On August 20, 2016, various media reported about the fall of the Khanabad district of Kunduz province in Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban. This news came at a time when another district in the country had just fallen in to the Taliban hands in Baghlan province. The Taliban also captured the Kunduz-Takhar highway for few days in the past week.
However, success for the Afghan government followed as it took back the district within 12 hours after its fall. But the news in itself was shocking for observers worldwide since Kunduz has been the only province to have fallen in to the insurgents’ fold in more than a decade after the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001 from Afghanistan.
The fall of the district came as the Taliban intensified the battles on Kunduz province and launched numerous attacks on key districts of the province during the past several months.
It was in August 3 that a wave of concerning reports about worsening situation in this northern province made the government’s high-ranking security officials land in Kunduz. The officials included Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, Afghan Defense Minister General Abdullah Khan and Resolute Support Mission Chief Commander General John Nicholson to assess the latest developments there.
The latest intensification of war in Kunduz has once again raised questions about the future of the province.
The first collapse
While the national unity government was celebrating its first year in power on September 28, 2015, the Taliban had stormed the provincial capital city of Kunduz and ran over it in a tough 24 hours battle.
But, the victory for Taliban was not an accident or by chance. They had worked there for over 7 years and finally hit the final blow at the already fragile provincial government. It took three days for ANSF to re-take the city’s control, but the clearance operation of the city lasted nearly 20 days.
During the short period of Taliban’s reign of Kunduz city, various reports suggest that they ruled with brutality. It was the NATO-led air support that made it possible for the Afghan forces to re-take the city. The strikes, however, led to heavy civilian casualties, including death of around 19 medical staff of the MSF (The Medicine Sans Frontiers).
After this, it was widely debated that the Taliban would not stage a come back for controlling the city for a long time, and would rather stick to propaganda. But a year later, it seems the insurgents have deepened their roots in this strategic province, thereby becoming another major source of concern for the NUG leadership and the Afghan security establishment.
After almost a year since the collapse of Kunduz, it is increasingly reported that instability has widened in various parts of the province. “The on-going situation of Kunduz is very concerning.” Amruddin Ayeden, a provincial council member of Kunduz told Khabarnama.
Ayeden believes that “the Taliban captured the districts. Have gained a lot of ammunitions. Mobilized themselves. That’s why, people here are so scared of the Taliban,” he added.
The local officials, however, believe that the Taliban have between 6 to 7 thousand fighters in Kunduz. But, the number couldn’t be verified through official Afghan sources and couldn’t be deemed to be the exact number of Taliban’s fighting force.
Re-grouping of the Taliban has provoked senior Afghan officials to visit the province frequently. Lately, it is reported that the battles are underway near the provincial capital city and the Taliban have blown up Alchin bridge, which connects 3 districts including the strategic Sherkhan port to the provincial capital city of Kunduz.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief of Afghan Army Staff, General Murad Ali Murad, who is leading the Kunduz operations against the Taliban has told reporters that his top priority is to eliminate the Taliban and destroy their sanctuaries across Kunduz.
Having been able to reemerge in Kunduz since the fall of the province last year largely means that the Taliban have penetrated deeply among local residents establishing hidden footprints in this strategic province. That’s the reason why observers talk about the urgent need for long-term solutions for the Kunduz crisis.
In 1995 during its emergence, the Taliban was a group of religious students from Afghanistan and Pakistan who yelled slogans of ‘peace’. After capturing Spin Boldak district in southern Kandahar, they declared themselves as the founders of the Afghanistan’s Islamic Emirate. They had three main slogans — implementing Sharia, ensuring security and to guarantee the national sovereignty of Afghanistan. They were able to control widespread areas of southern Afghanistan very easily. Their main fighting forces were these religious students who joined the armed insurgent group out of hundreds of Madrasas along the widely un-controlled Af-Pak borders.
It seems now that the insurgent group in Kunduz has again mobilized the students to get an unlimited fighting force.
Recently, Iranian PRESS TV reported that Taliban recruit their suicide bombers in northern Afghanistan from amongst the brainwashed religious students. They are religiously trained and the insurgents utilize them as their free of cost forces against local governance in Kunduz, the TV reported.
Meanwhile, three years back, BBC reported about the suspicious activities of madrasas too. These religious institutions have 8,000 plus male and female students with highly extremist worldview.
“They don’t listen to music. Don’t take photos and reject dancing in the wedding parties – a usual traditional culture of Afghans – stubbornly. One might oppose these thoughts, they would be labeled as “pagans” so easily”, BBC stated.
According to this report, there are over 6000 students, including 2000 females, in one madrasa alone.
Along with their fundamental teaching methods, even their financing sources are not clear. One of the madrasa scholars while speaking to BBC said that “our students provide the necessary budget of the schools by selling their jewels.”
Earlier, Aljazeera English made a 45 minutes documentary about Ashraf –ul-Madares, one of the hundreds of madrasas with more than six thousands students, including two thousand girls. The documentary was titled “the girls of the Taliban”. It was warned in the film that these students might be used as free fighters by terrorist networks operating across the province.
But, two years since the documentary and special report produced, the local government apparently failed to tackle or manage activities of these institutions.
While there is no updated statistics about number of religious seminaries operating across Afghanistan, officials in Afghan ministry of religious affairs told Khabarnama that there are more than 3700 registered seminaries. These schools currently teach over 4000 students the basics of Islam as per ministry’s media communication officer, Murtaza Hamid.
However, it can’t be denied that the Taliban would use students of religious schools in areas of their control, Hamid confessed.
As per the Ministry data, most of the madrasas in Afghanistan are operating in eastern Nangarhar, western Herat and northern Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces. But in the capital city of Kabul alone there are more than 120 registered madrasas.
Some experts believe that in order to win the war against extremist fighters, it is necessary to take down the main roots of the fighters and their ideological bases by keeping a close watch over the unregistered religious schools.
Kunduz is deemed as a strategic corridor with strong influence across northern Afghanistan. The province shares border with Takhar, Baghlan and Samangan provinces. At the same time, Sher (Shir) Khan port (widely known as Sherkhan Bandar) is located at the heart of the province. This has made Kunduz militarily and economically important.
The strategic importance of Kunduz goes back to Afghan Mujahidin battles against ex-Afghan president Dr. Najeebullah during the 1990s. Based on experts’ comments, the Mujahidin first launched its military activities from Kunduz and the province was the first to fall in to the hands of the Mujahidins.
The Taliban since long has realized the importance of Kunduz. Based on various reports, since 2008, Taliban turned their focus on Kunduz.
With increasing attacks on NATO logistical convoys in the east, the forces started their northern distribution network, of that, a route passed through Tajikistan to Kunduz and then across Afghanistan. Taliban moved to northern Kunduz province to continue targeting NATO convoys.
Steadily, the group succeeded in holding grounds in Kunduz. While the Afghan National Unity government promised an inclusive military and social program to stabilize the province, the Taliban is still fighting hard to hold the ground there.