By: Scott Taylor
On Monday, Sept. 28, in a daring pre-dawn raid, Taliban fighters seized control of the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz. This is not some remote police checkpoint or army outpost; Kunduz is a bustling provincial capital of some 300,000 residents.
The NATO-trained and equipped Afghan security forces stationed here put up very little resistance when the Taliban attacked, choosing instead to flee for their own safety.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid gleefully boasted about the swift victory, declaring, “We have beaten up the enemy forces.”
While the Taliban allegedly went on a spree of executing and torturing their Afghan opponents, video footage depicts a large number of Kunduz residents cheering in the streets in celebration of the Taliban victory.
Numbering only in the hundreds, the Taliban never intended to retain control of this city; it was simply a very daring demonstration of their growing strength. The capture of Kunduz is, without a doubt, the Taliban’s biggest battlefield victory since the U.S. began its intervention in 2001.
Within days of the attack, the Kabul government mounted a major counteroffensive to retake Kunduz. Elite units of the Afghan security forces were employed in this task, along with an undisclosed number of U.S. special forces.
While most of the Taliban fighters simply melted away into the countryside, small pockets of resistance continued battling the government forces for days. As Afghan security forces concentrated their efforts in Kunduz, the Taliban seized control of the Warduj district in the northeast province of Badakhshan.
The Taliban claim to have overrun 28 government checkpoints and to have killed more than 50 Afghan soldiers. This would, of course, be the same Taliban force that we were told repeatedly had been defeated by the U.S.-NATO coalition.
True enough, the Taliban were easily routed by the Northern Alliance, U.S. special forces and the might of the U.S. air force back in October 2001. In the summer of 2006, a revitalized Taliban movement attempted to wage a conventional battle to wrest Kandahar away from NATO’s control.
However, Canadian troops were instrumental in defeating those attacks. During the six years that Canadian soldiers were deployed on their combat mission in Kandahar, numerous offensive operations were mounted against the Taliban.
A succession of Canadian commanders went on record to optimistically and prematurely predict that NATO had finally ‘broken the back’ of the Taliban.
Given their recent string of bold successes, it would appear that the Taliban was in fact just biding its time, waiting for international forces to draw down their troop levels.
At present, the U.S. has just 6,800 troops left in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. Since 2013, Afghan security forces were given the lead role in combating the insurgents, however, as demonstrated again in the recent Kunduz debacle, when the going gets tough, it has proven necessary for international troops to intervene to tip the balance.
Despite more than a decade of training by NATO instructors and billions of dollars in weaponry and vehicles, the Afghan security forces remain a demoralized entity, incapable of containing the Taliban and other insurgents without outside help.
To illustrate just how clearly history is repeating itself, I stumbled across a 1982 U.S. assessment of the Soviet-trained Afghan army at the height of the USSR’s occupation: “In summary, the Afghan army can only be seen as an untrustworthy organization involved in a struggle against a widespread revolt that it would certainly lose without the support of the Soviet Army.”
For the record, the Soviet-trained Afghan army was able to hold on against the Mujahedeen warlords for three years after the last Russian soldier was withdrawn. It will be interesting to see how long the NATO-trained successors will hold out against the Taliban.