and the subsequent attempts to recapture it, is already a disaster for civilians. The humanitarian NGO, MSF, has reported dozens of wounded coming to its trauma centre and said it is operating “at full capacity.”

The start of urban warfare?

Since the storming of Kunduz represents an unprecedented shift in the Taleban’s warfare, it is important to understand if it will set a new pattern on the battlefield. A video released late last winter, before the launch of their ‘spring offensive’, suggested that the Taleban were considering urban warfare as a new tactic. The video features scenes of attacks in Gardez, Kabul and Khost cities. It also gives details of various types of weapons and tools effective in carrying out military operations in urban environments. A Taleban official is interviewed and speaks about the advantages of urban warfare, the required operational structure, the importance of filming the operations, and surveillance. If the attack on Kunduz is indeed a manifestation of the urban warfare featured in that video, the choice of this northern city to test the tactic makes sense, for several reasons. These reasons can also be helpful in explaining why Kunduz was the first city to fall to the Taleban during their 12 years of insurgency.

First, the province has been the recipient of one of the largest chunks of the Taleban’s ‘surge’ fighters, the extra Taleban who have been mobilised in the last year and which have been used to target different provinces since autumn 2014. This surge also coincided with an influx of foreign militants from the border areas of Pakistan, specifically North Waziristan, into Afghanistan during the Zarb-e Azb operation by Pakistani forces last summer. Most of these foreign militants, a large number of whom are Central Asians, are allied with the Taleban, but some groups recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). (There have been reports of building tension between IMU and Taleban in Kunduz since mid-August.) So, as the foreign militants moved into the north, the Taleban followed in order not to lose control over them. With such a heavy footprint around Kunduz, the movement did not have to worry about any shortage of reinforcements once they attacked the city. Local Taleban, for example, reported the arrival in the city of a reinforcement of 100 fighters from Chardara at 3 pm on 28 September as the Taleban were taking the city.

Second, winning over the public is important for both sides in this conflict. In Kunduz, it was not so much that the Taleban were attractive, but rather that the pro-government militias and Afghan Local Police have behaved so badly as to make the state look unattractive (for more on Kunduz’s abusive commanders, see AAN’s Kunduz dossier and the latest ICG report on the Afghan Local Police, describing allegations of illegal taxation, robbing and rape).

This has not been helped by the dysfunctional nature of local politics – a third reason for Kunduz being one of the most vulnerable provinces to slip from the government’s control. This was supposed to be a model province, selected by President Ghani to show how security and governance could be improved, but as we reported, officials and political powerbrokers have acted like rivals, rather than as partners facing a common enemy. Local government has, in effect, worked against itself. The governor, a Pashtun appointed by President Ghani, does not get along with his deputy or the police chief, both Tajik Jamiat-e Islami mujahedin appointed from the Abdullah camp for ‘balance’. One key issue was those illegal militias; the governor wanted to deal with them, but the police chief “won a reputation of going against the governor’s wishes,” when asked to arrest militia leaders, saying“Any militia fighting the Taleban are good.”

There has also been a significant, repeatedly raised, problem of lack of coordination in the security sector. The New York Times, for instance, quoted a local official who said the Taleban’s 500 fighters had faced “7000 troops” (not clear if he meant police, local police, NDS, army and militiamen, or just the legal groups). However, he said “The problem wasn’t lack of security forces…but there was no good leadership to command these men.”

The erosion of the government’s haibat – its reputation as a defender of its population – a consequence of infighting among officials and predation by pro-government militias, may well have made Kunduz an easier place to win than the southern cities of Kandahar or Helmand, which, with all their faults, have a relatively more coherent administration and a more powerful security apparatus.

More than the fall of a city

The government has tried to play down the loss of Kunduz. Ghani, in a press conference carried live on television said:

Kunduz was attacked yesterday, and some government buildings were occupied. Today, our national security forces are advancing. Some government buildings have been recaptured. Despite the problems that happened in Kunduz, [they are ] limited… I want to assure all compatriots that [the situation in] Kunduz is under control. 

It was a strange message given that security forces (largely) and government officials (entirely) had fled for their lives.

However the government wants to try to spin it, the fall of a provincial capital, even if short-lived, is a significant psychological blow to the national unity government. Kunduz itself is also significant. Geographically, it is the gateway to the rest of the northeast, connecting Kabul to Takhar and Badakhshan. If Kunduz remains contested or under the control of the Taleban, this would cut the main routes to the two neighbouring provinces, Takhar and Badakhshan, parts of which are already under Taleban pressure or even control.

The city also has many important symbolic resonances. It was the first city to fall to the mujahedin – in 1988. It was the first city in the north to fall to the Taleban in the 1990s, becoming their stronghold as they advanced across most of the rest of northern Afghanistan. It was also the last city in the north that they lost in 2001.

The government has, unsurprisingly, announced its commitment to recapture Kunduz. It seems entirely likely it can do this, but it will come at great cost to its own forces and to civilians. In addition to the loss of lives and the damage to property, civilians are unlikely to regain their confidence in the government’s ability to protect its population. There are also other, less than benign aspects to the attempts at reconquest. Indications are that pro-government militias will likely be involved in the fighting, including those of two former Jamiat-e Islami commanders from Shomali, Amanaullah Guzar and Jan Ahmad (the commander whose cache of illegal weaponry was bombed by the US on 29 June 2015, causing outrage to him and his comrades). Both are trying to travel north to support the re-taking of Kunduz with their militiamen. The international military have also had to step in. Airstrikes so far helped stave off a Taleban attack on the airport during the night of 29/30 September: without that support, the airport would probably have been lost. On 30 September, there were additional reports of US and other special forces soldiers on the ground in Kunduz.

Ultimately, the fall of Kunduz is not just the story of the overrunning of an isolated urban centre, but rather represents the collapse of a province. The Taleban were not parachuted into the town on 28 September; they captured the province bit by bit, and area after area. The fall of the city illustrates how the province had, for a long time, been more under the control of the Taleban than the state. The government may well be able to push the insurgents out of the city, but it will have much greater trouble securing the province, as a whole.

After the death of Omar: no sign of a weakening fight

The Taleban’s ability to take their fight to the streets of Kunduz is the mark of a movement with a high level of confidence. And this was not the Taleban’s only gain this year.

Also in the north, the Taleban have recently returned to most of the areas they had retreated from after General Dostum led a campaign to clear Taleban-controlled areas in Faryab and Sar-e Pul provinces in late August. (See reports hereherehere and here)

In the south, three weeks into Mansur’s leadership, the Taleban took Musa Qala, strategically, the most important district in northern Helmand. (Read AAN’s more detailed dispatch on that here). Earlier, in late July 2015, as the news of Mullah Omar’s death and the new leadership was still brewing. they had captured neighbouring Nawzad, another important district in Helmand. Nawzad is still under Taleban control; control of Musa Qala is, locals told AAN, moving back and forth between insurgents and government forces. The escalation of attacks in the south, as The New York Times put it, has “already drawn American forces deeper into the conflict than at any point since their combat role officially ended” in December 2014.

In Ghazni, Taleban broke into the main provincial prison on 14 September 2015, setting free more than 300 prisoners, predominantly members of the insurgency. The jailbreak was well-organised (and is the ninth engineered by insurgents since 2003; Kunduz was the tenth). Whether they managed to break into the prison because of weakness or corruption on the government’s side, or force and cunning on the insurgents’, such operations are highly effective in boosting the morale of fighters and communicating that the movement does not forget its own.

In Kabul, a number of high-profile attacks have hit the capital since Mansur took formal control, killing and wounding hundreds of people, mostly civilians. These attacks may have been planned before the leadership crisis struck the movement, but even in that case, it showed that the Taleban’s preparation and execution of its planned operations was not impaired by the crisis.

