The Taliban’s takeover this weekend of Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, has underscored just how fraught the government’s security efforts remain a year after the end of NATO's combat mission in the country.
The city’s capture poses a major difficulty for both the Afghan government and U.S. policy, which under the Obama administration has attempted to withdraw American troops while leaving behind an Afghan government capable of defending itself.
“The [Afghan] government has, unsurprisingly, announced its commitment to recapture Kunduz. It seems entirely likely it can do this, but it will come at great cost to its own forces and to civilians,” Borhan Osman, an Afghan expert with research institute Afghanistan Analysts Network, wrote Tuesday on the organization's website. “In addition to the loss of lives and the damage to property, civilians are unlikely to regain their confidence in the government’s ability to protect its population.”
The developments in Kunduz come at an already challenging time for the government, nearly a year into the leadership of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Ghani’s tenure has emphasized pursuing peace talks with the Taliban, as well as reaching out to neighboring Pakistan — which is widely believed to be harboring many Taliban leaders in its rural areas.
But those efforts have yet to have the desired effect of creating a more stable situation on the ground, and Ghani has remained steadfast in his view that Afghan security needs to rely heavily on international troops.
Despite the end of NATO’s combat mission last year, nearly 16,000 international troops — 9,800 of them from the United States — remain in Afghanistan. The current contingent of international soldiers is there in what is officially a noncombat role, under an agreement with the Afghan government to provide training and assistance for the country’s forces.
“Afghan Security Forces have full responsibility for their operations in Kunduz,” read a statement released Wednesday by the U.S.-led coalition, reiterating this status quo understanding but acknowledging that U.S. forces were continuing to target the Taliban with airstrikes “in self-defense to eliminate the threat.”
But the Afghan government is still struggling to defeat the Taliban, particularly after the group's annual spring anti-government offensive that began in April. And civilians continue to pay a disproportionate price.
“The protection of civilians must remain at the core of any response to the current situation in Kunduz, and Taliban and Afghan security forces must take all feasible actions to prevent civilian casualties,” Mark Bowden, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, said Wednesday in response to the fighting in Kunduz.
But the grim reality for a country that has known little peace in the past several decades is that violence against civilians has been getting worse.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which tracks civilian casualties in the country, said they reached record levels during the first half of 2015, with nearly 1,600 killed. UNAMA says about 70 percent of those injured or killed are due to direct Taliban attacks on civilians.
And analysts believe that the political situation, which has given rise to such violence, is unlikely to change in the near-term.
Meanwhile, Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank, wrote in a policy note on Tuesday that the capture of Kunduz was “a symptom of a much broader crisis in the transition process in what has begun to approach a forgotten war,” referring to period since the end of the NATO combat mission. "Key failures in Afghan politics and governance at every level … have undermined popular support for the government" and empowered the Taliban, he wrote.
Meanwhile, Kunduz has strong strategic and symbolic ramifications for the Afghan government and U.S. efforts.
Economically, the city constitutes an important trade conduit as it lies close to Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan.
Also, as the site of the Taliban’s last major stand after the U.S.-led coalition ended the movement’s rule of the country in 2001, Kunduz symbolizes the difficulty Western-backed efforts have faced in fully defeating the insurgency.
But while billions of dollars have been invested by the U.S. and other Western nations in the Afghan military and police forces, their track record for battling the Taliban without U.S. assistance has been checkered.
“Kunduz is not a perfect microcosm of government’s ineffectiveness nationally,” wrote Osman of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “But it has revealed what may be deepening fault lines.”