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Why Kunduz Fell

Viewed 875 times 2016-10-10 20:59 |Personal category:for discussion|System category:Others| successful, conducted, recently, relative, capital

Why Kunduz Fell

10 October 2016.

As recently as three years ago, Kunduz Province appeared to be a bastion of relative stability in Afghanistan. Clearing operations conducted by conventional infantry units, direct action SOF raids, and an apparently successful local militia program had wreaked havoc on the insurgency in Kunduz. The Taliban abruptly shattered that perception in the early morning hours of September 28, 2015 when they seized Kunduz City-the first provincial capital to fall since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. Warnings signs reflecting latent instability in Kunduz were plentiful, however, and the fall of the provincial capital should not have come as a surprise. The reality, evidently unperceived by both U.S. and Afghan government officials, was that the Taliban had been patiently setting the conditions to capture Kunduz City as early as 2012. Though only a year has passed, the Taliban have yet again launched a coordinated attack on Kunduz and its provincial capital of Kunduz City.

Both of us served in Kunduz from 2011-12, at a time when it seemed as though the province would continue on a trajectory of increasing stability. Although the insurgency remained active during our time in the province, ISAF had created ample room to "hold" and "build." District "shadow governors" were killed, and junior Taliban commanders were defecting and reconciling with the Kunduz government, which was steadily expanding its reach into the rural countryside. Our unit's operations supported both of these phases, and we believe that they too contributed to short-term stability in the province. In light of the Taliban's resurgence in Kunduz, however, it is clear that much of this apparent success was fleeting. This analysis attempts to explain why.

Figure 1: Map of Kunduz Province

Warning Signs

Hopes were high for Kunduz in mid-2010. The deployment of a U.S. infantry battalion (1-87 IN, of the 10th Mountain Division) helped Afghan forces to contest areas that were previously controlled by the insurgency. A relentless direct action SOF campaign simultaneously threw local Taliban leadership into disarray. Meanwhile, the cooptation of key militias previously fighting on the side of the Taliban provided the government with auxiliary forces that could challenge the insurgency in rural areas, where sympathy for the Taliban was strongest.

Lacking the ability to control substantial swaths of territory, the insurgency shifted underground, focusing its operations on a two-pronged campaign involving the assassination of provincial leaders and suicide attacks against the populace-the latter conducted primarily in Kunduz City. As our unit (2-18 IN, 170th IBCT) began to penetrate deep into districts sympathetic to the Taliban in 2011-12, the insurgency responded by increasing the rate of its IED attacks, purportedly aided by experts from Northwest Pakistan who provided technical explosives expertise. Although this reduced our capacity to fully capitalize on, and consolidate, security gains, the Taliban nonetheless remained largely marginalized in Kunduz, engaging in mostly opportunistic attacks against ISAF and ANSF in lieu of large-scale confrontations.

In February 2012, however, exogenous events intervened to push momentum in Kunduz back in favor of the Taliban. Angered by the recent Koran burnings at Bagram airbase, locals in Imam Sahib launched a protest outside the gates of Combat Outpost Whitehorse (previously COP Fortitude), the size and location of which had allowed ISAF to project security over the entire Northern half of the province. The demonstration, which began peacefully enough, rapidly turned violent when protesters threw at least one hand grenade into the COP, injuring seven U.S. service members. As a result of this incident, COP Whitehorse was closed, significantly reducing ISAF's ability to control both Imam Sahib and Dashti Archi districts (located North and Northeast of Kunduz City, respectively).

With the surge complete and the ISAF drawdown well under way, the security situation in Kunduz began to deteriorate. In March, 2013, the Taliban assassinated Imam Sahib Police Chief Abdul Qayoum Ibrahimi. This was a substantial boon to the insurgency: the Uzbek Ibrahimi family had long exerted both de facto and official control over Imam Sahib. The assassination therefore had a disproportionately destabilizing effect on this important Northern district, home to key smuggling routes into Tajikistan.

