By Haroun Mir
26 Oct 2015
The Taliban’s stride in Kunduz City on September 29, which coincided with the anniversary of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration, is considered an important setback for the National Unity Government. It has defied the official narrative that the insurgents will never be able to take over a sizable urban centre.
However, to many of us in the country, the Taliban’s recent victory is due to serious weaknesses within the Afghan government rather than their own strength. Despite their recent military achievement, the demise of the movement as an alternative governing force has already begun.
During the past year, the National Unity Government has been struggling to create a common political platform and, thus, reduce the fallout from the contested results of the 2014 presidential election. Unnecessary bickering between the two political camps, despite an accord signed under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry, has badly affected the formation of the cabinet, and little has been achieved despite President Ghani’s ambitious agenda.
The president failed to deliver on his promises. As a result, the Afghan economy has collapsed, the security situation has deteriorated, and political fragmentation has accelerated.
Consequently people have lost their trust in him, a much bigger hole in the national budget has appeared, and prominent political voices now question the rationale behind his unilateral concessions to Pakistan.
In fact, Ghani has made one historic concession to the Pakistani government by visiting the Pakistan army general’s headquarters – the first Afghan president to do so – and by allowing for the first time for Afghan cadets to be trained in their military academy.
Meanwhile, negotiations with the Taliban did not gain traction and the revelation of the death of the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar in a hospital in Karachi, which was kept secret for over two years, stopped the process.
Also, the Pakistani authorities lingered on their reciprocal promises to Ghani and did not prevent the Taliban’s summer offensive. Despite the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries’ intelligence services, a wave of bloody truck bombings in Kabul and elsewhere, which were traced back to terrorist groups inside Pakistan, created massive popular resentment throughout the country.
Ultimately, the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban is widely viewed as a consequence of poor government judgement and utter leadership failure at the national level in Kabul.
The Taliban offensive in Kunduz was also a gambit by their new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in order to strike points against his challengers over the movement’s leadership.
In fact, achieving the unthinkable and taking control of a strategic city with a population of over 300,000 far away from the borders of Pakistan, has given the Taliban a tremendous morale boost and an important edge for their new leader.
However, the temporary seizure of Kunduz has become costly for the Taliban because of the high number of casualties in their ranks and file and the misbehaviour of their fighters.
According to Amnesty International and local media reports from Kunduz, Taliban fighters behaved like a criminal militia force, conducting arbitrary executions, pillaging and looting of public and private properties, such as government offices, banks and stores.
Their misconduct in Kunduz goes against the movement’s raison d’etre, which emerged in 1994 in Kandahar against the backdrop of lawlessness, abuse, and criminality following the collapse of the communist regime in 1992.
In addition, Mullah Mansour, a wealthy individual owning business investments in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, had to buy the allegiance and loyalty of many Taliban leaders and commanders in his contest for the leadership, which has undermined their principle of decision-making based on a broad consensus.
His legitimacy was further undermined by open protests from well-known Taliban figures in the context of complicated tribal competition and revelation of Pakistan’s machinations in his election as the new Taliban leader.
Foothold in eastern Afghanistan
Ultimately, the Taliban movement, like all other Afghan political movements, will suffer from lack of charismatic and legitimate leadership. Therefore, regardless of Pakistan’s efforts, the movement will fragment and lose its ideological steam in favour of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has already established a significant foothold in eastern Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has lost an important battle against the Taliban in Kunduz but not the war. It still enjoys the commitment and support of the international community. US President Barack Obama has reversed his previous decision about the US military’s full withdrawal by the end of 2016 and extended their presence post-2017.
The government must weather the difficult security situation in the next couple of months before the first snow covers the Afghan mountains and, thus, finds the time to reform itself.
Meanwhile, the demise of the Taliban has already started because its new leader has to overcome three main challenges: First, their ongoing fragmentation over leadership disputes; Second, the emergence of ISIL in Afghanistan as their natural competitor; And third, a resilient Afghan security force, and a unified political position between the government and Afghan political elite on their next move in the peace process.
This winter will be decisive for the fate of both the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Afghan government must reinsert itself politically by becoming inclusive and creating a national political platform. Any improvement in the governance will contribute to the further weakening of the Taliban movement.
Haroun Mir is an Afghan analyst in Kabul and founder of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). He served as an adviser to late Ahmad Shah Massoud from 1993-99.