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German commander warns of long war in northern Afghanistan

German Brig. Gen. Hartmut Renk, commander of NATO forces in northern Afghanistan, sits at his desk at Camp Marmal outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016.

LARS KOCH/NATO

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2016

CAMP MARMAL, Afghanistan — The international military coalition in Afghanistan should prepare for a long fight in the north, where Taliban guerrillas have made significant gains and have even managed to briefly occupy a major provincial center, a top alliance commander says.

Despite relatively small numbers in the north, the Taliban — who have stepped up attacks across the country — have shown they are able to adapt their fighting style by increasingly engaging in urban warfare and using terrorist tactics like human shields, which can be difficult to fight, German Brig. Gen. Hartmut Renk, commander of NATO forces in northern Afghanistan told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

These abilities were highlighted earlier this month when Taliban fighters stormed Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city. It took Afghan forces with U.S. support more than a week to expel the fighters from several neighborhoods, where they had embedded themselves in the homes of residents. In the end, 400 people were killed or wounded and 3,000 fled the city, Kunduz officials said.

“We have in Kunduz a challenge, yes, and we have to take that on,” Renk said at Camp Marmal, just outside the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where nearly 1,000 German troops are based. “We are not yet finished and the mission will not be accomplished soon.”

The attack on Oct. 3 came a year after the Taliban briefly held all of Kunduz, the first time the group was able to control an Afghan urban center since 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion removed them from power.

Renk said that lessons were learned from both attacks and that NATO was working with the Afghans to improve certain capabilities. He didn’t specify what those capabilities were.

Until the ability of Afghan forces are improved, Renk said, a future attack on Kunduz could not be ruled out.

“It would be a lie to say we can exclude that from the future,” he said. “It can happen again ... things need to be developed.”

Incidents like those in Kunduz have helped fueled doubts over the Afghans’ ability to provide security on their own. Since NATO shifted from combat operations in 2014 to a train, advise and assist mission, the Taliban are believed to have gained control over more territory, primarily in rural areas, than at any other time in the past 15 years. In response to the situation, President Barack Obama in June gave U.S. military commanders more freedom to strike Taliban targets.

But Renk said it was important to note that Afghan forces still control most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

“The (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) are doing their operations in most other provinces, mainly on their own, no assistance, and that is good news,” he said. “It’s only in the critical parts we see that they still need advice, they still need support.”

“I think the military can be quite satisfied by what we’ve achieved in 15 years,” Renks said. “From zero, or even minus, we established a 350,000-member security forces, which is capable of fighting and successfully fighting in most battles. One thing is clear — you cannot expect to have an army up to standards of a Western army within weeks, months, or years. It takes time. And we need strategic patience with this country to develop.”

wellman.phillip@stripes.com
Twitter: @PhillipWellman

 

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