The Taliban's Takeover of Kunduz Tests America in Afghanistan

The takeover "marks a new phase in the war and a critical test for the effort by the United States and NATO."

In 2009 and 2010, the war in Afghanistan was the top national security issue that every pundit, columnist, and think-tank analyst in Washington was talking about.  At that time, there were roughly 100,000 U.S. troops patrolling some of the most dangerous villages and valleys in Helmand and Kandahar province.  An average of 41 U.S. soldiers were being killed in Taliban ambushes, roadside bombings, suicide attacks, and small-arms fire every month — an incredibly difficult period when U.S. and coalition objectives in Afghanistan centered on the tough and ambitious work of clearing insurgent fighters from key strongholds and ensuring that the Afghan national security forces were strong and capable enough to secure those areas once U.S. forces left.

Five years later, Afghanistan is an afterthought to many Americans.  The 100,000 American soldiers who were once doing the grunt-work of clearing neighborhoods from Taliban elements are no longer there.  Although 9,800 Americans remain on the ground, the U.S. and ISAF mission for 2015 is markedly different: training, advising, and equipping the Afghan security forces; continuing to strike Al-Qaeda targets in counterterrorism raids; and providing Afghan units with air power when they are in danger of being overrun.  U.S. casualties are at the lowest point since the war in Afghanistan began fourteen years ago.

The sudden retreat of Afghan national security forces last week from the city of Kunduz has brought Afghanistan back into the mainstream press.  Taliban advances in remote districts of the Afghan countryside are nothing new, but a victory in a major metropolitan area far from the group’s traditional strongholds in the south is something else entirely — it is as shocking as it is concerning.

Granted, the Taliban were in control of Kunduz for less than 72 hours.  The Afghan army, with the help of the U.S. Air Force and special operations advisers, recaptured the bulk of the city and are in the process of clearing remaining areas of resistance.  But the Taliban takeover of Kunduz, in the words of former infantry officer Emile Simpson, “marks a new phase in the war and a critical test for the effort by the United States and NATO.”  Here’s why.

1.    The Taliban is not at all beaten

The Afghan army and national police have made significant strides since 2010, the first full year of President Barack Obama’s troop surge.  Thousands of Taliban fighters have been killed, a large amount of terrain has been taken from areas Taliban insurgents once called home, and the provincial capital of Kandahar (the birthplace of the Taliban movement) is firmly in the grasp of the Afghan Government.  Yet despite these notable accomplishments, the ANSF’s failure to hold on to Kunduz is demonstrative of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan today: the Taliban may be weak compared to its past life, but it’s still a viable force with enough men under arms to take a city of 300,000 people in a conventional fashion.

The assault on Kunduz last week says as much about Taliban strength as it does about the Afghan army’s weakness.  With just a few hundred men involved in the assault team, the Taliban was able to push an Afghan Government force of 5,000-7,000 men out of the city limits, storm into Kunduz via multiple points of entry, and close of roads leading out of the city once government forces were forced to retreat to the airport.  The closing of routes out of the city was a cynical yet clever attempt by Taliban units to make a counterattack by the Afghan Government far more difficult by putting civilians at risk.

2.    Afghan security forces are a work in progress after all these years

The Taliban offensive in Kunduz encapsulates the enormous problems that are ingrained within the Afghan army, national police, and local police in areas of the country that are far away from Kabul.  2015 has been an especially tough year on Afghan forces; indeed, as U.S. and coalition forces have drawn down and evolved their mission from combat to advising, the ANSF have experienced far more casualties.  Nearly 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed or wounded in the first fifteen weeks of this year, according to U.S. military statistics — a 70% increase from the same period in 2014.  The Afghan national security forces as a whole have struggled to cut down on desertions, a phenomenon that contributes to a monthly army attrition rate of roughly 2.3%. Civilian casualties have also increased from the previous year, which is an indication that the Taliban are either deliberately targeting the civilian population or that government forces are not able to protect the population from Taliban predations.  It’s bad in either case.

When the commander of the ISAF Joint Command openly tells reporters that the Afghan army and police attrition rate is “not sustainable,” you know the situation in Afghanistan is at best shaky and at worst on the precipice.  If the ANSF attrition rate is “not sustainable” today with 9,800 Americans still in country, how bad will it be in 2017 when U.S. forces are scheduled to downgrade to an embassy-size presence?