Kunduz defeat undermines Afghan government, analysts warn

By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 30, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — The fall of Kunduz has sparked the worst crisis to date for President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, leading to calls for the president’s resignation after barely a year in office and threatening the entire U.S. strategy for securing the country after the end of the NATO combat mission.

The disastrous performance by NATO-trained soldiers and police, who abandoned the northern city after a one-day Taliban assault, has prompted Afghans from all walks of life to question the leadership in Kabul.

"The loss in Kunduz has put the whole country at risk," said Wahid Mujhdah, a writer in Kabul.

"The government’s nightmare failures have just given the Taliban many openings."

Ghani’s government has been on shaky ground from the start, when he was forced to share power with his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, after a tense election rife with corruption forced top American diplomats to intervene amid threats of civil war.

Since then parliament has repeatedly rebuffed his attempts to appoint key members of his Cabinet, including a defense minister.

The debacle in Kunduz, the first major city to fall to the Taliban since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, "shows that the Afghan government still can’t survive on its own more than a decade after the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban and installed a U.S.-approved regime," said Jacqueline L. Hazelton, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

"The current Ghani-Abdullah government is an alliance forged by the United States more than a year ago that has thus far not managed to get beyond the gridlock of the two leaders’ differing interests."

Just three months after Ghani assumed office on Sept. 29 last year, the coalition declared an end to its combat mission.

At the beginning of this year it handed over all authority for the country’s security to Afghan forces.

Since then the police and military have seen casualties skyrocket, civilian deaths and injuries have reached new highs, and record numbers of Afghans have applied for passports to try to flee the country.

And that was all before Kunduz fell.

During the past year, the guerrillas succeeded in seizing several small district centers but held them only briefly before being chased out by government reinforcements, a fact often cited by coalition officials as evidence of the security forces’ abilities.

During a raucous session of parliament Tuesday, some lawmakers called for Ghani to resign or be impeached.

"The president must resign," parliament member Iqbal Safi told Stars and Stripes.

"I made this demand because of Kunduz. (The government) had a strong force there but a couple of hundred Taliban took the city.

"And then the president said that the operation to retake the city has started and the situation is under control. But what are they controlling?"'

Top security ministers in Kabul also faced angry grilling by members of parliament, who summoned them to answer for the collapse of security forces and the failure to quickly retake Kunduz.

In Washington, American officials affirmed their support for Ghani’s administration.

Western leaders have staked the results of a decade and a half of war and billions of dollars in investment on the Afghans’ ability to rule their country and take on the insurgency.

Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook acknowledged the loss of Kunduz was a "setback" but said security forces are up to the challenge.

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest vowed that the United States and its allies would "continue to strongly support Afghan President Ghani and the National Unity government to improve Afghan security, continue to target terrorists, and preserve the gains we have made together."

And in a meeting with Abdullah in Washington on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden discussed the ongoing situation in Kunduz and emphasized the key role the government must play in rebuilding Afghanistan.

But the vice president ignored a reporter’s question on whether the fall of Kunduz would change the current U.S. strategy of reducing troops in Afghanistan or the timetable for doing so.

The events in Kunduz should cause some rethinking in Washington, Hazelton said.

"Even if Afghan state forces retake Kunduz, the Taliban’s ability to recapture it in the first place raises serious questions about commitments to U.S. goals for Afghanistan, including perhaps most notably a strong central government and security forces strong enough to take and hold all of Afghanistan’s territory. The United States should consider adopting more modest goals for its client, goals that its client is more likely to support and advance."

Zubair Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report.

Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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