KABUL, Afghanistan — The sudden loss of Kunduz, the first major Afghan city to fall to the Taliban since 2001, says more about the weakness of the U.S.-trained government forces than the strength of the Taliban.
“All those whispers we’ve heard in recent years about low morale and deep incapacities within the armed forces will now become very loud questions,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Why couldn’t, or why didn’t, Afghan troops do more earlier to forestall this offensive?”
The Taliban’s surprise, early morning offensive followed months of infiltration, leading critics to blame the government and security forces for failing to grasp the threat and respond effectively to it.
The government decision to retreat quickly to the airport, 6.5 miles south of town, rather than stand and fight was distressingly similar to the collapse of Iraq’s U.S.-backed troops in Ramadi this summer. In both countries, the U.S. spent billions of dollars to stand up military forces which are struggling against less well-equipped and trained insurgents.
“The fall of Kunduz is more of a defeat for the Afghan security forces than a victory for the Taliban,” Kugelman said, and “not a complete surprise.” “The Taliban had been in the area for quite some time trying to wear down Afghan forces enough to allow for a major offensive, and they clearly succeeded,” he said. “Afghan troops must have known what was coming, but they either were unable or unwilling to prevent it.”
Coalition officials defended the "young and increasingly independent" Afghan forces, while acknowledging that they have been "severely tested."
"Our drawdown has created significant challenges for the Afghan security forces," spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said. "They’ve understandably struggled at times to adjust. In light of these challenges, however, they’ve displayed remarkable courage and resilience."
On Tuesday, President Ashraf Ghani pleaded with Afghans to trust their security forces. But the initial collapse of resistance in Kunduz, even if the city is quickly retaken, has clearly shaken the faith of some who now question the military’s tactics.
Shaista Baz Naseri, a lawmaker who represents Kunduz province, said the Afghan security forces did not offer much resistance. “As the security belt broke and the check posts at the outskirts of the city were taken by the Taliban, the security forces inside the city moved back and the Taliban entered the city without any problem.”
Throughout this year’s intense fighting season — the first since the NATO-led coalition ended its combat role and left the country’s defense to the Afghan forces — coalition officials have pointed to the government’s hold on the major population centers as evidence that the 320,000-strong Afghan security forces have what it takes to hold off a resurgent Taliban. Even when the Taliban have taken district centers, government reinforcements have swiftly pushed them out again.
But even if government forces retake Kunduz in the next few days, the damage is done.
The struggle in Kunduz will likely be a blow to the morale of the Afghan forces, who have faced record-high casualty and desertion rates this year as the fighting intensified across the country.
“The Afghan National Army have been very much on the defensive this year, and they don’t seem to be able to fight their conflict on a number of different fronts,” said Emily Winterbotham, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the United Kingdom. “It suggests that (government forces) are coming to an end of a very busy fighting season and that the Taliban are determined to test the strength of both the (security forces) and the national unity government.”
Afghan army units are known for regularly retreating to their bases after operations to clear insurgents instead of regularly patrolling surrounding villages. The traditional counterinsurgency tactic of maintaining a government presence as advocated by the U.S. military, is usually left up to poorly equipped and lesser trained local police forces, leaving some areas open to infiltration by returning militants.
“I understand that the army was in garrison outside of Kunduz and so the Taliban simply infiltrated past them,” said Theo Farrell, professor of war studies at King’s College, London, and an expert on the Afghan conflict.
That seemed to play out in Kunduz, where some militants used the increase in travel during the recent Eid al-Adha holiday to sneak into the city, according to Masoom Stanikzai, the acting defense minister. The Taliban have launched repeated attacks in Kunduz province and tried to attack Kunduz city at least once before.
It remains to be seen if the fighting in Kunduz affects President Barack Obama’s stated plan to withdraw almost all American troops by the end of next year.
“I imagine that the fall of Kunduz will sharpen support within the U.S. military for a much slower withdrawal from Afghanistan than originally envisioned by President Obama,” Kugelman predicted. “Washington has already watched nervously as (the Islamic State) has gained the allegiance of disaffected Taliban militants, but the news from Kunduz underscores how the Taliban remains the chief threat in Afghanistan. These considerations will likely raise alarm bells in Washington, and prompt more urgent discussions about the need to be cautious in withdrawing remaining U.S. troops.”
Zubair Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report.