The Taliban takeover of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan this week is the visible part of an insurgency iceberg that has grown larger, more destructive, and more threatening to the Afghan coalition government and to the Obama administration’s Titanic-like exit strategy.
Kunduz is the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since the United States entered the country in 2001. The setback crowns a year in which the United States and NATO were down to a total of 13,000 support forces, Taliban attacks and civilian casualties reached a 14-year high, and the Islamic State reared its ugly head in the country.
The UN Mission has tracked a doubling of civilian casualties since 2014, mostly the result of insurgent attacks, to more than 50,00. The Pentagon also has reported a 50 percent hike over last year in Afghan military and police casualties, with 4,100 killed and 7,800 wounded in the first six months of the year.
The International Crisis Group has long argued that US combat support personnel should not effectively disappear from the battlefield. The draw-down means they essentially can only be called upon in emergencies, like the one that has brought in special forces after the fact in Kunduz. The Afghan military and police simply have not reached the point of combat self-sufficiency.
In Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s coalition government has been in office for a year, but it has failed to unify its principal security operations. The commander of international forces, General John Campbell, has, like his predecessors, said the Afghan military and police are not yet ready to secure the country on their own.
At the same time, the government and its Western allies have opted — mistakenly — to bolster their defenses with an expanded Afghan Local Police (ALP) force that is about one-third effective — because it comes from the local community and has decent leaders — and two-thirds brutal, ineffective, and counterproductive.
The ALP’s performance began to worsen after US Special Forces monitors departed in 2013. In some of the Kunduz districts that are dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, local Pashtun elders refused to collaborate with the ALP. In February, a corruption scandal reportedly linked Kunduz police officers to Taliban and criminal gangs, and anticorruption actions have not reversed longstanding provincial and local government failures there.
The ALP thus became more of a problem than a solution, in Kunduz and elsewhere, and the Taliban spring offensive should have prompted far greater preparations by the ANSF for more Taliban attacks. Now it needs to bolster its forces in an effective way, and it needs to have Western combat support available to back it up.
The destabilizing aspects of the Kunduz disaster go beyond Afghanistan itself, with the presence of Central Asian militants in Taliban units threatening to spread the insurgency across the region. For the Afghanistan coalition government, the Obama administration, and Congress, there are critical decisions to be made now.
First, the Afghan coalition government should coordinate its security structure under an empowered minister of defense. It should build on the Afghan army and national police, incorporate the decent faction of the ALP, and dissolve the abusive bulk of this militia.
Second, the promised reforms to deal with corruption have to be far more evident than they have been to date in the country’s provinces beyond Kabul.
Third, the Obama administration has to call a halt to scheduled further withdrawals of US and NATO forces. It must restore sufficient combat support for the ANSF until there is no question about the Afghans’ capacity to fight on their own.
Finally, the only plausible way to end the conflict is through negotiations, a political resolution and reconciliation, the necessary condition for a safe and orderly US exit. But unless the steps outlined above are put in place — and the Taliban is willing to make concessions and Pakistan presses it to do so — that goal cannot be reached.
Mark L. Schneider is senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and directs its Washington office.