Is Kunduz the Mosul of Afghanistan?

Is Kunduz the Mosul of Afghanistan?
Comment: The fall of the northern Afghan city is a feather in the cap of the new Taliban leader, writes Vijay Prashad.
4 min read
02 Oct, 2015
Kunduz is the most important town to have fallen to the Taliban since 2001 [AFP]

The Taliban have re-taken Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan.

An attempt to dislodge the Taliban by the Afghan army - backed by US air raids - failed. The fight will continue, but there is little expectation that they will easily push the Taliban out of Kunduz.

About 200 Taliban troops overran more than 7,000 Afghan National Army fighters. The parallel with the fall of Mosul in Iraq is clear.

Of the cities in Afghanistan's north, Kunduz is significant for its airport and its position on the border - this has made the town well-known as an entrepôt in the drug trade.

Before November 2001, Kunduz was the Taliban's jewel of the north. It is located in a Pashtun pocket, surrounded by a largely Tajik and Turkmen population towards the east and by the mainly Tajik town of Mazar-e-Sharif in the west.

When the US and its Nato allies began their Global War on TerrorTM in Afghanistan in 2001, the expectation was - as President George W Bush put it - that "carefully targeted actions" would destroy the Taliban.

     The cycle of violence... spawned a renewed desire for vengeance within the Taliban, whose full-scale retaliation may be yet to come

In fact, the Taliban was not destroyed. It went underground during the aerial bombardment and then resurfaced in its redoubts.

Brutal tactics against the Taliban only reinforced their sense that this was a fight to the death. In 2002, at the Shebeghan prison camp in Kunduz, 3,000 Taliban prisoners were stuffed into a space built for 800.

These were the lucky ones. Some 7,500 Taliban prisoners of the battle in Mazar-e-Sharif were placed in metal containers for the journey to Shebeghan.

At least several hundred - if not more - perished on the way, buried in a mass grave at Dasht-e Leili. Some might see this as the Northern Alliance's retaliation against the Taliban's massacre of about 8,000 prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.

But the cycle of violence did not end in 2002. It spawned a renewed desire for vengeance within the Taliban, whose full-scale retaliation may be yet to come.

In 2009, when the US - under General David Petraeus - expanded its operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban had begun to make great inroads in Kunduz, and its surrounding areas.

Three Kunduz districts - Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi and Iman Sahib - became dangerous for the US and Afghan armies, while next-door in Baghlan Province's Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka districts, the Taliban took control.

Access to the border allowed the Taliban to welcome extremists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union and Jamaat Ansarullah. Affiliations with al-Qaeda and IS abound. They provide the zealous fighters, while the Taliban have roots in Kunduz society.

Surprise at the Taliban's most recent surge comes because its gains have been deliberately obscured. In June 2009, al-Jazeera's Qais Azimi took his crew into Kunduz, where he did not expect to see what he saw.

He met Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Taliban boss in Kunduz, who boasted that he had hundreds of fighters under his command, with 12 suicide bombers at the ready. Azimi went on a drive with Mullah Salaam, who showed him a hundred Taliban fighters on motorcycles.

When Azimi brought his footage back to Kabul, al-Jazeera ran it. Azimi was detained by the National Directorate of Security, and denounced for lying and for the promotion of terrorism by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was, fortunately, released after a few days.

In September of that year, the United States claimed that it had killed Mullah Salaam in an airstrike. The raid was proof that Azimi had been telling the truth. In 2010, the Pakistanis claimed to have picked up Mullah Salaam in Faisalabad. He was subsequently released.

     The fall of Kunduz is a feather in the cap of the new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour

It is Mullah Salaam who led the charge into Kunduz on September 28.

The fall of Kunduz is a feather in the cap of the new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour. It opens the door to widespread extremist activity, not only in northern Afghanistan, but significantly into China.

Beijing should be concerned about the spillover effect across Badakhshan towards Kashgar in Xinjiang province.

Just as Mosul's fall opened the door to IS' audacious pendulum march across the Great Syrian Desert, so too might the fall of Kunduz embolden extremists to forge across Central Asia into western China and southern Russia.

Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.