War & Peace

The Taleban Assault on Kunduz city: Déjà vu, but why?


Smoke rises over Kunduz city after the Taleban attacked the city again in October 2016. Photo credit: Pajhwok News Agency.

A little over a year after the temporary fall of Kunduz city to the Taleban, the city has become a battleground again. On 3 October 2016, the Taleban entered during a massive assault from three directions. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), supported by US forces and air power, are battling to recapture the areas they lost, with territory still changing hands. The attack was very similar in tactics to the one last year and was largely staged from the very same areas – despite reassurances by the government that the situation was in hand and despite the many ANSF ‘clearing operations’ (that indeed failed to clear these areas). AAN’s Obaid Ali explains the persistent vulnerabilities that brought the city very close to being overrun by the Taleban for a second time.

The Taleban attack Kunduz city again

On 3 October 2016, the Taleban started their assault on Kunduz city – a little over a year after the city fell in September 2015. The assault was staged from three directions. The first attack started in the early morning, around 4:00 am, from the western areas of Zakhel, Khakani, Bagh-e Sherkat, Kota-ye Gert and Qahwa Khana. These areas are located in the city’s first police district and are only a few kilometres away from the city’s symbolic heart: its main square where several government buildings are located. Insurgents from Chahrdara, the district flanking Kunduz city to the west and southwest, supplied fighters for this front. Chahrdara has been one of the Taleban’s strongholds for the past few years and played a crucial role in last year’s attack on the city. Once Kunduz city’s security cordon had been breached on this side, the Taleban overran the first police district’s head quarters which is located around two kilometres northwest of Kunduz main square, and started moving towards the city’s centre.

The second assault followed shortly after from the east of the city, from an area known as Charkh Ab, which it is around two kilometres away from the main square and situated on the Kunduz-Takhar highway that runs east from the city. As recently as in September 2016, the Taleban had blocked this highway for several weeks (read report here). The Taleban coming in via Charkh Ab were supported by insurgents not only from their strongholds around the Kunduz-Takhar highway which they had established in the past few months (Dokan-e Adam Khan, Kata Khel and Char Sari), but they also received reinforcements from the Aqtash area of neighbouring Khanabad district, which has been mostly under the control of the Taleban since April 2015. From this location the Taleban moved closer to the Kunduz main square, through Khowja Mashad and Nowabad where the militants fought the government security forces.

Once the insurgents had successfully entered the city from the west and east, the third assault was conducted from the northern direction – from the Kala-ye Gaw and Bala-ye Hissar areas, only a few kilometre away from the main square, where the insurgents had built up a strong presence since Kunduz’s first fall in September 2015. This front was supported by fighters from Gortepa, another Taleban stronghold that has been under the group’s control since April 2015.

The initial assaults were quickly followed by explosions inside the city. The first improvised explosive device (IED) went off on University Street, in the first police district, followed by two others on the key road leading to Kunduz airport, south of the city.

According to local sources, the Taleban already had their fighters inside the city in advance, to pave the way for the attacks by providing intelligence to the incoming forces, plant the IEDs and create a chaotic environment within the city. The other objective of the fighters, locals said, was to spread propaganda and (mis)information about the Taleban having arrived in the city’s centre. This put the local government forces on the back foot and prevented them from taking effective and immediate action.

The local government, surprised and disoriented by the complex attack and without a strategy to handle the situation, found itself engaged in several battles inside the city at the same time. Video clips released on social media show police check posts, which presumably could have fought off the attacks, surrendering to the Taleban without resistance. A clip recorded in Qawa Khana, for instance, shows seven Afghan National Police (ANP) policemen who had surrendered and handed their weapons to the Taleban. The men were interviewed by a Taleb who asked their names, places of birth and reason for surrendering the check post. The policemen, who were clearly under psychological pressure, answered that they surrendered because of a lack of government support. The purpose of such was to damage ANSF morale on the ground.

