THE fall of Kunduz may have been near inevitable, but the effect has nevertheless been dramatic.
First, there is the symbolism: the fall of a northern city, far removed from the sanctuaries Pakistan is accused of providing and even further from the Afghan Taliban strongholds in the south of the country; its occurrence on the eve of the unity government’s first year in charge; a significant Taliban victory as the annual fighting season approaches its end; a provincial capital falling back into the hands of the Taliban some 14 years after they were swept from power by a US-led coalition.
Then, there are the grim realities of the war itself. This fighting season has been unprecedented in terms of losses suffered by the Afghan National Security Forces and gains made by the Afghan Taliban. Kunduz was under Taliban assault last September and again this April, and each time the same pattern revealed itself: poor coordination among the Afghan army, police and local police and an abject lack of leadership.
While the Taliban assault does seem sophisticated and well-coordinated, a great deal of the problem appears to have resulted from the failure of the ANSF.
There is even speculation that Kunduz was allowed to fall because rushing in forces from neighbouring provinces could have worsened the security situation in other regions. That theory will be tested now that the Afghan government has declared retaking Kunduz a priority. It will not be easy, however.
With Taliban forces now inside the city and mixing with the local population, fighting will likely cause civilian causalities and damage to the city’s infrastructure.
Victory, if the Afghan state does succeed in retaking Kunduz, may well be a Pyrrhic one. The problems for the Ashraf Ghani-led government though go far beyond Kunduz.
A year on, the unity government appears to be going nowhere. If anything, it appears to have been a strategic error by the US to force Mr Ghani and his rival for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah, into an arrangement that neither really wanted.
The Afghan government was never a service-oriented, people-centric entity under president Hamid Karzai, but that was precisely what Mr Ghani had vowed to change. Instead, he has been bogged down in the endless politics of maintaining an unnatural coalition.
Worrying too are the prospects for the resumption of talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government.
Even as Mullah Mansour’s negotiating position appears to have hardened, the Afghan government seems unsure about engaging the Taliban in talks at all. Perhaps, following the collapse of the second round of the Murree talks, elements inside the Afghan state had hoped that the Taliban would splinter so that they would be easier to deal with on the battlefield.
But that has not come to pass — leaving the Afghan government seemingly at a loss about how to proceed.
Published in Dawn September 30th, 2015