What Do the Taliban in Kunduz Really Mean?

A hospital bombed. A Presidential apology. Payments for the dead. A depressing narrative repeated countless times in Afghanistan.

Taliban Background:

Taliban:

Sunni Islamist nationalist and pro-Pashtun movement founded in the early 1990s that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until October 2001. The movement’s founding nucleus—the word “Taliban” is Pashto for “students”—was composed of peasant farmers and men studying Islam in Afghan and Pakistani madrasas, or religious schools.

Taliban flag
Taliban flag

Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

TTP is an alliance of militant networks formed in 2007. TTP’s stated objective is the expulsion of foreign influence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan, the implementation of sharia law throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the elimination of ISIS fighters and supporters in the region. TTP historically maintained close ties to senior al-Qa‘ida leaders, including al-Qa‘ida’s former head of operations for Pakistan; Baitullah Mehsud, the first TTP leader, died August 5, 2009, and his successor and brother Hakimullah Mehsud, died on 1 November 2013 by US drone campaigns in Northern Waziristan.

Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan in 2013.
Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan in 2013.

Today the expansive Taliban reach has spread more rapidly than at any time during the last 14 years of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in Afghanistan fought the Taliban at tremendous loss, yet events unfolding recently in Kunduz City in Northern Afghanistan, with an estimated population of 300,000 residents, possibly represents ISAF and ANSF failed effort to refocus residents and local government through Counter-Insurgency “Hearts and Minds” (COIN)- the biggest problem being Afghan corruption and a system of local governance reliant on it. The City of Kunduz is less important than the strategic location it represent, yet Kunduz is a hot button topic to key multinational players.

Who says what?

Afghan ethnic groups
Afghan ethnic groups

Some Afghans are rumored to blame Pakistani Intelligence, the Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI), for largely funding and arming the Taliban. Interestingly, the TTP in Northern Waziristan’s tribal region, which straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan not far from Tora Bora, is the remote area where Osama Bin Laden hid in caves and eluded US Special Forces and CIA operatives in March 2002 ‘Operation Anaconda’.

Tora Bora, Afghanistan, is known locally as Spīn Ghar, and is situated only 6.2 miles North of the AF/PAK Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A difficult terrain to access, it remained the favored home of Pakistani Taliban leadership.

Mullah Omar, now dead.
Mullah Omar, now dead.

Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar is believed to have died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013. Mullah Omar, an Afghan national, was born in the village of Chah-i-Himmat, Kandahar province. He had fought with the Freedom Fighters Resistance against Soviet occupation in 1980s, and had also forged close ties to al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. After Mullah Omar’s death and an internal TTP restructuring, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, an educated Pakistani/Afghan dual national, assumed leadership of the (TTP)Taliban, and on August 27, 2015 Afghan Taliban pledged fealty to Mansour in a video released by Al Emarah Studio, part of the new Multimedia Branch of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s ‘Cultural Commission’ in a video published online. Their stated mission: “to fight ISIS and protect Afghanistan from intervening foreign interests”.

Historically, the Taliban had been edging closer to regaining a foothold in Kunduz for a year prior to the most recent attack. The city had suffered attacks regularly from the Taliban, but none recently as swift and well armed as the September 28, 2015 attack where they set free hundreds of prisoners. Sources within the National Directorate of Security (NDS) of Afghanistan say locals believe Kunduz Gov Mohammad Omar Safi may have been tipped-off about the pending #Taliban attack at least a month prior to the attack & didn’t warn Kabul. He was in Tajikistan on the day of the attack “at a conference” and fled to London that same day. Others say the prison release had help from the inside which then greatly increased the number of fighters for the Taliban to successfully continue their offensive on Kunduz. Hence the added suspicion by some Afghan intellectuals in Kabul that the expanded military capacity of the Taliban represents a deeper form of Talib support by locals, by local governance and by Pakistani ISI.

ISIS in Afghanistan
ISIS in Afghanistan

With the expansion of ISIS in Afghanistan, the socio-ethnic divide between western leaning intellectuals in Kabul and their rural counterparts are increasingly split along regional socio-ethnic lines. President Ghani receives his strongest support from the United States, but is viewed by many Afghans as a detriment to an effective leadership in the fight against the Islamic State…similar to (some) international sentiment towards US tactical strategies against ISIS (ISIL) in Syria or Iraq.

Social media comments by locals say some Afghans look to Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Afghan warlord, former general and ethnic Uzbek serving as Vice President of Afghanistan since 2014, as better candidate as strongman with the needed experience to fight ISIS. Born in 1954 in Jowzjan Province, Afghanistan. He is now in negotiations with Russia for air support, arms and heavy equipment shipments and a possible forward base to fight ISIS as an extension of their fight in Syria and the Caucasus.

