The Battle for Kunduz

New Delhi, Oct. 14 (ANI): A reference to events in Kunduz in September-October 2015 invariably draws a comparison to what happened in this Afghan province towards the end of 2001.

The Taliban had been on the offensive there, but were ousted by a massive US counter-offensive accompanying a Northern Alliance onslaught.

In 2001, the Taliban had been assisted by a large number of Pakistani regulars from the army and intelligence. This contingent consisted of retired military and intelligence officers, civilians and trained serving military operatives, but not in uniform. Estimated to be about 2-3000, these trapped “advisors” were flown out in Pakistani aircraft and with US approval from Kunduz in haste before the Northern Alliance could lay their hands on them.

The fleeing advisors also took some Taliban with them for safe custody and future use. Fourteen years later, the latest Taliban take over seemed to be temporary as battles in northern Afghanistan continue.

By December 2001, Taliban commanders, keenly watched by Pakistani military commanders and intelligence officers, met in Peshawar. This war council comprised about 60 men, including those from Pakistani militant and religious organisations and discussed the future course of action.

They were not wasting any time and did not feel they had lost the war, but had only suffered temporary setbacks. Among those attending this war council were Lt. Gen. Abbasi, sacked earlier for plotting the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and a former ISI operative who had helped organise the Mujahedeen resistance against the Soviets; Col Imam (real name Brigadier Sultan Amir) who had been trained at the US Special Forces training centre at Fort Bragg and who had trained the Mujahedeen in the 1980s; Taliban Ambassador Zaeef, who later ended up at Guantanamo; and, Mohammed, son of Jalaluddin, leader of Haqqani Networks, considered a veritable arm of the ISI.

Commenting on this meeting, Carlotta Gall in her book The Wrong Enemy, says “The Taliban comeback was underway.”

This has taken a while, but as the Taliban used to say “You [Americans] have the watches, we have the time.”

By mid-2014, there were reports that Afghan security forces had cleared Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz province of insurgents, but in actual fact, by September 2014, the Taliban had managed to secure additional territory around the province.

The main factors behind the Taliban territorial gains were the acquisition of additional weapons, heightened tensions between actors involved in the elections, the weakness of the anti-Taliban front, particularly the local police – and increasing support from the local population. There was not much progress after that although the Taliban were increasingly present in many parts of Afghanistan in the south and east.

But the recent move to capture Kunduz by the Taliban is significant in many ways. It is the first major engagement by the Taliban after Mullah Akhtar Mansour succeeded Mullah Omar.

This would go help in establishing Mansour’s authority over the Taliban and possibly end the infighting and doubts that without Omar the movement would dissipate.

The attempt on Kunduz was a carefully planned offensive and not a spontaneous attempt.The offensive was aided by reinforcements that came from North Waziristan and were mostly those belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union and East Turkestan Islamic Movement for long sheltered in FATA and had moved out following Operation Zarb-e-Azb of the Pakistan army.

Being prudent and experienced handlers of terrorist movements in the region, the Pakistani establishment would not have left this operation solely in the hands of non-Pakistanis. Control of this operation was essential and there would be no other more qualified for trust and delivery than Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

Kunduz has a large ethnic mix of Pashtun, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and others – all of whom wish to hold the province. Kunduz is crucially located in the north and the Taliban’s next target could be Badakshan and Sar-e-Pul provinces. A Taliban haven in northern Afghanistan in addition to those in the south and east would strangulate Kabul and strengthen the insurgents’ hold in the country.

The Taliban, backed by their mentors in Pakistan, presume they have made the winning move. Yet, the Afghan National Army has considerable ability to fight, but, they need assistance in plenty and soon.

It thus promises to be a long hard winter for President Ashraf Ghani and considerable hand-wringing in America.

One hopes they can do more than that, having botched up yet another military intervention and accept that coddling Pakistan will not help stabilise Afghanistan.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Vikram Sood. Mr. Sood is a former Secretary R and A W, Government of India, and currently an adviser to the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. (ANI)

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