At the time of publication, street fighting had been ongoing in several parts of the city for the past nine days, ever since the Taleban entered. Civilians are caught up in the fighting and many have no access to water or electricity. Residents are often trapped in their houses, too scared to venture outside to try to find what they need. According to Moalem Shams, a resident of Kunduz, all shops and markets are closed and prices for any food still available on the informal market have skyrocketed. The main roads leading to northeastern Takhar and southern Pul-e Khumri in Baghlan – escape routes during the previous siege of Kunduz –have been blocked by Taleban checkpoints for the past few days.

What is notable is this: the areas from where the insurgents started their assault had been vulnerable for a long time. Moreover, when the Taleban overran the city in 2015 their forces came from exactly these areas – Zakhil in the west, Kala-ye Gaw in the east and Bala-ye Hissar in the north (read our previous analysis here). This leads to the question: why was the city still this vulnerable?

Why was Kunduz City still a vulnerable target?

After the fall of the city to the Taleban last year (read our previous analysis here and here), the ANSF conducted several waves of clearance operations in areas largely under Taleban control. But they failed to address the basic vulnerabilities of Kunduz city: even after the operation, Taleban fighters were still present in the villages around the city, or they simply moved back in again as soon as the ANSF retreated.

Moreover, in the past few months the Taleban stepped up their activities again and started regularly establishing checkpoints on the Kunduz-Takhar highway – the only overland route to Badakhshan. This made it dangerous for passengers to travel. Mobile checkpoints appeared in Charkh Ab, Qabr-e Golistan, Lodin and Bagh-e Mir, all villages located only a few kilometres to the east of the city. At these checkpoints Taleban fighters stopped and searched vehicles with the aim of detecting and detaining ANSF and government employees.

For instance in May 2016, the Taleban kidnapped a local police official (see short report here) and abducted passengers from several buses close to the entrance to Kunduz city. Reports suggest that up to 50 passengers were kidnapped and that dozens of them that were identified as members of the government were killed (see reports here and here). The Taleban confirmed the incident, claiming they had detained 26 individuals who were members of the security forces.

Following these incidents, public pressure on the ANSF to keep the highway open and secure the surrounding areas increased and kept the ANSF busy. The security forces started focusing on the areas around the Kunduz-Takhar highway at the cost of leaving areas close to the city unattended to. This may have blinded them to the mounting presence of Taleban around Kunduz city.

Towards the end of the summer, the Taleban increased its pressure on the Kunduz-Takhar highway, engaging ANSF in different parts of this crucial supply route. On 17 August 2016, the Taleban launched a massive attack against ANSF check points on the highway, which caused serious problems for the people travelling between Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces (read a short report here). The only remaining route connecting Kunduz to the northeast was now through Khanabad district. To block this route too, the Taleban conducted a large-scale attack on Khanabad. On 20 August 2016, the Taleban stormed Khanabad’s district centre and took control of it for a day and half (see report here) before being pushed out again.

The Kunduz-Takhar highway remained blocked (read more here and here) for two weeks, until on 3 September 2016 Muhammad Qasem Jangalbagh, Kunduz police chief, declared the highway had been reopened after a clearance operation. The temporary cutting off of the highway affected the whole northeast. Supplies were stuck either in Kunduz or in Takhar and the prices for goods shot up due to the lack of transportation and fears that the highway could remain blocked for a long time.

The continued Taleban presence in southern Kunduz had also long made the Baghlan-Kunduz highway insecure for government officials and ordinary passengers and when the assault on the city started, the Taleban made use of their strategic presence. On 4 October 2016, the Taleban attacked and overran an ANP checkpoint in Jar-e Khosk on the Baghlan-Kunduz highway and blocked the road for reinforcements from Kabul. This negatively impacted the ability of the ANSF to swiftly move in reinforcements or to move them across the northeastern and southern parts of the province.

The Taleban had carried out a similar strategy in the run-up to the first fall of Kunduz city in 2015 (read our previous dispatch here and our analysis about the Taleban strategy to position themselves along major northern highways, here). Last year’s siege, with its very limited and late support for the forces that did stay to fight, had deeply affected the ANSF’s morale. Gholam Faruq, an ANP policeman, told AAN before the Taleban assault on Kunduz city, “My parents advised me that in some instances it is better not to fight the insurgents, because if you get caught or besieged, there will be no reinforcements.” During the latest fighting, Afghan National Army (ANA) service members complained to a local journalist that only ANA soldiers were fighting and that the high ranking officers had all retreated to safe places, like Kunduz airport (see more here).

