Taliban seizure of Kunduz sends message to Kabul, Europe
New Taliban leader's victory shores up position in divided militant group
Prior to Monday's Taliban attack on Kunduz, the group had — at least in some ways — slipped from the West's mind.
There have been so many headlines and so much heated debate about the threat posed by ISIS and its offshoots elsewhere in the world that it was easy to forget about the militant group that ran Afghanistan for five years, even though it continues to test the mettle of Kabul.
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The Taliban is "a divided movement, but it's still very effective," says Tristan Reed, a security analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.
"Kabul is still very much challenged to maintain the necessary force to maintain authority and control."
Little attention was given to other areas of Afghanistan, including the northern provinces.— Bill Roggio , senior fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
The Taliban has reportedly suffered internal division since the death of long-time ruler Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2013.
"But we're really watching Kabul get tested by the Taliban this year," Reed says.
Case in point: Monday's sudden seizure of a provincial capital in the north of the country, far from the Taliban's usual haunts in the south.
The fierce, multipronged assault took the Afghan military and intelligence agencies off guard. It marks the first time an urban area has fallen to the Taliban since the U.S.-led invasion ousted their regime 14 years ago.
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Kabul has vowed to retake the strategically important city, and on Wednesday special forces from the U.S.-led coalition were fighting a pitched battle alongside the Afghan military. Several U.S. air strikes have also targeted Taliban positions in and around the city.
Sending a message
The fall of Kunduz was major blow to Afghanistan's fledgling President Ashraf Ghani. According to one expert, it was likely an effort by the Taliban's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, to shore up the legitimacy of his own rule.
Christian Leuprecht, an international security expert and professor at both Queen's University and the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., says adding to the stream of refugees already fleeing the region also sends an effective message to Ghani and his backers.
"Mullah Mansour is indirectly signaling not only to the government in Kabul, but also to Europe, that he and his demands will need to be taken seriously," Leuprecht says.
"Especially since negotiations between the government and the Taliban appear to have floundered."
The Afghanistan Taliban (not to be confused with the similar, but separate group in Pakistan) is fighting to retake the country and oust the post-invasion government set up by the West.
The attack on Kunduz, Leuprecht notes, came one year to the day since Ghani took office. It was also at the tail-end of a Muslim holiday, when security forces were likely understaffed.
There were practical reasons for the attack, as well. The city and the surrounding province, also called Kunduz, have a total population of around 1 million — and are within one of the country's chief bread baskets, an area also rich with mining assets.
It lies on a strategic crossroads connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan, China and Central Asia, close to smuggling routes for drugs, minerals and weapons.
During the attack, the insurgents also reportedly captured the offices of the intelligence service and released hundreds of prisoners — each one a potential recruit — from jail.
"It essentially amounts to a raid on a major government base," Leuprecht says.
The Taliban have had a strong presence in the province since launching their annual summer offensive with an assault on the city in April.
That marked the start of a campaign across the north, but security forces had not done enough to protect the area, according to Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Little attention was given to other areas of Afghanistan, including the northern provinces, where the Taliban have expended considerable effort in fighting the military and government," Roggio wrote in a recent report.
"Today, the Taliban are gaining ground in northern, central, eastern and southern Afghanistan."
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Afghan security forces have been sorely tested by the fighting, following the withdrawal late last year of international combat troops. The army and police have suffered huge casualties, and their resources have been spread thinly across the country as the Taliban have taken their fight to topple the Kabul government to every corner of Afghanistan.
There is now speculation about whether the fall of Kunduz, and the return of the Taliban to headlines in the West, will weaken the resolve of U.S. President Barack Obama to pull American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter it's now "nearly inconceivable" Obama will pull the troops. It's a sentiment echoed by U.S. Senator John McCain, who said in a statement the White House must "abandon this dangerous and arbitrary course."
But Leuprecht predicts the Taliban's success won't change the U.S. president's mind.
"Obama's 'leading from behind' doctrine and his war-weariness would suggest that the Americans will stay the course," and continue the troop pullout, he says.
With files from Associated Press and Reuters