A man I’ll call Hamid, a teacher who fled his home in the Afghan city of Kunduz for the relative security of Kabul, asked me a simple question: “Should I go back?”
This is not an easy question to answer. On September 28, Kunduz, a strategically important city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban. It was the first major city taken by the Taliban since the U.S. ejected them from power in late 2001. Afghan government forces did not regain full control of the city for nearly two weeks. Kunduz made world headlines when during the heat of the battle to retake the city, U.S. forces launched an airstrike on a hospital run by the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières, killing 42 and wounding dozens more.
The day after the Taliban seized the city, its forces went looking for government employees, prominent residents and others who might oppose them. They detained Hamid after a local boy told Taliban commanders that there was a gun inside Hamid’s house. Owning a gun is neither unusual nor illegal in Afghanistan, but this was the second day after the Taliban had taken the city, and they wanted no surprises. “My wife took the gun when she left,” Hamid told the Taliban. His wife was among many civil servants in Kunduz who fled in panic as the Taliban advanced on the city; earlier this year the Taliban had identified all government employees as well as persons working with foreign organizations as potential targets. But the Taliban weren’t satisfied with Hamid’s answer – they wanted the gun. For the rest of that day, they threatened him repeatedly, leaving him fearful that he would be killed at any moment, and with good reason, as he witnessed Taliban commanders beating neighbors they identified as government officials. Eventually the Taliban released Hamid after someone intervened on his behalf, and he fled to Kabul.
After I spoke to Hamid, his question hung in the air: If he goes back, will government forces be able to protect him and his family?
I heard stories like Hamid’s from other Kunduz residents who had fled to Kabul. While there were no mass killings or large-scale atrocities, the Taliban did carry out a number of summary executions. In one case they executed a warlord’s former bodyguard – a man who had been incapacitated in a Taliban suicide attack – after dragging him into the street and accusing him of several killings.
The Taliban reportedly killed at least one of the prisoners they freed from the Kunduz prison, and severely beat some residents. They assaulted a doctor who had occasionally taken patients to the international military clinic outside the city, forcing him from his home and beating him on the head with rifle butts.
Fear among many of the residents was palpable, particularly among women activists who had received threats in the past. Several women told me they left Kunduz because they heard that the Taliban were going door to door. One woman I’ll call Laila said she kept changing her location, moving to the houses of relatives and friends, until they were told that her presence was endangering others. Now in Kabul, Laila finds herself stranded, without the ability to work and wondering, like Hamid, whether she should return to Kunduz. Women working for organizations providing services to women continued to receive threats even after they left, warning them not to return. While the UN evacuated many of the most vulnerable, many women who had hoped for help from international donors felt abandoned.
Kunduz represents a particularly acute example of the difficulties Afghanistan’s National Security Forces (ANSF) face following the withdrawal of most international troops at the end of 2014. The only northern province with a sizeable Pashtun population, Kunduz was the last stronghold of the Taliban in the north in 2001. For many years thereafter Kunduz was among the quietest areas of the country.
Yet in the past few years it became a prime example of the constant struggle around the country for local power among official and unofficial strongmen, most of whom claim to represent a bulwark against the Taliban and deploy their own militias ostensibly for that purpose – though, unsurprisingly, local people often see them as predators. As Obaid Ali of the Afghanistan Analysts Network has meticulously documented, fighting among these militias, together with their violence, threats, and extortion of the local population, have stoked grievances and inflamed ethnic tensions, which the Taliban have been able to exploit.
Some of these militias have been absorbed into Afghan Local Police (ALP), a community defense force akin to a militia that the U.S. helped create and fund. The ALP has a long history of abuses that Human Rights Watch documented in a report as far back as 2011. Although the Afghan government outlined measures to prevent pre-existing, illegal militias from joining the ALP, the vetting process failed, allowing the ALP to provide a de facto cover for many armed groups already implicated in abuses. Desperate to address the Taliban after the U.S. pullout, in recent months the Afghan government has again expanded the ALP, feeding into a vicious circle of alienating the population and creating more fertile ground for the Taliban.
Hamid described a case in point: While he was being detained, he spoke with a 16-year-old Talib who told him he joined because of the terrible abuses perpetrated by the police in his district. Indeed, the police chief there answers to a prominent member of the Afghan parliament known for funding abusive militias.
It would not be difficult to collect similar stories across Kunduz. A Crisis Group report from earlier this year notes that “misbehavior by ALP units in recent years provoked uprisings along many of the infiltration routes” that the Taliban used when they advanced on Kunduz city last May. After that, Afghan National Army (ANA) reinforcements were deployed, but only on the city’s major highway, not in the districts, where they were loath to get entangled in Kunduz’s militia battlegrounds. It is in these places that Taliban forces were able to consolidate their control and then easily infiltrate the city.
Despite panicked reporting at the time, nothing about Kunduz’s fall to the Taliban should have come as a surprise; the writing had been on the wall for months.
The extent of the Taliban’s advance planning was evident in the way they consolidated control. They already had critical information about where government employees, particularly police and intelligence officials, and other notable residents lived. How much support the Taliban had inside the city is unclear; according to many residents, Taliban fighters who had infiltrated the city days before were activated once the attack began. An Afghan who works for a humanitarian aid organization in Kunduz told me that in the weeks after ANSF troops reclaimed control over central parts of Kunduz city, the Taliban have continued to move about freely in the outlying areas and minor/back streets.
It took nearly two weeks for the Afghan security forces to regain control of Kunduz, but the city remains insecure. The Taliban withdrew on October 13 stating that they had achieved what they wanted. According to accounts by nongovernmental organizations and government ministries, the Taliban took hundreds of vehicles, including armored Humvees and massive amounts of weaponry from the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the police, and from militia patron and local strongman Mir Alam. They also took computers and radio equipment – in short, everything an army planning further advances might need.
The findings of the Afghan government commission’s investigation into the failures that led to the government’s loss of Kunduz will not reassure. The report points out that “illegal political interference … corruption, judicial weaknesses, ghost police and security forces, and failure of the Afghan government to rein in thousands of illegal armed men paved the ground for the Taliban takeover of the Kunduz.” The question of “ghost security forces” is particularly important; more than one-third of the Afghan forces who were theoretically deployed in Kunduz deserted or were mirages – invented to pad the payroll of commanders, who siphoned off the funds. This phenomenon has plagued the U.S.-funded security forces since 2002; the extent of the discrepancy in Kunduz hurt morale and contributed to the impression that the government had lost all control.
In late November, in an effort to regain some trust among the Kunduz population, President Ashraf Ghani launched a security overhaul in Kunduz, firing the intelligence chief and a number of police and intelligence officials. He also vowed to rein in abusive militias – but did not say how this would be achieved. This is the same plan Ghani announced when he appointed a new governor a year ago. The governor failed and was replaced after Kunduz fell, as deeply entrenched local strongmen and their supporters among Afghanistan’s politic elite continued to hold sway.
Should Hamid and Laila go back to Kunduz? Residents have cautioned that the Taliban is preparing for another assault, if not now then next spring, when the weather is more accommodating. Ghani has vowed that he will not again allow such a security failure and the U.S. has said it will support his efforts, but if Kunduz’s militias continue to run the show, can Hamid, Laila and other Kunduz residents trust these assurances?