Why did the government’s clearing operations not work?

After the collapse of Kunduz city in September 2015, the ANSF conducted several battles to try to regain the district centres that had come under Taleban control. These operations largely focused on the districts of Dasht-e Archi, Qala-ye Zal, Imam Saheb and parts of Khanabad. The operations took longer than expected and the district centres of Dasht-e Archi and Qala-ye Zal changed hands, between the ANSF and the insurgents, a few times even – after the ANSF clearance operations.

A few weeks after the government retook control of Kunduz city in 2015, security officials claimed that Taleban’s stronghold in Dasht-e Archi had been destroyed; Gen Murad Ali Murad said all insurgents in Dasht-e Archi had been “eliminated.” In March 2016, the provincial police chief said Qala-ye Zal was cleared of insurgents. However, the government’s control over these districts did not last long and in June 2016 both districts fell into Taleban’s hands again (read our analysis here).

The military operations had also done very little to improve the overall security situation in the province. Even though by the summer of 2016, after several waves of clearance operations in the districts, there was little or no tangible progress, security officials still continued to assure the population that they would stabilise the province and push the Taleban from Kunduz. On 26 August 2016, during a visit to Kunduz, Chief of the Army Staff Qadam Shah Shaem warned the insurgents that they would face the same fate that Daesh had faced in Nangarhar and promised to conduct another large-scale operation. There was, however, no sign of such an operation and if there are any plans to do so now, the Taleban assault on Kunduz city has left little space for them to be implemented.

According to local journalists, the ‘never-ending’ clearance operations in Dasht-e Archi, Qala-ye Zal and parts of Khanabad districts may have actually contributed to the destabilisation of the province. The operations left the security forces overstretched and with insufficient energy to monitor Taleban movements and conduct operations around Kunduz city. It prevented them from establishing permanent strong bases that could have stopped the Taleban from getting so close to the provincial centre. The ANSF’s engagements in Dasht-e Archi and Qala-ye Zal districts left space for the insurgents to expand and exercise their power around both strategic highways and to position more of their men strategically around the provincial capital, without attracting too much attention from the ANSF.

The attack on the city, and the subsequent street-to-street fighting – neither of which could be credibly denied – forced high-ranking security officials to visit the site of the Kunduz battle. On 6 October 2016, Taj Muhammad Jahed, the minister of interior, flew to Kunduz to meet the local security commanders. Taleban shelling, however, disrupted his meeting (see report here) and the minister left for the airport.

The latest attack seems part of a consorted effort by the Taleban to show that their insurgency is strong enough to again overrun a provincial capital, even after another change in the leadership. This is illustrated not only by this second assault on Kunduz, but also by the recent massing of forces for other fierce attacks, including on Lashkargah in Helmand, Tirin Kot in Uruzgan and Farah city. The fall of another provincial capital would mean a huge boost for the morale of their fighters. Even the ability to threaten such a fall, in multiple places at the same time, must make the fighters feel like they are part of a movement that is gaining in strength.

It is worrying that the attack on Kunduz seems to have taken the government by surprise again, after repeated assurances by security officials that the situation was in hand. This shows, not only a continued vulnerability to attack and collapse, but also a lack of awareness about where the main vulnerabilities lie and an inability to effectively respond. The fact that the Taleban could simply replicate its previous strategy – to encircle the city and to cut the reinforcement and supply routes – is worrying, since the government, and the international military, have been keen not to see the city fall again. Although the city did not fall, it is unclear when the fighting will end and how much it will affect the lives of ordinary people. It has become hard to get accurate and detailed accounts of the battle, since many sources have either fled or their phones have run out of battery power since the electricity was cut. After nine consecutive days of street fighting, the Taleban still hold areas in the east and west parts of the city.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace