Taliban shock

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Afghan security forces stand guard at the main gate of a prison in Kunduz after retaking the city from the Taliban on October 8. The Taliban had set free as many as 600 prisoners from the city's two prisons. Photo: NASIR WAQIF/AFP

Madina, 8, who was injured in the air strike by the U.S. on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, being attended to by a nurse in a hospital in Kabul on October 3. Photo: VICTOR J. BLUE/NYT

An injured civilian being shifted to hospital by government troops after a battle with the Taliban in Kunduz on October 3. Photo: REUTERS

The Taliban takeover of Kunduz, though brief, points to the fact that the Afghan forces, whom the West has trained, are incapable of confronting their own enemies such as the Taliban and the Islamic State.

The fortnight-long capture and occupation of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz by the Taliban has further exposed the frailty of the central government in Kabul. Kunduz, with a population of more than 300,000, is the fifth largest city in Afghanistan. The Taliban attack caught by surprise the Afghan security forces, trained and equipped by the West. On September 28, a few hundred Taliban fighters attacked the city from different directions and quickly captured it. According to reports, they had many supporters who had already infiltrated the city. The 7,000-strong Afghan security forces fled the city leaving their weaponry behind. One of the first things the Taliban did was to empty the city’s two prisons. As many as 600 prisoners, including 144 Taliban fighters, were set free.

Kunduz became the first major Afghan city to be recaptured, albeit briefly, by the Taliban after they were ousted from power in 2001 following the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States. The city is strategically located in proximity to Central Asia and China. The battle for Kunduz was one of the bloodiest witnessed during the U.S.-led military campaign in 2001. Thousands of Taliban fighters perished in the fight, many of them tragically after they were captured and herded into containers by militias under the control of Afghan warlords such as Rashid Dostum.

The Taliban announced on October 13 that it was withdrawing from Kunduz, stating that holding on to the city was “an unnecessary waste of ammunition”. In a statement it said that it was in its “best military interest to fortify the trenches surrounding the city rather than keeping the city”. U.S. military observers have said that the Taliban fought as a disciplined force in Kunduz. It was adept at using captured U.S.-supplied armoured vehicles and high-tech sniper equipment. Much of the rural area in Kunduz province has been under the control of the Taliban since the beginning of the year.

The Taliban retreated from the city after intensive aerial bombing by the U.S. Air Force and the participation of the American Special Forces on the ground. The Taliban has said that it will focus on taking over other cities. There is already considerable Taliban pressure on Ghazni city. The Taliban has surrounded the area, disrupting vehicular traffic on the highway. Pul-i-Khumri to the south and Badakshan province are also under serious military threat from the Taliban. Taliban attacks have become frequent in Faryab province in north-eastern Afghanistan and also in Helmand and Oruzgan provinces in the south. Civilians from these parts are fleeing to safer places.

The United Nations recently closed four of its 13 regional offices in the country, citing security concerns. It has classified half of the country’s districts as “high risk” and “extremely risky” for the first time since 2001. Civilians are continuing to leave Kunduz fearing for their safety. It is the only city in the northern part of the country that has a majority Pashtun population. There is a fear that the government forces, comprising mainly non-Pashtun conscripts, may blame the Pashtun population for their military debacle and exact revenge. The Taliban derives most of its support from the Pashtuns, who constitute more than 40 per cent of the country’s population. The data provided by the U.N., however, show that the Taliban influence has spread to non-Pashtun areas that were once the stronghold of the Northern Alliance. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan did not tally with the U.S. military’s relatively optimistic assessment. General John F. Campbell, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, told the U.S. Congress in the first week of October that the Afghan government was in control of all the provincial capitals, the district centres and the main Highway One. Campbell is known in Kabul as the “de facto Defence Minister of Afghanistan”. Many district headquarters, according to Afghan officials themselves, are on the verge of falling to the Taliban. Haroun Mir, the head of the Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul, told an American newspaper that “what happened in Kunduz can happen anywhere. It can even happen in a city like Kabul.”

The latest U.N. report on Afghanistan concludes that civilians continue to suffer the most as the decades-long conflict in the country drags on. The U.N. has said that the civilian casualties in the first half of this year could exceed the “record high numbers recorded last year”. It has explained that the high death toll this year was “caused by pro-government forces during ground operations”.

U.S. attack on hospital

Most of the civilian casualties during the fight for Kunduz were the result of the American attack on the hospital run by the organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors without Borders. Some 22 staff members and patients were killed when the hospital was specifically targeted by a U.S. AC-130 Gunship. The main hospital building was completely destroyed. The hospital had given its coordinates to the American military before the attack on Kunduz had begun. “Our patients burned in their beds, MSF doctors, nurses and other staff were killed as they worked,” MSF chief Joanne Liu said. American and Afghan authorities had initially claimed that the Taliban was fighting from inside the hospital premises.

U.S. President Barack Obama had to give an unprecedented apology for the unprovoked attack on the hospital. While offering his “heartfelt apologies”, Obama did not give any excuses for the attack. He called it a “terrible, tragic accident”. Campbell, in his testimony to the U.S. Senate, admitted that the American Special Forces in the vicinity of Kunduz city had been in direct contact with the aircraft that was bombing the hospital. The MSF wants an independent international inquiry into the incident, noting that Campbell’s statement was an “admission of war crime”.

The MSF, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its humanitarian work, has closed its operations and withdrawn permanently from Kunduz. But despite the presidential apology, the American military has once again resurrected the story that the hospital was a Taliban “command and control” centre operated by a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) point man. U.S. intelligence officials have not given any evidence so far to back up their allegations. The hospital had treated many wounded Taliban fighters along with the civilians injured in the fight for Kunduz.

The U.S. military has been involved in similar incidents before. During the first Gulf War in 1991, a factory producing milk powder for infants was bombed. Washington claimed that the factory situated on the outskirts of Baghdad was in fact a biological weapons factory. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later admitted that the bombing of the factory was a “mistake”. In the same war, the U.S. targeted an air-raid shelter in Baghdad, killing 408 civilians.

In retaliation for the terror attacks on the U.S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Bill Clinton administration ordered the bombing of the “al Shifa” pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan. It was the only factory manufacturing essential life-saving drugs in the country. Sudan’s crime was that it once allowed Osama bin Laden to live briefly in the country. During the 1999 NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) war on Yugoslavia, American planes targeted a passenger train that was crossing a bridge and a major broadcasting station in Belgrade. Only civilians were killed in both the attacks.

During the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the offices of the al Jazeera network in Kabul and Baghdad were bombed by American planes. In those days, unlike now, the network was known for providing credible news. As U.S. troops were nearing Baghdad, the Palestine Hotel housing journalists was targeted. Two journalists were killed when an American tank fired a shell at the 15th floor of the hotel.

In Afghanistan itself, there have been other instances where civilians have been needlessly targeted. As many as 1,700 Afghans have been killed by air strikes since 2008. In July 2008, an American air strike killed 47 people, most of them women and children, who were part of a wedding party in Nangahar province. In November the same year, 37 people, on a trip to attend a wedding, were killed in an air strike.

In May 2009, an American B-1 bomber flattened a village called Granai near Herat, killing around a hundred people. Kunduz, therefore, was not an aberration and should not be viewed in isolation. Documents published by the investigative website The Intercept in mid-October reveal that the drone strikes conducted by the U.S in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2013 killed 35 “suspects” along with 219 civilians, whom the Pentagon labelled as “enemy killed in action”.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan

On October 15, President Obama formally extended the duration of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. He announced that thousands of U.S. troops would stay there beyond 2017. Obama had announced with much fanfare in 2014 that U.S. troops would cease to be involved in combat by the end of this year and that the military presence in the country would be reduced to a “mere residue force” by the end of 2016. Obama had assumed presidency pledging to bring all U.S. troops involved in the wars started by his predecessor back home before he left office at the end of 2016.

After the capture of Kunduz by the Taliban, Obama was quick to reassure his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, on Washington’s continued commitment to the security of the country. “President Obama and President Ghani reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan,” said a statement from the White House. The Taliban, in a recent statement, said that it was willing to re-enter negotiations with the government in Kabul, provided all foreign forces left Afghanistan. With the U.S now signalling that its occupation is not going to end any time soon, the chances for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict seem dimmer than ever.

The Pentagon signalled in early October that it was now planning to retain a sizable force of up to 10,000 troops until the end of 2017. The U.S. has already spent $65 billion in the training and arming of the Afghan forces, but as recent events have shown, they are incapable of confronting the Taliban and other emerging enemies like the Islamic State on their own. The swift takeover of Kunduz by the Taliban despite the presence of more than 20,000 foreign troops still on the ground in Afghanistan is an illustration.