Oct 2015 – Kunduz fell on Monday. One of the major cities in northern Afghanistan and a key transportation hub, Kunduz was attacked suddenly from four sides by the Taliban, overwhelming the defenders who were spread across the province. They seized the fortress overlooking the city, driving in on pickup trucks that move at great speed, using tactics perfected in the 1990s.
Three days later, the Taliban are being pushed out as security forces move back into the city. The government flag has been raised again but fighting continues.
To put this in perspective, this is no Vietnam. There, once one city fell other cities went one after another. But it’s not nothing either. The fall of the city, albeit a brief one, should send shock waves through the American military and diplomatic establishment. The US has been too complacent about Afghanistan for too long, and this is a wake-up call that should be heeded while there is still time.
Afghan policeman talks to villagers (file photo)
The Americans have been saying for months and years that, with us leaving, the Afghans are fine, will be fine and everything is going according to plan. Sure, they say, the security forces lose district centers, outposts and thousands of men every year (last year their losses were “unsustainable” according to the US; this year losses are even higher)… But it’s all fine.
It’s worth quoting the senior US general there at length. He spoke in Washington DC at the Brookings Institution on August 4th 2015 and said the Taliban are more tired than the government and unlikely to gain key ground:
“The Taliban they are tired of fighting. They are tired of the last 14 years and they want to get on with their lives. And the only way they are going to do that, because the Afghan government is not going to fall to the Taliban and they realize that now and they’ve got to come to the peace process. They’re not taking any territory, they are not meeting any strategic goals that they set out. They are going to take a district center but they are going to lose it. They are going to take another district center but they are going to lose it. But they are not going to gain any terrain, you talk about the cities, the ring road. They are not going to gain any terrain that means a great deal or has any value to Afghanistan.”
You could argue, and General Campbell probably would if anyone called him on this, that when he says the Taliban will not “gain” any cities that they will not capture and hold them. But the context of the entire talk is that things are fine and the Taliban will never capture a city. Which they now have, albeit briefly.
No, the upshot is that the US has been overestimating the capabilities of the Afghans and our efforts to help them. The Afghans are good fighters, but all too often their outposts are remote, isolated and prone to being overrun because they seldom get reinforcements when attacked, often have too little ammunition and don’t have US advisors at battalion level to help them out. Nor do they get consistent air support because they have too few helicopters, and while the US flies close air support missions it doesn’t fly nearly as many as it once did. Nor can the Afghans medevac their wounded quickly because they have too few helicopters. Nor can they claim the unqualified support of the populace because people in Afghanistan only support clear winners, not guys who might lose (instead, people stay on the fence).
So the Afghans need more US help down the line to help address some of these problems. There is a good side of this whole disturbing episode; the government went back and retook the city. They can do the job, but they need our continued help. Forget leaving by the end of 2016.
Ideally we would also help them move beans, bullets and ammunition more efficiently, but I am afraid the system we’ve set up for them to do that is irretrievably dysfunctional, and no one in the US mission will revisit that system again.
Lots of people will say, “If the Afghans can’t handle it, we need to get out and too bad for them.” But the Afghans are good people; they can do it but they probably cannot do it without our help for a while yet, and probably a more efficient application of our help, with more advising and plenty of money and air support.
Regardless of the call for future action, the fall of Kunduz demonstrates that we’ve got to get our head out of the sand regarding the “it’s going fine” storyline and think up better options. How much more warning do we need?