Three days after losing Kunduz, Afghan forces say they have retaken much of the provincial capital. DW examines the role played by foreign troops in the fighting, and how the Taliban managed to temporarily hold the city.
Afghan officials said government troops pushed overnight into Kunduz and managed to retake much of the strategically important northern city, including its center. A joint army and police operation was launched late Wednesday, with ground forces moving from the Kunduz airport. Although the insurgents have been forced to retreat in heavy street fighting, the government conceded that the operation to clear the city - captured by the Taliban earlier this week - was still ongoing and could take some days.
The fall of Afghanistan's fifth-largest city was a major setback for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, as it demonstrated the Taliban's capability to expand their area of operation beyond the east and south of the country. But perhaps more worryingly, it also reflected the extremists' willingness to step up their attacks in an attempt to seize new territory and discredit the Afghan government.
But there are also indications that Afghan troops weren't alone in their efforts to recapture the city of 300,000, raising questions as to the degree of foreign support that was required to make the latest counter-offensive a success.
A day earlier, reports emerged that forces from the US-led military coalition were also battling the insurgents. Although Coalition spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said they were fighting "out of self-defense," a senior Afghan security official elaborated that about 100 members of US Special Forces fought off Taliban attackers threatening to breach the airport in the early hours of Wednesday. The reports came as NATO spearheaded drone and airstrikes against Taliban positions in and around the city.
According to Reuters, a spokesman for the Western coalition did not comment directly on what role its troops played in the overnight offensive, if any, saying that they were "involved in Kunduz" in an advisory role.
At the peak of its Afghanistan mission, NATO had over 100,000 troops in the South Asian nation. But once ISAF ended last year, the ANSF were left fully in charge of security in a country plagued by conflict and a resurgent insurgency. NATO's 13,000-strong residual force - part of the new "Resolute Support" mission - is not in Afghanistan to fight a war, but rather to advise and train the still-fledgling 350,000-strong Afghan forces, and provide limited counterterrorism support.
Will a residual force suffice?
And according to analyst Michael Kugelman, this is exactly what happened in Kunduz. "US forces are not allowed to engage the enemy in combat unless in self-defense, and even then only at the invitation of the Afghan armed forces, so they assisted in a support role, not in a lead role," said the South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
Clearly in this case, the Afghan forces requested assistance from the US, which then obliged by deploying forces to Kunduz and engaging the Taliban when fired upon. "I imagine that the Taliban will eventually be completely be driven out of the city, and that will be possible only with the assistance of international forces," Kugelman told DW.
But the latter aspect also raises concerns as to whether NATO's limited assistance to the ANSF will be enough to fend off future attacks by an increasingly bold and resilient insurgency. Many analysts are of the view that it would be extremely difficult - if not impossible - for coalition forces to become engaged in a prolonged combat mission in Afghanistan with the current resources.
To understand the magnitude of the challenge faced by the NATO-trained ANSF, it is important to take a look at how the Taliban managed to capture and hold the city of Kunduz - one of the Islamist group's last holdouts prior to their overthrow in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Support from foreign fighters
Prior to the recent takeover, Kunduz city, capital of the province of the same name, had twice come under attack by the Taliban this year. The city is strategically important as it serves as a gateway to northern Afghanistan.
It is located on the primary east-west road connecting the north of the country as well as the main north-south road connecting Kabul with neighboring Tajikistan in Central Asia. So Taliban control of such a transport hub would create a significant logistical disconnect for the Afghan government and provide direct access to smuggling routes to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the north, Jason Campbell, an international security expert at the US-based RAND Corporation, explained.
And it seems that the city's proximity to Central Asia also helped bolster 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.
And according to Omar Hamid, Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at global analytics firm IHS, even members of the Pakistani Taliban and other Pakistani jihadist groups like Lashkar-eTaiba were spotted in the northern city.
Indeed, intense fighting around Kunduz between April and June alone had caused 176 civilian casualties (36 deaths and 140 injured), of which 64 percent resulted from the operations of pro-government forces countering the Taliban advance, said the United Nations.
So it seems that the presence of these "Taliban friends" helped put the group in a position that ultimately led to their takeover of the city. And after launching a surprise, three-pronged offensive in the early morning hours of September 28, the Islamic extremists made Kunduz the first Afghan provincial capital to fall into their hands in 14 years.
Looting and burning
Taliban fighters looted, took government vehicles and arms and freed hundreds of prisoners, leading some to suggest that they never intended or expected to hold the city for long.
But rights group Amnesty International also said the Taliban exposed civilians to grave danger by "hiding in people's houses and conducting door-to-door searches for Afghan security personnel or government staff." Subsequently, President Ghani accused the insurgents of using human shields as protection.
Kunduz resident Fasel Ahmad told DW that the Taliban set media outlets ablaze, robbed banks, blocked all major roads and closed shops in the city, making it almost impossible for people to get bread or water. "They also threatened us and wanted us to take part in the fighting," Ahmad added.
Few troops and public discontent
But perhaps more important for understanding why Kabul took three days to retake much of the city is the relatively small number of government troops stationed in the area, which forced military leaders to first assemble and then transport troops from across the country to Kunduz. According to reports, their advance was then slowed by Taliban attacks as well as the presence or suspicion of improvised explosive devices or IED's.
Moreover, as former Afghan army General, Atiqullah Amarkhail pointed put, the speed of the advance also hinged on the nature of the situation. "It is very difficult to fight a group like the Taliban in cities because a heavy attack by Afghan government forces would cause huge civilian casualties, he told DW. "In such cases, troops mostly rely on intelligence from the ground, and so it takes some time for the security forces to have enough information to engage the targets."
And as analyst Campbell explains, the situation in Kunduz was dire even before the city was taken over by the militants. The province has a very complex human terrain, with significant numbers of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns, as well as a number of other ethno-sectarian divisions. "And many of the province's Pashtun communities have been resentful of their treatment by provincial government officials and some of the former mujahid commanders who support them."
Moreover, he said, the limitations in the number of ANSF forces devoted to the province has resulted in a greater reliance on quasi-official and informal militias who have been accused of engaging in predatory and extrajudicial practices disproportionately focused on these Pashtun communities. "This has provided the Taliban with an opportunity to gain a foothold among some communities who feel that the insurgents are preferable to the government," the security expert told DW.
The civilian cost
But yet again, it's been the civilians who have borne the brunt of the violence. Up to 6,000 residents have been forced to flee the city, and the UN is now seeking to verify reports that at least 110 others were killed or injured as a result of the latest round of fighting. "We fear that many more civilians may be harmed if fighting continues over the next few days," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in a statement.
The three days it took to bring a major Afghan city back under government control may also have political repercussions as pressure increases on the government in Kabul. Analysts say this will not only add to the sense of unease about the Taliban's capabilities, but also sharpen the sentiment against the national unity government whose first year in power has been overshadowed by infighting and escalating violence around the country.
As a result of the Kunduz campaign, security expert Campbell argues that Afghan officials will now have to weigh the risks of deploying forces away from other contested areas in the east and south against losing a major city to insurgent forces.
Additional reporting by Masood Saifullah and Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi.