How We Lost Kunduz
Militias the U.S. paid to fight the Taliban helped bring it back
The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz is turning into the biggest disaster for the United States and NATO in the entire 14-year-long war for Afghanistan.
Right now, the NATO force in the northern region is too small on its own to retake the city of 300,000, while it failed to rescue dozens of Afghan troops trapped in a strategic fortress the Taliban later overran. Around 5,000 Afghan troops have massed at the city’s nearby airport, but are on the defensive against a Taliban force which may number an order of magnitude smaller.
U.S. air strikes and NATO special operations forces drove off a Taliban attack at the airport Tuesday night, according to Reuters. But the coalition needs the Afghan army on the ground. “We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight,” Mohammad Zahir Niazi, chief of Kunduz’s Chardara district, told Reuters.
But Kunduz began falling years ago, although slowly. One of the principle causes — a complex program led by the United States to bring stability to Kunduz that backfired.
In 2009, the United States embarked on the program first called the Community Defense Initiative. In Kunduz and elsewhere, the plan was to embolden local anti-Taliban militias with funding, ammunition and rewards funneled through reconstruction projects. The idea was that militias comprised of volunteers from their own communities could root out the Taliban more effectively than the army.
CDI’s early champion was Brig. Gen. Edward Reeder, Jr., who began his special operations career training troops in El Salvador and served in 2009 as the commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan.
Reeder had precedent, too. The United States embarked on a similar initiative to some success in Iraq, known as the Anbar Awakening that backed Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda. Support from the Afghan and U.S. government was not uniform, so the CDI went through several variations. In 2010, the project’s name changed to the Local Defense Initiative and then to Village Stability Operations, or VSO.
VSO’s efforts intensified under Reeder’s successor, Brig. Gen. Austin Miller, a prominent Special Forces soldier who commanded Delta Force ground units during the Battle of Mogadishu. Miller then convinced Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to embrace the program.
Gen. David Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal that year, was another supporter of the VSO and its sibling organization, the Afghan Local Police, which ostensibly fell under the Afghan Ministry of Interior.
But the ministry never had full control over the militias — which comprised hundreds of village defense forces, insurgent groups, private armies and criminal bands. Keeping track of everyone was simply impossible. Some of the militias were not helping. Far from it.
Early on, in Kunduz like in other parts of Afghanistan, it became clear militias underneath the VSO and ALP were engaging in extortion, kidnapping and intimidation killings. In 2012, German army troops in charge of security in Kunduz were warning the United States that the plan could go awry.
“We’re not happy about the ALP,” a German official told The Guardian. “It is a half-public, half not-so-public institution and it’s not easy to control. The problem we find is there are too many actors in the security arenas, and they all have their own agenda.”
“This is the main problem with the arbakis,” a village elder in Kunduz province told Human Rights Watch, using the Afghan name for the militias. “They are collecting ushr [informal tax] from us. We have complained to the government, but nothing happens. Arbakis should not collect ushr. When they come to collect ushr they do it with force, with guns. They are so brutal. We have cases where they have broken the heads and legs of people.”
Militias also raped young boys in Kunduz province. Bacha bazi, or “boy play,” in which boys are forced or manipulated into cross-dressing and dancing for older commanders and then sexually abused, “is most prevalent in the north, where it is strongly associated with militias and the state security forces,” HRW reported.
More broadly, the program simply misunderstood Afghanistan. In Iraq, state-backed Sunni tribes fought off Al Qaida, though later marginalization by the Shia government brought a later mutation, Islamic State, back into control of most of the province. In Afghanistan, armed militias have long dominated society at the local level.
Afghanistan “has a long and locally complex history of armed groups – both mujahideen and Taliban,” analyst Kate Clark wrote at the Afghanistan Analysts Network in 2011. “Which is the result of war, migration, land disputes, the championing and repression of different groups depending on who was in power locally and in Kabul and the successful leveraging by armed groups themselves against their local rivals.”
That’s why Afghanistan is unstable — and the United States was making the problem worse, allowing the Taliban to exploit resentment at the militias by promising some relative order. By September 2014, the Taliban was making gains in Kunduz province and advancing onto Kunduz city itself.
The same summer, 30,000 Pakistani troops poured into Taliban-controlled areas of northwest Pakistan. To escape the offensive, many Taliban troops uprooted … to Kunduz. Back in Kunduz, ALP troops were going months without pay — American money but routed through the corrupt and inefficient interior ministry. Now they were coming under Taliban attack and resorting to further looting from villages.
“It was indeed the predatory presence of these militiamen towards a marginalized Pashtun population that has helped the Taliban to expand their influence in Kunduz city’s suburbs,” analyst Lola Cecchinel wrote that month.
The city itself would fall a year later.
This is a big deal. It means the Taliban has been building up and preparing to seize Kunduz — the first provincial capital to fall to the militant group since 2001 — for months, but chose not to until now. Why?
One theory is that winter is approaching, and the Taliban’s time to mount a major operation is running out. Year in and year out, the war in Afghanistan follows seasonal cycles as the winter months render roads — particularly in the north — impassable and as Afghans retreat indoors. The takeover could also mean the Taliban feels not only confident in its military strength, but in its ability to administer and manage the city.
Another theory is that the Taliban has not strategized cyclically, but has spent the past few years deliberately building up its forces — and is now beginning to unleash them as NATO troops withdraw. At the least, the takeover of Kunduz gives the Taliban enormous leverage during negotiations with Kabul, if the militants can hold it.
So far, they are.
In the meantime, NATO’s troop strength in the country rested at 13,223 in June 2015. Eight-hundred fifty are German, concentrated in the north. Berlin is now mulling whether to delay the withdrawal of those troops as the situation deteriorates — a possible foreshadowing of the years to come.