Taliban Fight to Maintain Influence in Northern Afghanistan

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At about 0300 (3am) on Monday morning, Taliban militants commenced what appears to be a well-planned, multi-pronged assault on the Northern Afghan city of Kunduz, the capital city of Kunduz Province. Kunduz City has been a hotly contested area since US and NATO (German) Forces pulled out in 2014. Even when promoting a presence and active patrolling program, US and NATO Forces found it difficult placating the city because of its geographical location and the numerous rat-lines from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that transit, and dissect it. Since being handed over to the Afghans, the deteriorating security situation has only exacerbated.

According to local news outlets, NGO’s and a number of locals living in Kunduz the assault took place from within the city itself, then spread out to the 4 main routes leading into and out of the city. The intent was to stop Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) from entering, and civilians from leaving. The assaulting force of “100’s” of Taliban fighters then quickly overran and took control of most of the city’s administration and security force offices, and also released all prisoners from the Kunduz Prison. Photo’s posted on Social Media clearly show Taliban militants (and groups of newly released prisoners) walking in groups throughout the city, operating military vehicles, and without challenge. One photo allegedly (as it can’t be verified) shows Taliban militants raising their flag in the centre of the city. Further Social Media posts from locals within the city claim the ANSF retreated to the nearby Kunduz Airport, along with some NGO personnel. The Afghan Central Government was quick to deny the reports that Kunduz had fallen so quickly, and even stated that the ANSF were “repelling the Taliban successfully“. This of course is a usual narrative by Kabul that regularly runs contra to reports from people on the ground. That statement has since changed. Kabul now states that the ANSF retreated out of the city to minimise civilian casualties. Because the assault occurred from within the city confines we are more inclined to believe that the Taliban received some tacit support from the local ANSF and local population. We wouldn’t be surprised if reports started leaking out of mass defections by ANSF personnel into the Taliban ranks. This is not a unique phenomena in Afghanistan.

A Fight for Survival, a Fight for Legitimacy, or Both?

Last weekend in Nangahar Province (Eastern Afghanistan) the Islamic State – or IS inspired militants – conducted a number of coordinated, and nearly simultaneous attacks against Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoints. At dawn “100’s” of IS fighters attacked a number of ANP check points in 3 districts of Nangahar (Achin, “Kot” and Chaparhar). Allegedly, according to a local Governor the ANP quickly retaliated and repelled the attackers. This is slightly more believable since the ANP have been on the front-lines in the effort against Afghan and Foreign Insurgents for many years. The Afghan National Army (ANA), not so much.

Only mere days before the attack the UN stated it was concerned with the growing presence of IS inspired militants in Afghanistan, particularly in the east. Then on Sunday a suicide attack in the South-Eastern province of Paktika (south of Nangahar) killed almost 20 civilians playing cricket (initial reports state it was a soccer match however, local sources have since confirmed it was a cricket match). A similar attack at a volleyball match last year claimed upwards of 50 lives. The Taliban were quick to deny responsibility for that attack, a usual narrative by the militant group whenever large amounts of civilians are injured or killed.

No one has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s suicide car-bomb. We find this slightly interesting, although it is not unusual. Islamic State militants have been using suicide attacks a great deal since it was first reported IS was attempting to secure a foothold in the country. This is a normal strategy of the Islamic State – shock and awe attacks to force local submission. This is a tactic the Taliban can use against it.

A day after Kunduz fell to the Taliban, newly appointed Emir Mullah Akhtar Mansour attempted to placate the Kunduz residents by providing 5 main points of reassurance. Excerpts are as follows;

  1. The Taliban’s responsibility is to provide security.
  2. Citizens of Kunduz should not fear executions, looting, etc.
  3. Professionals and labourers should return to work without fear of insecurity.
  4. The Taliban has no intentions of retaliating against the government or their Security Forces.
  5. The government should stop blaming its defeats on “outside Intelligence Agencies” (likely directed toward Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID).

This is somewhat new from the Taliban who are well documented treating anyone outside their cartel as beneath them. And so it makes the Kunduz operation a little more interesting to us, and is telling of how the Taliban see its future with regard to an ever-increasing IS presence. Taking complete control of Kunduz we see a few opportunities that serve the group;

  1. It makes a statement that the Taliban are still the premier insurgent force in Afghanistan. That they are still an effective fighting force capable of taking over large cities in traditionally non-permissive areas of the country.
  2. It demonstrates that while remaining the leading militant group in the country, it is capable of change; promoting a protective instrument of the Afghan people, simultaneously demonstrating that the government cannot stop them from making such large gains.
  3. By liberating prisoners from the Kunduz Prison is ensures its ranks remain filled with sympathetic and loyal fighters who are less willing to defect to the Islamic State.

As an aside, since a Haqqani (Sirajuddin) has been appointed Deputy Emir, and top Military Commander a secondary task to maintain the traditional drug routes into former Soviet satellite states that feed into Europe and secure the groups’ funding for at least the near future is possible. The Haqqani’s have long used the Taliban as its “security arm” to ensure the criminal syndicate continues to push its trade.

So while IS continues its use of brutal tactics against the Afghans, this “new and improved” tactic espoused by Mansour could be an attempt to garner local support and stem the haemorrhaging of Taliban fighters into the Islamic State’s ranks. The turf war between the Taliban and a growing IS is becoming more inevitable each day.

What Next?

Acting Provincial Governor of Balkh – in which Kunduz is located next door – Atta Mohammad Noor is currently in Tajikistan. Noor has a history of not taking too lightly any Taliban activity in his region. Vice President of Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum has a similar view on Taliban activity in his region (Mazar-i-Sharif). Both men are former Northern Alliance Generals (Warlords), both have track records of rife human rights abuses when it comes to fighting insurgencies. Noor has already sent his force of ANA, ANP (SF) etc., to Kunduz in order to expel the Taliban from the city. Dostum has regularly called for the creation of a local militia (of around 20,000 – his number) to keep the Taliban out of the north. If these two personalities deploy forces to Kunduz to combat the Taliban it is going to be ugly. Taliban, sympathisers, suspected sympathisers, family/friends/associates of Taliban will be “fair game”. Human Rights will be thrown out the window. It will be bloody. The US and its NATO allies know this all too well. This may force the US to act in order to minimise what could very well be a reaction that runs contra to allied efforts to improve humane treatment of everyone in this very long, protracted war. As of yet there is no indication that the US and or any of its allies are getting involved. But that doesn’t mean it is not happening. Only time will tell.

The Taliban are demonstrating they are still in the fight and are here to stay. Changing the way in which they conduct themselves should not change the current landscape with regard to ensuring their influence remains dormant in the north. But the weekend’s assault on Kunduz certainly sends a message to those many former fighters that their defections to the Islamic State may have been in error. Mullah Mansour, and Sirajuddin Haqqani may very well have just established themselves as the fresh faces of tomorrow’s Taliban – still challenging to Kabul while accommodating to the population.

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