Resurgent Taliban overruns Kunduz
The fall of Kunduz to Taliban is not only strategically significant but is also cause for deep worry for the Afghan National Unity Government. There are reports of fierce fighting in Badakshan, Baghlan and other northern provinces of the country while the Taliban has also captured Warduj district, the gateway to the strategic Wakhan corridor in North East Afghanistan, which connects China. Kunduz, controlled by Taliban, is a threat to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Since being driven out of Kabul in 2001, this was the first time Taliban forces were successful in overrunning a province and even hold the capital for several days.
The resurgence of Taliban, after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death in July 2015, can be ascribed to several factors - low morale and fighting capability of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the downturn in relations between Kabul and Islamabad, the fractious National Unity Government (NUG), Taliban's new leader Mullah Mansour consolidating his position, withdrawal of the ISAF, and the stalled peace process.
Kunduz has been under siege by Taliban since the departure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by the end of 2014. In the last week of September 2015, around 1000 Taliban fighters along with fighters from Central Asia and Pakistan mounted an offensive on Kunduz, and swiftly occupied major installations of the city. The 7000 fighters of ANA troops failed to defend the city. Taliban released 600 fighters from Kunduz jail, who also joined the fight. Reinforcements were sent and with US jets bombing Taliban positions, the ANA was able to regain the city center, but the periphery is still under insurgent control.
Interestingly, Mullah Mansour, in an open letter, assured Kunduz residents that Taliban would not repeat its atrocities of the past.
Head of the US Forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, said that the 350,000 soldiers of the Afghan army spread thin across the country, suffering from low morale and unable to fight alone without assistance of foreign allies. Its chain of command is weak, and desertions and defections are frequent when the going gets tough. The intelligence network is terrible while commanders are reportedly corrupt and inefficient. More time will be needed to ensure that these soldiers are combat ready.
Since coming to power, President Ashraf Ghani made attempts to have a good workable relationship with Pakistan. In July 2015, Pakistan brought NUG and Taliban to the table for a peace deal. But when Pakistan revealed that Mullah Omar, Taliban's spiritual leader was dead, Kabul balked and the process stalled. Suspicious of ulterior motives, Kabul now distrusts Islamabad.
Pakistan has always considered landlocked Afghanistan as its strategic depth in case of conflict with India. Because of its rivalry with India, Pakistan has always wanted an amenable government in Kabul. Co-funded by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in the early 1990s, Pakistan continues to support Taliban despite mounting international pressure.
Analysts say that Taliban's offensive on Kunduz is a result of fallout of relations between Kabul and Islamabad. Many are of the opinion that ISI masterminds were behind operation in Kunduz, to demonstrate that Taliban is not a defeated group but a credible fighting force and Mullah Mansour was effectively in-charge. This was done to compel Kabul to agree to negotiate a peace deal with Mullah Mansour.
Bad governance, which stems from poor and ineffective administration from the novel arrangement in Kabul, is the foremost problem for Afghanistan. The presidential elections of June 2014 produced a deadlock between two political rivals, Dr. Ashraf Ghani (Pashtun) and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (Tazik), both claiming to have won the elections. The stalemate was resolved by a US-brokered deal that led ultimately to a power-sharing agreement known as the National Unity Government. Ghani became president and Abdullah was made the CEO. This bizarre setup has created tensions between the two rivals, along tribal lines and over demarcation of responsibilities.
Afghanistan is notorious for tribal allegiance. The two men play out their differences through their tribal militias and warlords in the provinces. Kunduz was the stage where the two doctors created an administrative mess and made way for the Taliban to take over the city.
The ruling elites' endemic corruption, ethnic patronage, exclusionary politics and abusive governance had alienated the people where the Taliban found secure refuge. Talks are openly held in Kabul about the collapse of the government. Abdullah has asked Ghani to resign because of incompetence. Rivalry between the two men has made the Unity government dysfunctional while strengthening the insurgency.
Taliban's attack on Kunduz has laid bare the failure of America's "war on terror" in Afghanistan. Even after 14 years of ISAF military operations, the insurgency is nowhere under control. America has spent billions of dollars to train the Afghan army and equip them, which even Americans say have gone waste. Americans have abandoned Ghani and Abdullah, and are leaving Afghanistan without developing state institutions to deal with the Taliban. If another provincial capital falls to Taliban, which is not unlikely, it may bring down the NUG.
Pakistan's predicament is that it has created a Frankenstein's monster in the form of Taliban in Afghanistan. ISI's hypocritical role in sponsoring Afghan Taliban and bombing Tehrik-i-Taliban has posed serious internal security issues for Pakistan. A Taliban government in Kabul is no solution to Pakistan's security dilemma.
To resolve the insurgency, the Unity government needs to ensure good governance and a serious attempt to work out a peace deal. Pakistan can help that process by giving up its dangerous Afghan policy. Islamabad is well aware that there will be no peace in Pakistan if there is no peace in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary.