Afghanistan’s northern city of Kunduz is currently in limbo. On the 28 September, the Taliban attacked and took control of the area. Later on 1 October, the Afghan government and military launched a counterattack to try to regain control of the city. There is no clear indication of who has control over the city at this point, as both sides continue to fight.
There are other concerns beyond the Taliban attacking Kunduz and threatening Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s government and its people. Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan MP, confirmed late last week that the Taliban had also gained control of the Warduj district of Badakhshan, which is east of Kunduz. The extremists are looking to extend their control throughout the country. The Taliban taking control of these areas raises the question of whether the Afghan government and military are equipped to deal with both the extremist group and other issues plaguing the Middle East.
The Taliban taking control of Kunduz this past Monday is also the first major gain for the organization since 2001 when the United States deployed forces to the country after September 11th. While the group was eventually ousted and lost considerable power, the Taliban never completely disappeared and has been building up support throughout the country. There is the inevitable uncertainty surrounding what ends these actions by the Taliban will yield.
It is also important to recognize the importance of Kunduz. The attack and takeover was a shock to Afghanistan and the international community, but Kunduz is truly a very strategic city to target. Located in the north of Afghanistan, it is considered a gateway to other provinces in the country and to Tajikistan, a neighboring nation and important border for the drug trade. Although the Afghan government responded to the Taliban’s attack of Kunduz, the ambiguity of who has control of the area leaves access to this important piece of land undetermined. The illegal business opportunity is at stake and open for the taking. If the Taliban can keep control of the city and extend its reach throughout the northern region, the profits from selling drugs like opium and heroin will go directly into the extremists’ pockets.
The most explosive effects of the fighting this past week were the air strikes that hit a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz. The United States carried out a raid around the time the hospital was hit, so they are thought to be at fault. In total, 19 people were killed and 37 were injured. This shocking event seems to return to the question of whether the Afghan government and military are equipped to deal with the situation at hand. The United States is still present in the region, but if President Obama’s plans are carried through and the Americans leave, will the Taliban gain more ground? The American military seems to be the strongest force against the Taliban at the moment. For example, a United States official told the New York Times, “The military leadership here is really frustrated with the Afghan leadership. They have not been able to maintain momentum.” It could be argued that the Taliban’s show of force this past week demonstrates that Afghanistan still needs outside help from foreign governments or international organizations to maintain its ability to govern and protect its people.
What could have been done to prevent the Taliban from rising up again? Earlier this year President Obama met with President Ghani, and the Afghan leader expressed his concern about the plans to significantly reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan and withdraw completely by the end of 2016. President Obama changed the withdrawal schedule in response to Afghanistan’s government’s concerns and request for support, but that may not have been enough. According to Mark Schneider, a senior vice-president of the International Crisis Group, “In Kunduz the Afghan local police have not been effective. As a result you have a tendency to see others [the Taliban] fill in.” Because there are less American troops and special forces in the region, there is no strong power protecting Afghanistan and its democratically elected government. With the Taliban becoming a very visible and dangerous influence again, individuals may wonder how effective the last 14 years of United States military presence have been and if the wind-down weakened whatever impact the U.S. had.
At the UN meeting this past week, United States President Obama emphasized the need for multilateral action in the world. “No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.” Cooperation and coordination between the world’s countries is imperative in defeating extremist groups like the Taliban or ISIS. Maybe the Afghan government and military will be just as successful in fighting extremist groups as the United States’ unilateral actions have been. However, with the pressing and immediate threat from the Taliban, when will this coalition of states join together to help Afghanistan fight back?
How far-reaching the effects will be of the Taliban’s recent gains remains to be seen. The group is clearly causing devastation again and the fighting has resulted in the loss of innocent life in the bombing of the MSF hospital. President Ghani’s government will have to organize itself to attempt to rid the country of the extremists. And, hopefully, multilateral action will come together to defeat extremism.