As government forces make progress in Kunduz, there are indications the fight over the city was only part of a bigger Taliban strategy designed to increase their clout in key areas of northern Afghanistan. DW examines.
After being largely driven out by government forces of the strategically important city of Kunduz, Taliban fighters have set their sights on neighboring provinces in northern Afghanistan. Following Kabul's counter-offensive last week, most of the Islamist militants seem to have fled the country's fifth-largest city, taking looted vehicles, weapons and ammunition with them.
As a result, the fighting has now spread to the northeastern provinces of Takhar, Baghlan and Badakhshan, where the insurgents have reportedly infiltrated and temporarily captured some districts, including an area close to Fayzabad - where the German military had a base just like in Kunduz City.
This alarming development points to a larger Taliban strategy aimed at either tightening their grip across northern Afghanistan, or portraying a picture of chaos - in what has traditionally been a more peaceful region - to discredit the Kabul administration.
The move also raises questions as to whether government troops can prevent another provincial capital from falling into the hands of the increasingly bold and resilient Islamist movement.
"Kunduz is actually a very small part of a bigger story. This story is an effort by the Taliban to carve out a large sphere of influence in a geo-strategically significant region," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
The expert argues that while world media has focused on battle for Kunduz, the Taliban have also demonstrated their ability to seize territory across a broad swath of the larger region. "In the long term, that's just as concerning as the Taliban's takeover of Kunduz, given that until relatively recently northern Afghanistan was not a Taliban stronghold."
Expansion or chaos?
Even before the battle for Kunduz City, there were indications of an increasing number of attacks in the eponymous province and more widely in the north eastern quadrant of the country. The places that are being targeted appear to be those where government presence and control is perceived to be weak. They also seem to be targets of opportunity where the Taliban have enough of a presence to wage a more coordinated attack with a higher number of fighters.
In this context, Jason Campbell, an international security expert at the US-based RAND Corporation, points to a number of areas such as Warduj and Jurm in Badakhshan, Chardarra and Dasht-e Archi in Kunduz, Baghlan-e-Jadid in Baghlan, where the Taliban have been particularly active, waging attacks and threatening district centers.
Baghlan resident Farangiz Karimi told DW that since the Taliban's three-day capture of Kunduz - which began on September 28 - she and her family had been frightened of a return of the militants whose regime was ousted in a US-led invasion in 2001. "If the Taliban take control of my city, I will loose all the freedoms I have enjoyed in the past years," said the 25-year old, adding that people in the province were so worried that many had left Baghlan for Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul.
The Taliban have been trying to develop strongholds in the north - with the assistance of foreign militants - as far back as 2013. The area is of strategic importance and a potentially huge prize for the insurgents given that it is the gateway to not only energy-rich Central Asia, but also to the Taliban's global drug trade.
But perhaps even more importantly, the Taliban's expansion in the area may also be linked to local discontent with the central government in Kabul, as Campbell explains. "Throughout the region there are pockets of Pashtuns who have largely felt that the governance structure in place is inequitable at best, and predatory at worst. These communities have provided a level of local support necessary for the Taliban to build a following and maintain a presence in the north," said the security expert.
There have also been reports dating back a few years that some disaffected non-Pashtun Afghans in the north, such as Tajiks and Uzbeks, have sided with insurgent elements, he added. And other militants joined the fight last year after being driven out of their sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
In fact, the region's proximity to Central Asia may have also played a key role in bolstering not only the Taliban's resolve but also their human resources. "Central Asia has spawned a number of Taliban-allied terror groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which have established a presence in and around Kunduz over the past few years," said Kugelman.
Crisis of confidence
This is why former Afghan Army General Atiqullah Amarkhail argues that the government must tackle the root causes of the problem to avoid similar developments in other Afghan provinces. "Kabul should bring the local warlords and militias under control. What we know is that in Kunduz and other provinces these local militias take money and land from locals, and that is why some residents prefer Taliban over them."
If this problem is not taken care of, other northern provinces such as Faryab, Takhar and Badakhshan will suffer the same fate as Kunduz, he told DW, adding that security forces now needed the support of the people more than ever. "The best way for these people to help the government is to share information with them," he said.
But the Taliban's latest offensive in the north has dealt a major blow to the one-year-old unity government of President Ashraf Ghani, as it is yet again civilians who have borne the brunt of the escalating violence. "The crisis of confidence in the government was already there, but the fall of Kunduz has exacerbated this, and also brought international attention to the weakness of the Afghan government," Omar Hamid, Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at global analytics firm IHS, told DW.
'Kabul should bring the local warlords and militias under control,' says former Afghan Army General Atiqullah Amarkhail
The attacks also send a message to the Afghan government that the Taliban remain a strong adversary, even outside of their traditional strongholds in the south and east, and could serve as a way of building cohesion around their newly-appointed Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, say analysts.
The heavy fighting in the north also brings to light the shortcomings of the NATO-trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in fundamental areas such as logistics, air cover, and intelligence gathering. "Given such basic deficiencies, we can't possibly imagine the Afghan security forces rapidly taking back a big city that was lost - or, for that matter, anticipating the seizure to start with. These contingencies are simply beyond the ability of Afghan forces to manage by themselves," analyst Kugelman told DW.
IHS security expert Hamid has a similar view. "We don't assess that the ANSF are likely to collapse overnight, but what Kunduz has shown is that the best case scenario for the ANSF is that they maintain the current status quo in the country. They cannot force a victory in a conflict with the Taliban," he said.
The other unknown, as RAND Corporation analyst Campbell indicates, is the degree to which foreign fighters from places such as Pakistan, Central Asia, the Caucuses, and even the Middle East have contributed to recent events in and around Kunduz. "While some of these groups are not quite ideologically aligned with those Afghan Taliban elements typically seen in the north, if they were to form a partnership they would be formidable," he told DW.
Additional reporting by Masood Saifullah.