…And signs of Mansur asserting his political authority

Unabated insurgency coincided with signs of the new leader’s growing confidence over messaging and policy– as seen for instance in his Eid ul-Adha message. It seems that military success and a subsequent boosted morale within the movement has helped reinforce his political room for manoeuvre.

When Akhtar Mansur spoke for the first time after succeeding Mullah Omar in late July 2015, he stressed to his commanders that the jihad would continue. He mentioned a ‘political process’ in passing only, with all stress on continued fighting, and after having described rumours of peace talks as ‘enemy propaganda’. Most media reports interpreted the speech as a dismissal of negotiations altogether. (For example, see here and here ). His Eid ul-Adha message touched on the issue of peace talks in a more overtly positive manner, although still briefly and cautiously couched:

Regarding negotiations, we will be, according to the circumstances, following a policy which is in line with the principles of Sharia, aspirations of jihad and national interests.

(author’s translation from Pashto)

Although this was not an explicit signal for a resumption of talks, it did ensure the discussion of peace talks remains a possibility, even though there was no particular urgency on the Taleban side to do this.

Besides repeating the narrative of jihadi victory and calling for unity in the face of internal rifts, Mansur’s Eid message further reiterated the main themes of previous Eid messages (which had been published under the name of Mullah Omar, but had presumably been written or at least directed by Mansur – officially then the deputy leader). This included themes which seek to present the ‘softer face’ of the movement to ordinary Afghans and the wider world, but would not be easy for the radical segments of the movement to digest. Besides the reference to negotiations, Mansur proposed the establishment of an “inclusive government” which would be “representative of the people’s will” and assured Afghanistan’s northern neighbours they should not afraid of Taleban’s advances, as the movement wants to have “a positive interaction with the world.” Mansur’s Eid message did not offer any harder positions aimed at appealing to those hawkish segments of the Taleban who, after the leadership controversy, might be susceptible to leaving the movement for Daesh. If there was a harsher tone in this message than in previous ones, it was directed at the fighters themselves:

[I]f anyone in the rank of mujahedin is careless about civilian casualties or is intentionally involved or misbehaves with prisoners [in ways] contrary to Sharia, we will conduct a comprehensive interrogation in this regard and punish him in the light of Sharia. We want to boost up our ranks with honest men and do not need the company of unscrupulous persons who carry out activities against Sharia and we will block their way if God is willing. (original in English)

Mullah Omar’s status as an almost saintly supreme leader of the movement prevented the questioning of positions or decisions that came (or appeared to have come) from him. Mansur lacks that level of veneration among the Taleban fighters and he could have opted not to touch issues controversial within the movement. Indeed, he could have backtracked on the various divisive statements presented in the name of Mullah Omar during the past few years, that are now widely known to have come from Mansur. His persistence in keeping his position both on negotiations as a possible solution and on an inclusive government, suggests he already feels confident of having solidified his hold on the movement – or that he thinks that those opposed to his policies are already alienated and will not be won over anyway. (Qayum Zakir, former chief of the military commission who led the Taleban defence against the US surge in 2009-2012 would be a typical example of the latter type.)

A re-energising Taleban or a non-collaborative government?

The post Mullah Omar Taleban’s assertion of authority in rhetoric and on the battlefield are indications of a movement whose military capability has remained intact despite the death of Mullah Omar. Psychologically, the territorial gains, particularly the overrunning of Kunduz, will boost morale. Without it, the Taleban may have struggled longer with its leadership crisis. The fall of Kunduz has already emboldened the Taleban to encroach on government centres elsewhere. In neighbouring Takhar province, just after the Kunduz attack, Taleban fighters attacked Ishakshim district centre (bordering Kunduz’ Ali Abad) and Yangi Qala, near the border with Tajikistan. The insurgents were repelled after fierce fighting, although the Taleban claimed to have captured both the district centres. In the southwestern Farah province, officials confirmed that the Taleban had overrun Khak-e Safid district on the night of 29 September. The increased number of insurgent attacks and massing towards government centres, will unavoidably affect the morale of the ANSF adversely, unless they can score some tangible achievements in the face of the Taleban. As for Kunduz, Taleban roadblocks and ambushes in Baghlan have been holding up the arrival of ANSF reinforcements sent from Kabul.