Meanwhile some locals publicly question what it is exactly that President Ghani is doing as president to secure Afghanistan from increasing terrorism attacks. He recently negotiated a treaty with PAK/ISI to stop ISI intervention Afghanistan, but in light of the most recent Taliban attack in Kunduz, this treaty may prove largely ineffective.

Afghan President Ghani and US President Obama
Afghan President Ghani and US President Obama

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, born 1949, is an ethnic Pashtun from the Ahmadzai Ghilji tribe, was elected on September 21, 2014. An anthropologist by education, he previously served as Finance Minister and the chancellor of Kabul University. Some argue he may not have the military experience of Vice President Dostum, and some have publicly called for his removal. It should be noted that under what is seen as a weak government, many regional cities and towns in Afghanistan are preferring to support the Taliban than fall to ISIS, who has shown themselves to be pervasively more brutal than the Taliban. Leaving the viable question of whether locals allowed the Taliban to take over Kunduz without a fight, leaving the weight of the fight to ANSF/ANA and the US coalition. It has been alleged by some that the MSF Bombing by US coalition was due to “intentionally faulty” Afghan intel with the goal of disrupting the US/Afghan relationship, to weaken President Ghani in the eyes of Afghans and to force pressure on the Afghan Government to grant Vice President Dostum more authority in negotiations with Russia for increased arms deals and presence in Afghanistan.

Kunduz near Tajikistan
Kunduz near Tajikistan

Kunduz is adjacent to Tajikistan, a Central Asian country bordering Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where the East Asian Community trade block (EAC) is struggling to fight an expanding ISIS threat, and with Russia in-bound building strategic military bases. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, met Tuesday, October 13, 2015 in Sochi, Russia, at Putin’s summer residence to discuss Russia’s enhanced presence in the region. Rahmon allegedly told Putin that he was concerned with the Taliban’s growing presence near his nation’s borders and welcomed Russian support. The Russian Defense Ministry subsequently deployed several Mi-24P attack helicopters Wednesday to its Tajik airbase, the defense ministry said.

The Af/PAK Corridor security is strategically vital to Chinese infrastructure investments to be brokered out to Russia and Iran, projects from crude oil pipelines from Tajikistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, to a new Hydroelectric Power Dam being built in Pakistan in the FATA region, to Huawei Telecom infrastructure and various AF/PAK corridor mining projects.This is what Kunduz and Afghanistan in general really mean. A tactical, logistical bridge between multinational interests of oil, power and the flow of arms within an emergent threat of ISIS, and a new cold war between the US, China and Russia.

Strategic to these interests is Highway One, which connects all of Afghanistan’s main cities, and has long suffered repeated Taliban attacks.  In recent weeks, the insurgents have cut a highway in Baghlan Province, which had been an uncontested government stronghold. Meanwhile, in many districts that are nominally under government control, like Musa Qala in Helmand Province and Charchino in Oruzgan Province, Afghan military forces hold only the government buildings in the district center and are under constant siege by the insurgents.

Afghan Highway 1, formerly known as Ring Road
Afghan Highway 1, formerly known as Ring Road

Highway 1 or A01 formally called the Ring Road, is a 2,200 kilometre two-lane road network circulating inside Afghanistan, connecting the following major cities (clock wise): Mazar, Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar, Farah, and Herat in the west or northwest. It has extensions that also connect Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah, Delaram (Route 66), Islam Qala, and several other cities. It is part of AH1, the longest route of the Asian Highway Network. This will become the stage battle ground for the coming months and possibly years.

Today, Oct. 14, 2015, government forces have slowly regained control in Kunduz, but fighting has flared in Ghazni, a provincial city that lies south of Kabul on Highway One, the main link between the capital and the major southern city of Kandahar. Security forces beat off an attack by hundreds of Taliban in Ghazni on Monday, but clashes continued in nearby villages and the highway was blocked, leaving many desperate people trapped in the open by the fighting. (H.Shalizi)

The losing battle against the Taliban:

“The DoD has consistently inflated assessments on the war in Afghanistan to the optimistic side since 2001. Other elements of the (intelligence community) had considerably pushed back against DoD manipulation of facts on the ground to no avail. In particular, several departments got into pitched back-and-forth bureaucratic battles with DoD after Defense kept massaging and constructing a positive narrative out of a disastrous downward trajectory in Afghanistan… a clear and alarming reality that was readily identifiable from 2008 onward, so when you’re looking to point fingers on why the war in Afghanistan was prioritized so lowly, how it was fought with such a dearth of supplies and materiel, how it was lost… make sure you’re facing the direction of the Pentagon” (E.Jones).

In a separate operation that ended on Sunday, Oct , the United States, which still provides air support to Afghan forces, said it conducted 63 air strikes on an al Qaeda training camp and another site near Kandahar, which included 200 Afghan and U.S. ground troops and were described by a U.S. spokesman as “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan”. (Hamid Shalizi)

What does Kunduz really mean? The war is just beginning…

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