The taking of Kunduz by part of the Taliban not only gave the group a material success, but it seems to have cancelled any hope of political solution.
The fall of Kunduz, on the eve of Ghani’s first anniversary at the government of Afghanistan, represented for the President the most dramatic blow suffered thus far. The ability with which the Taliban entered Kunduz and took the city projected – both in Afghanistan and abroad – the image of a weak President, victim of his own strategy aimed at seeking the dialogue with a group with whom – probably – dialogue could never exist.
That said, the manifestations in Kabul on 1stOctober, calling for the dismissal of the President, as well as the proposal of the former Interior Minister to resort to anticipated elections, do not surprise. Nor does it matter that Ghani announced that Kunduz had been re-occupied by the Afghan army. Not only because the Taliban are still in control of parts of the city, but because by now then Afghan people have lost faith in one more of their leaders and in one more of their governments – a feeling Afghans are used to as much as they are to the snow on the peaks of Panshir, to the poppy fields in Halmand.
Indeed, the opinion on Ghani’s government one year after elections were held cannot but lead us to wonder what has actually changed in Afghanistan and for Afghanistan, and if his policy centered on re-approach to Pakistan to induce the Taliban to negotiate has been nothing more than a painful illusion.
Despite the hopes that the meeting in Murree had initially lit, in fact, from that moment on it started a spiral of events that revealed how – perhaps – the idea of opening a negotiating table with the group that for almost three decades has been an undeniable part of the Afghan political life had value for Ghani only. Not for the Pakistani ally (as ambiguous as always), nor for the Taliban.
One year after elections, Kunduz’s fall could come to symbolize the fall of the internal support for a President who had changed the cards in the game of Southern Asian alliances – shifting away from the traditional Indian ally and getting closer to Pakistan and China – to bet on the possibility to insert the Taliban in some sort of political dialogue.
Bet that the Ghani cabinet seems now to have lost.
Proving wrong all those who in the past years, and especially in the past months – after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and the internal discussions and rivalries emerged over succession – had considered the Taliban a group deemed to implosion, division and dispersion, the fall of Kunduz represented the greatest success since 2001.
Not only has the group been able to take Kunduz and give a blow to the credibility of Ghani, of the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police, but it managed to do all this in a few hours, exploiting the surprise effect, the weak organization of the Army deployed there, and offensive capacities clearly not in decline.
And taking Kunduz is important for the Taliban for two main reasons.
Above all, it is important because Kunduz had been until 2001 a Taliban’s bulwark in the North. Moreover, it is one of Afghanistan’s biggest cities and a fundamental transport hub: thanks to its geographic position that easily connects the city to Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Tagikistan, it is indeed a crucial juncture in the illegal poppy trade that from Afghanistan reaches Central Asia and from there Europe.
Above all, though, the taking of Kunduz has the importance of projecting the image of a group still cohesive and dynamic, still capable of crucial offensive capacities. It has indeed strengthened the Taliban’s image at the expenses of Ghani, of the forces of the Afghan Army and Police, of the NATO and the United States that spent 14 years trying to train those forces. A reality that could now lead Washington to rethink the project of total withdrawal by 2017 – a dangerous rethinking that would provide the Taliban (who declare to be fighting for the withdrawal of all foreigners from Afghanistan) with the pretext to proceed with their attacks.
The taking of Kunduz, moreover, puts light on what has been the real driver of the Taliban’s action over the last year.
With the attacks in the rural parts of the country protracting for the whole summer, and with this last proof of operative capacities, it is difficult to think the group had ever been sincerely intentioned to negotiate. It rather seems that the meaning of the Taliban’s action was to exploit the NATO’s progressive withdrawal and the reduction of the number of USA troops stationed in the country, to exploit the divisions on policy and security matters within the national unity Government, as well as the ambiguous position of Pakistan, in order to reorganize under the new leadership and better plan its actions.
After all for the Taliban the final aim – between nostalgia for the past and hope for the future – remains taking Kabul. Not negotiating with Kabul.
With a terrorist group such as the Taliban, that controls various rural areas of the country and enjoys no little popular support by local tribes, it is difficult to foresee a scenery of peace and security for the country any time soon.
Definitely collapsed the faint hope of negotiation, the only way to resist the threat now incumbent over Afghanistan goes through two crucial elements: the strengthening of both the Army and the Police, and the strengthening of the relationship – weak and deteriorated decades ago – between Kabul and the rural population.
Regarding the first point, it implies not only a more specific and coherent training – that takes into account the peculiarities of the country in terms of territory, technological capacities, and tribal dynamics – but also (and especially) a fight against defection, against the phenomenon of the so called “ghost soldiers”.
This can be done by building a sense of unity among the members of the Army and the Police, by stimulating a feeling of belonging and brotherhood on which any cohesive Army should be founded, and by strengthening the image of the Army and the Police in the eyes of the population through their direct and constant involvement in social activities.
Regarding the second point, the Government in Kabul should focus its efforts on the instauration of a direct relationship with the population of the rural areas – especially in the South East – through a constant presence at the political and civilian level, not merely military. Providing the population with services such as health and education is crucial to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the absence of the government in those areas. There in fact, the group has been able to present itself as alternative, to legitimize itself in the eyes of the population through the provision of alternative institutions (the so called “shadow government”), of which Deobandi madrassas are just an example.
Until this slow but fundamental process is implemented it will be difficult to hope in a more safe future.