Whereas predictions of Taleban fragmentation have not been fulfilled, the national unity government has in Kunduz failed to act strongly and with a unified purpose. The fall of Kunduz showcased the government’s indecisiveness and its possibly deepening fault lines.

An upcoming AAN paper by Borhan Osman will look into the Taleban realignment after the death of Mullah Omar in more detail.

 

(1) Mansur’s statement (English as original):

 All praise is due to Allah and it is due to His boundless mercy and help that a key provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, Kunduz, has finally fallen to the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate as the first provincial capital to do so, and all praise belong solely to Allah.

 The leader of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan congratulates Mujahideen and all the Mujahid nation on the occasion of this immense conquest and asks them to celebrate this victory with the remembrance of Allah and praising Him abundantly with prayers of thanks.

The Islamic Emirate deems it necessary to point to and give serious consideration to a few key topics on the blessed occasion of this event in Kunduz:

  1. Mujahideen should give all of their attention to safeguarding the lives, property and honor of the respected citizens of the city of Kunduz after ending combat operations and securing their military objectives. Mujahideen must be vigilant and prevent elements which misuse such occasions in order to loot and plunder or harm the lives and property of locals or the shared Bait-ul-Maal (public property).
  1. The citizens of Kunduz city should be aware that the Islamic Emirate has no intention of transgressing against their personal property, carrying out extrajudicial killings, looting or breaching the inviolability of homes rather it seeks to prevent such happenings. Whoever exploits such military situations to perpetrate such crimes are not Mujahideen. All citizens must aid the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate in preventing such actions from happening and help them in identifying and detaining all perpetrators.
  1. The citizens of Kunduz should not worry about safeguarding their lives and properties. Carry out your ordinary livelihoods in absolute security. All traders, workers, staff of hospitals, municipality and governing bodies should continue their daily routines without any fear or intimidation. Mujahideen are their brothers and are committed to securing their lives and property. Mujahideen are not thinking of harassing or deriding anyone but have intentions of respecting and bringing serenity to their lives. 
  1. Our message to government officials and security personnel who are thinking about resistance or are hiding in fear of retribution is that they should abandon all negative thoughts spread about Mujahideen due to enemy propaganda.

Mujahideen are not thinking about retribution but have come with a message of peace. Mujahideen were against such people due to them standing and carrying out duties in the ranks of the invaders and its stooge regime. If they regret their former actions and renounce links with the opposition then the gates of forgiveness of the Islamic Emirate are open upon them. They can confidently establish links with the Mujahideen by utilizing the Dawat wal Irshad (Call and Guidance) program, thus securing their lives and properties.

  1. These conquests are due to the help of Almighty Allah and sacrifices of this Mujahid nation therefore the Kabul regime should openly admit its defeat, stop linking the victories of the Mujahideen to outside intelligence agencies and must not avenge their setbacks with blind bombardments and shelling of innocent people. They should accept the progress of Mujahideen as a bitter reality and think about their future and the future of the entire country in a cool composed manner. The time has now passed where big talks of Dostum, shrewd promises of Ashraf Ghani and baseless propaganda of the west would confuse common thought.

Here is the separate

Statement by Commission for Control and Administration of NGOs and Companies (English as original)

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Commission for Control and Administration of NGOs and Companies 

We declare to all the workers of NGOs, private companies and Telecommunication Networks to continue their work normally. If they do somehow face any problems then they should forward their complaints to the Commission for Control and Administration of NGOs and Companies of the Islamic Emirate by contacting the numbers provided below so that their problems are resolved quickly and all real hurdles preventing them from carrying out their normal duties removed. 

Wasalam

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Thematic Category: War & Peace