In October 2013, German units transferred their Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) compound over to ANSF. Reflecting a pattern that now verges on the cliché, this final phase of the ISAF drawdown in Kunduz set the stage for the 2014 fighting season, during which the insurgency made substantial gains, particularly in the oft-contested districts of Chahar Dara and Dashti Archi. By September 2014, as the fighting season drew to a close, the Taliban were closing in on Kunduz City. Although the Afghan government painted a rosy picture following pre-presidential-election clearing operations conducted throughout the province, the real story was far bleaker. As one Afghan intelligence officer anonymously noted,

"The Taliban are five kilometers away from the provincial city centre and one kilometre from district centre. The operation in Chardara was just to try and save the city and the district centre from falling to the Taliban - to push them back and then try to open a base so that neither the district nor Kunduz city can be taken."

Regaining control of Chahar Dara, the officer added, was an impossibility, noting, "We would need a lot more support."

The limited efficacy of large-scale operations against insurgencies aside, one especially concerning aspect of the ANSF-led clearing efforts was the extent to which they relied on local militias to "hold" territory. The Afghan government was reportedly struggling to compensate Afghan Local Police (ALP) units, a circumstance that not only called the mid- and long-term loyalty of the militias to the Afghan government into question, but also led them to impose illegal taxes on local communities.

Meanwhile, Pakistani military operations in Waziristan in the early summer of 2014 significantly bolstered the Taliban's strength in Kunduz. By this time, all the warning signs were in place: a year before the seizure of the provincial capital apparently caught U.S. and Afghan officials by surprise, many local residents were already expressing significant alarm. In the words of one businessman, "The Taliban could take the [Kunduz] city any time they want to. They just don't want to bother with holding and managing it right now." Settling in for the winter, the emboldened insurgency set its sights on the provincial capital.

In the spring and summer of 2015, the Taliban capitalized on the territorial gains it made during the previous fighting season, consolidating control over Chahar Dara and Dashti Archi, and extending their presence in Imam Sahib, Aliabad, and Khanabad districts-the latter of which had increasingly suffered from the overbearing, government-sponsored ALP. Having effectively surrounded Kunduz City over the course of the 2015 fighting season, the Taliban finally seized the provincial capital in September 2015.

Figure 2: Timeline - Fall of Kunduz

Why Kunduz Fell

Despite ISAF's progress in the province before and during our time in Kunduz, several structural factors either remained unaddressed by Coalition Forces, or rapidly emerged in the months leading up to the seizure of Kunduz City, and thus contributed to current instability. Specifically, we attribute the fall of the provincial capital to five underlying causes. Below, we expand on each.

Kunduz was an economy of force operation within an economy of force operation. ISAF lacked the resources and commitment required for irreversible gains and both the Taliban and Afghans were watching.

As Afghanistan was an economy of force operation to the strategically more significant Iraq from 2003 until about 2009, so too was Kunduz an economy of force operation to the operationally more significant RC-East and RC-South. The distribution of ISAF forces in August 2010, at which time the Afghanistan surge was well under way, readily demonstrates this circumstance. At this critical juncture, the overall ISAF troop level in RC-North was 11,000. By contrast, total forces numbered 32,000 in RC-East, and 35,000 in RC-South.

Although the distribution of forces reflected the relative volatility of Afghanistan's South and East, low troop strength in the North prevented ISAF from consolidating hard-won security gains. We experienced this phenomenon directly: Bravo Company, 2-18 IN was responsible for stabilizing an area with a population of more than 300,000 people with a company sized unit of approximately 160 Soldiers, only half of which could actively patrol out of our combat outpost (COP) in Imam Sahib at any one time. Although the combined number of ISAF and ANSF forces was much higher, the ANSF in our area of operations (as well as throughout the province) were largely relegated to static defensive positions, fixed site security, and checkpoints designed to hold terrain, rather than to project security across a broader area. One of the few exceptions was the ANP Provincial Quick Reaction Force. However, the QRF primarily conducted targeted raids rather than population-centric patrols.

CONTINUED  >>>>>>>>>

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