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Kunduz: The Taliban’s biggest victory in years, explained

An Afghan fighter after the fall of Kunduz.
An Afghan fighter after the fall of Kunduz.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Some terrible news broke in Afghanistan on Monday news: The Taliban had captured the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city and home to about 300,000 people. Kunduz is the provincial capital of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan; the city is the first provincial capital the Taliban has managed to take in 14 years.

It's not clear how long the Taliban can hold on to the city, but this is a bad sign. The city's fall is a testament to some fundamental weaknesses in the Afghan military and government — problems that will bedevil the country as it tries to remain stable in the wake of NATO's withdrawal.

Why Kunduz fell

For several years now, the Taliban has been getting stronger in Afghanistan's north.

"The reported ‘move north’ of the Taleban ... has been a steady development since at least 2007/08," Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, wrote in May. In Kunduz province, they're "well-entrenched and have so far resisted all attempts to push them out for good."

In both September 2014 and April 2015, the Taliban launched major offensives in the province. So this latest offensive, which went all the way to the city of Kunduz, was no surprise.

According to Jason Lyall, a Yale University expert on Afghanistan and insurgency, there are three big reasons the Taliban grew strong enough to make such major gains in Kunduz: the "corrupt and violent militia" defending the city, the "weak central state," and "ethnic rivalries" between local groups.

That "corrupt and violent militia" isn't just some local warlord — it also includes the Afghan Local Police (ALP). The ALP formed in 2010 as a US-sponsored experiment to build up locally run military and police forces loyal to the central government. In practice, however, the ALP have been riddled with problems: They're corrupt, poorly led, abusive, and militarily ineffective.

The ALP are "often outgunned by the Taliban and are estimated to be losing men at three to six times the rate of regular security forces," AFP's Anuj Chopra reported from Kunduz in July, adding that the ALP forces are "widely likened to militias owing to their shady reputation for lawlessness and brutality."

And yet, the city had little choice but to rely on the ALP — leaving it vulnerable to a Taliban offensive. ALP "weaknesses contributed to insecurity that threatened to overwhelm Kunduz city early in the 2015 fighting season," the International Crisis Group wrote in a June report.

Kunduz was also defended by members of pro-government militias, which operate outside of any official legal structure. In light of the growing Taliban threat, the Afghan government enlisted hundreds of militia fighters — often led by warlords — to defend Kunduz back in May. These militias are, if anything, more brutal and less effective than the ALP. "Illegal militias have an even worse reputation than ALP units," as the Crisis Group put it.

Kunduz shows Afghanistan's weakness and susceptibility to a Taliban resurgence

alp kunduz

An ALP fighter in Kasab village in Kunduz. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

The Afghan government relied on militias in Kunduz out of a desperate necessity for a simple but very important reason: The central government is very, very weak.

Its military forces, the Afghan National Army and the National Police, are poorly organized and overstretched. According to Ruttig, "Neither the US nor the Afghan government knew exactly how many soldiers and policemen are at its disposal."

The country's political leadership is deeply divided among itself, riven by factional and ethnic jockeying. Under these conditions, the central army can't function effectively — and there are just not enough resources to provide real oversight.

Kunduz province itself is riven by ethnic conflict that, while not unique in Afghanistan, has left it especially vulnerable.

"There’s a major Pashtun-Tajik/Uzbek divide in Kunduz," Lyall writes via email. "The Pashtuns [are] dominant in some districts but the province is overall Tajik and Uzbek."

The Taliban, which is heavily Pashtun, took advantage of that. "Local resistance [to the government] often occurred in Pashtun areas patrolled by non-Pashtun ALP," the Crisis Group writes.

"In a province where all of the country’s ethnic groups are present and major political factions hold ground at the expense of others, insurgents have an easy game taking advantage of tensions that are constantly being fueled by feelings of being marginalised," Lola Cecchinel, program director at the Afghanistan-focused ATR Consulting, writes. "The insurgents are depicting the government, and particularly militias linked to government officials, as corrupt, inefficient and predatory, and this is falling on fertile ground among the population."

It's not obvious, according to Lyall, that the Taliban can actually hold on to the city of Kunduz in the face of a concerted Afghan counterattack. But no military offensive to retake the city, even if it succeeds in kicking the Taliban back out, can solve the underlying problems with the Afghan state and military that caused the city to fall in the first place — raising some serious questions about how well the Afghan government, now on its own with NATO forces gone, can hold off the Taliban.