Oct 15, 2015 | 09:30 GMT

6 mins read

What the Battle of Kunduz Means for Afghanistan

Forecast Highlights

  • Waging a campaign for the hearts and minds of locals across all regions and demographics will be a vital part of the Afghan conflict.
  • Kabul's reliance on local militias will continue to be a high-risk strategy that can at times prove self-defeating.
  • To sustain its security forces, the Afghan government will need committed international security and economic assistance for years to come.

The Taliban may have captured the city of Kunduz in a matter of hours, but actually seizing it required extensive preparation and mobilization that likely began at least two years prior to its Sept. 27 assault on the city. These preparations included a buildup of forces in the area and guerrilla tactics to wear down Afghan security forces protecting the city. But they also involved simply identifying and taking advantage of assets that local security forces lacked: support from the local population and adequate numbers and funding to counter the Taliban. Lacking both, the security forces in Kunduz could not hold the city. Though Afghan forces recaptured the strategic city in the north, the brief loss was a sobering reminder that without local support and adequate resources, the Afghan government will not be able to keep other crucial areas from falling to the Taliban. Winning public support domestically and securing international aid, important in any counterinsurgency, will remain vital components of Kabul's fight for survival in the Afghanistan conflict.

Since late 2013, when U.S. forces first began withdrawing from the area, the Taliban have been increasingly diverting forces — at times posed as migrant workers for the poppy harvest — and resources to the northern Kunduz region. Attacks in and around Kunduz escalated as the Taliban waged a guerrilla campaign, using hit-and-run tactics on outposts and patrols, improvised explosive devices, assassinations and other means to undermine and demoralize the Afghan National Security Forces. Occasionally the Taliban staged larger-scale attacks that seized territory, but they would often withdraw in the face of superior firepower, conserving their strength.

Hearts and Minds

More important, the Taliban demonstrated enough flexibility to adopt a different approach when interacting with the local population in the region. Ethnic minorities predominate in Afghanistan's northern region, which are far from the Pashtun heartland in the south that the Taliban hail from and have come to rely on during their insurgency. There the Taliban temporarily became more inclusive to gain the necessary support from the local population, for a time discarding some of its more draconian methods to avoid alienating potential allies. The Taliban also sent many of their Tajik and Uzbek members and allies to the Kunduz region to infiltrate the dominant local Tajik and Uzbek populations. The Taliban's softer approach toward local populations proved fleeting: When they captured Kunduz, Taliban militants readopted harsh measures to subjugate the population. But the jihadist group's flexible policies ahead of the attack enabled them to attract more and more recruits, steadily expanding their presence and strength in the north until they could take the strategic city.

In many ways, however, the local Afghan government in the region has been its own worst enemy. Similar to Mosul before its fall to the Islamic State in June 2014, the Kunduz provincial government is widely accused of systematic corruption. The central Afghan government's dependence on an assortment of local militias, private armies, and warlords exacerbated corruption and the local ill will that came with it. With the Afghan National Security Forces already stretched thin across the country and with the militia's greater familiarity with the local terrain, it made some sense to rely on these paramilitary forces. However, the militias, locally known as the "arkabis," proved excessively corrupt and inefficient, aggravating rather than improving the security situation through numerous instances of kidnapping, rape, extortion, beatings and assassinations. It all proved self-defeating. Just as in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government, the Taliban appealed to Afghans seeking a cure for the pervasive corruption and rapaciousness of the warlords that had taken over the country, in Kunduz the militant group offered locals a welcome alternative to abusive militia control, despite ethnic differences and historical animosity.

Thus the fall of Kunduz emphasizes that the campaign for the hearts and minds of the local Afghan population is still an ongoing process that will be crucial to the success of combatants in the conflict. The Taliban would not have been able to initially seize Kunduz had they not first won the support of the local population and built up ties with armed groups that had a considerable presence in the north, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Moreover, pervasive corruption and weak governance ultimately undermined the provincial government's efforts to win the allegiance of its citizens, effectively losing the fight for Kunduz before it began.

The Need for Support

Another vital component of the conflict going forward will be the effectiveness and capacity of the Afghan military. The Afghan National Security Forces have some competent personnel among their most highly trained and specialized units but are currently stretched thin across numerous fronts, gradually suffering unsustainable losses. For instance, the attrition rate was twice as high in the first nine months of 2015 compared with the same months of 2014, and last week the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, testified in front of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that the Afghan National Security Forces do not possess the necessary combat power and numbers to protect every part of the country. Elevated attrition levels will undermine the foundation and future growth of the Afghan security forces, which will only force the government to rely more heavily on local militias and warlords who, as they did in Kunduz, may prove to be a weakness.

The deterioration of Afghanistan's security forces makes the question of security and economic aid from abroad all the more pressing. Afghan air capacity is woefully inadequate, and the Afghan government still depends on U.S. and NATO logistics and intelligence support. Simultaneously, the Afghan government needs a much larger army to effectively put down the insurgency, yet it cannot even afford to maintain its security forces at their present size. Currently the international community funds more than 90 percent of the operating costs of the Afghan National Security Forces, and the need for that funding is unlikely to diminish in the years to come. The future of the Afghan government and its counterinsurgency will depend on a high level of international commitment. As Gen. Campbell testified, without adequate international funding and troops, the Afghan National Security Forces could collapse.

Ultimately, however, even with adequate foreign security and economic support, Kabul could still lose the conflict. The mismanagement of Kunduz points to deeper deficiencies such as pervasive corruption and dependence on warlords. All could effectively undermine the Afghan government's control in the long run. The Taliban's success in the city, though fleeting, highlights the difficulties that lie ahead for the Afghan government as it rebuilds the country, including providing transparent and reliable governance at the regional and local level. 

Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani

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