On 28 September, 2015, the Taliban launched a major offensive in northern Afghanistan, capturing the city of Kunduz. The fact that some hundred Taliban fighters took over a major urban centre, an area which was held by 7,000 regular Afghan troops, in less than 24 hours, is not only a military debacle for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and an embarrassment for the provincial authorities, it also marks the greatest success for the Taliban at an open battlefield and an extraordinary ‘propaganda coup’.
The accidental circumstance that the temporary fall of Kunduz coincided with the first anniversary of the inauguration of Presidency Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and the creation of a joint government with Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah underpins the political paramountcy and dramatic exposure of the security dimension of this event. Subsequently, the Afghan Army supported by NATO special forces comprised of US, British, and German troops, spent tremendous effort to regain control over Afghanistan’s sixth largest city with its 300,000 inhabitants. As one of the provincial capitals in the country’s north, Kunduz is of major geostrategic importance. The city is linked by highways to Kabul in the south, with Mazar-e-Sharif in the west and Tajikistan in the north, Afghanistan’s most significant gateway to Central Asia. Controlling Kunduz means controlling not only formal trade but also the most lucrative informal one: the smuggling of drugs. But even if the Taliban are not able to hold Kunduz for long, the ongoing battle over this important city and its hinterland points at various new developments on Afghanistan’s battlefield.
Firstly, the Taliban changed their overall political strategy and subsequent recruitment patterns from a mainly Pashtun-focused composition of its rank and file towards a more ‘multi-ethnic force’ in order to improve their chances of maintaining rule over captured territory, especially in the north of Afghanistan, which has been the stronghold of anti-Taliban forces, like Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks. Secondly, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan/TTP) are getting increasingly involved in the struggle over power and influence in northern Afghanistan.
To understand this new northward orientation of the TTP one has to take the latest developments in Pakistan into account. During the major military operation Zarb-e-Azb, conducted by the Pakistan Armed Forces, many of the Taliban decided to leave their hideouts in the Federal Tribal Administered Areas (FATA) and move beyond the Durand-Line (the Afghan-Pakistan border) to seek shelter in Pakistan’s western neighbourhood. This is a recurring part of a by Pakistani government and its security agencies officially orchestrated ‘cat-and-mouse game’ to provoke the Afghan government and to lead astray the anti-terror engagement of the international community. But the new development is that instead of enjoying the hospitality of their related Pashtun tribes in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the TTP headed in remarkable numbers towards the north of the country. Several factors favored northern Afghanistan as a new valuable sanctuary and area of operation for the Taliban, both the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, as well as other militant groups.
First, the Afghan forces did not stop their move to the north after entering the country. Another related crucial factor for the TTP joining the Afghan Taliban’s ‘northbound orientation’ is that the military activities of NATO/ISAF and allied Afghan troops were mainly focusing on the south and east of the country but had ignored the non-ethnic Pashtun areas of the north. After the withdrawal of NATO combat forces from northern Afghanistan, especially the German troops (Bundeswehr), the Taliban exercised the power which they accumulated during the last decade. The German troops had been constrained by insufficient equipment and training, a lack of combat troops, and a politically truncated, weak mandate, which prepared the breeding ground for a silent but persistent rise of the Taliban in the area of Kunduz. As such, the Taliban’s rise in the north has been a long time in coming, building up gradually within the local social and political-administrative structures and preparing the region for a major, smooth influx of Taliban fighters and their affiliates. Furthermore, this long-term strategy not only helped the ethnic-Pashtun Taliban to take root in the north but also helped to start recruiting more among the non-Pashtun population who are/were traditionally resentful towards the Taliban.
By assessing the results of Zarb-e-Azb one cannot help but get the impression that Pakistan is mainly interested in pushing the Taliban and affiliated militant groups, known for anti-Islamabad sentiments and activities, into Afghanistan. In this context, it seems clear that Pakistan does not mind that the TTP continued their terrorist activities on Afghan soil. This consequently leads to the logical question: What interest does Pakistan have in destabilizing the central government in Kabul?
Due to the latest internal rifts within the Afghan Taliban, it is most likely that the TTP as well as certain elements among the Pakistani government and the country’s security apparatus, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), see a window of opportunity to (re-)gain leverage among the Afghan Taliban. The public confirmation of Mullah’s Omar death (after two years’ delay) must be seen as a clear indication of the intension to weaken the leadership structure of the Afghan Taliban. Against this backdrop, one has to emphasize that the Afghan Taliban increasingly developed a restive nature towards the influence of its eastern neighbour in Afghan domestic trajectories. As such, peace negotiations or any sincere ‘reconciliation dialogue’ between an independent Afghan Taliban (i.e. making decisions without consulting the proper Pakistani security circles) and the government in Kabul is not in Islamabad’s interests, which are formulated by Pakistan’s Army and ISI. The fact, that Mullah Omar lived since the fall of the Afghan Taliban regime in 2001 in Pakistan under the protection of the ISI (who did not hand him over to the US) proves the strong Pakistani will to exercise control over and manipulate the Afghan Taliban for their own national interests.
Furthermore, it is most important to mention that the Afghan Taliban have been successful at entrenching themselves in the north and building-up a ‘multi-ethnic coalition’ to broaden their area of influence and gain power. Besides Afghanistan-based non-ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban are also trying to attract more foreign fighters like Uighurs from China, Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs and Punjabis. Many of them are linked with terrorist organisations that have been active for many years in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (Af-Pak), like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
In order to broaden their ethnic base, the Taliban are claiming to take on a more moderate and softened stance towards non-Pashtuns and former combatants in northern Afghanistan. Effectively, this could reduce the intensity of conflict between the different ethnic groups. This is a worrying development for Pakistani hardliners, like ex-ISI boss Hamid Gul and the ‘Godfather of the Taliban’ Sultan Amir Tarar since the non-Pashtuns of the north are well-known for their deeply entrenched anti-Pakistani sentiments. Consequently, Pakistan is rather interested in supporting the pro-Pakistan sections among the Afghan Taliban, attempting to establish an Islamabad-friendly Pashtun dominance in the country. Clearly, this would lead to an escalation of armed conflict that could be unmanageable for the Afghan National Security Forces.
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