Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri: Symbolic operations

Report
from Afghanistan Analysts Network
Published on 11 Sep 2019 View Original

Author: Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig

In the last week Taleban have attacked and entered three provincial centres, Kunduz city, Pul-e Khumri in Baghlan and Farah city, before being pushed back. This dispatch focusses on the offensives against Pul-e Khumri and Kunduz, considering them in the context of the regional security of northeastern Afghanistan. It finds that key lessons from earlier attacks on Kunduz were not learned. The dispatch was largely written before President Trump decided to scrap the talks with the Taleban. AAN’s Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig had thought that, whether or not it was the Taleban’s intention, it seemed they were sending a strong signal that they would not stop fighting even after a deal with Washington. With talks now – according to President Trump – off the table and the future seeming even more uncertain, it seems that an assessment of how the Taleban have been able, yet again, to menace provincial capitals seems even more pertinent.

For the first time during the post-2001 conflict, the Taleban simultaneously attacked, entered and held positions in two provincial centres of Afghanistan, Kunduz, the capital of the eponymous province, and neighbouring Baghlan’s capital Pul-e Khumri. Both attacks were also the first large scale offensives against any provincial capital in 2019.

A few days later, the Taleban staged a third attack, on Farah city, in the west of the country, also not the first such occurrence there. There, the Taleban made a large-scale attack in 2018 (see AAN analysis here and here). The last fighting in Farah city was reported on 6 September 2019 near the provincial police headquarters, since when government forces managed to push the attackers back. On 7 September, however, the Taleban took most parts of the Anardara district centre of in the same province, including the governor’s compound and the police headquarters while the government forces held on to an army base. According to local sources, the Taleban attack on the base was ongoing.

The first of the provincial capital attacks was launched on 31 August in Kunduz, followed by Pul-e Khumri on 1 September. In Kunduz’s case, it was the third attack in a span of four years (read AAN’s previous analysis here, here and here). Both of the recent attacks occurred during the final stages of diplomatic wrangling to finalise a US-Taleban withdrawal agreement that had been negotiated since October 2018 (AAN analysis here) but seem to be off the table now, and, notably, during the presence of US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in the Afghan capital. In Pul-e Khumri, some fighting was still on-going on 4 September, while the Kunduz clashes continued only for a day. The Kunduz offensive, however, was followed by a suicide attack on a police station two days later (more about this below). In both provincial centres, as well as in Farah, fighting continued in the outskirts and then moved to the districts.

How the attack unfolded: Kunduz

In Kunduz, Taleban fighters entered the city from three different directions and began targeting security forces. They moved from positions to the immediate north (police district (PD) 2), northwest (PD 1) and west (PD 3) of the city where they have maintained a strong presence over at least four years. Those areas administratively are part of Kunduz city, but are rural in character. The Taleban enjoy backing from the mainly Pashtun population in those areas. Taleban attacks from the west usually receive reinforcements and logistic support from Chahrdara district of Kunduz, where they have strongholds.

The Taleban started their attack in PD 1, in the early morning of 31 August. Their large presence in Zakhel-e Khomdan and Alikhel villages, in the west of PD 1, had helped them swiftly overrun police checkpoints and enter close to the city’s main chowk (roundabout), which is the acknowledge symbol of controls the city, and areas around Kunduz’s main hospital. They reportedly took control of that hospital; the defence ministry in Kabul accused them of taking the patients “as hostages.”

Attacking from PD 2 to the north of the city, the Taleban targeted police checkpoints in the city’s ancient castle area, the Bala Hessar, one kilometre to the north of the provincial governor’s office. The Taleban also have a strong presence in the outskirts of this police district and were able to quickly gather forces from Qala-ye Kow and Hazrat Sultan, rural areas further to the northeast of Kunduz city that are largely under Taleban control.

The third prong of the attack was directed against the PD 3 compound, located one kilometre to the west of the provincial governor’s office, but this offensive failed. There, the Taleban fighters had come through the Bagh-e Sherkat and Old Zakhel areas, both part of the provincial centre and located three to five kilometres away from the main _chawk. _These two areas have been largely controlled by the Taleban since 2015.

On the same day, 31 August, acting defence minister Asadullah Khaled, who had hurried to the city, said in an interview for Tolo News (video here) that security forces had carried out clearance operations and the Taleban had been pushed back from the city as well as from areas around it. However, Haji Zaher, a local resident from PD 2, said the Taleban had already left the area before the Afghan forces started their operations.

After the 31 August offensive on the city ended, the Taleban changed their attack plan. Instead of face-to-face fighting, they used suicide attackers to target security officials and installations in the city. In the evening of 31 August, when the security forces had almost fully cleared the city of Taleban fighters, a suicide attacker targeted Manzur Stanakzai, the provincial police chief, when he was briefing the media. As a result, at least three members of the police media section, including Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the police chief’s spokesman, were killed, along with six other civilians. The police chief and dozen others, police and civilians, were wounded. On 1 September, another suicide attacker targeted a police check-post in the north of the city, killing six police and wounded a dozen others (media report here).

Initially, the Afghan security forces failed to prevent the Taleban from entering the city. Local journalists and civil society activists told AAN that the Taleban managed to take control of some parts of the provincial centre for at least several hours. There were, however, no reports of house searches to capture government officials or of Taleban edicts ordering people to attend mosque prayers and to avoid working in the government offices as they did in 2015 when they ruled the provincial centre for two weeks. Zabihullah Majedi, a local journalist and civil society activist in Kunduz, told AAN that by mid-day the Taleban had taken control of some parts of the city in the west and northeast, where the provincial departments of anti-narcotics and mines and petroleum are located. He confirmed that they were pushed back after several hours only. Speaking to AAN, Haji Abdul Aziz, a school teacher in Kunduz city, said the situation quickly turned unusual; the city was empty with the only noises heard shooting on the ground and helicopters in the air.

AAN contacts in Kunduz, including journalists, stated that the Taleban continue to surround the city and remain a serious threat to its security. There were reports of continued skirmishes in the rural outskirts of all four Kunduz police districts between 3 and 8 September, of anti-Taleban airstrikes and of further fighting on 10 September to the east of the city, halfway to neighbouring Khanabad district. On 5 September, fighting in PD3 lasted several hours.

Starting on that day, fighting also moved to the province’s districts. There was heavy fighting reported near the district centre of Khanabad, some 20 kilometres east of Kunduz city, temporarily closing the roads to the northern Kunduz district of Imam Saheb and to neighbouring Takhar province. Next day, on 6 September, the centre of this district fell to the Taleban after government forces had to abandon it due to a lack of supplies, while on 8 September, the district centres of Qala-ye Zal and of Dasht-e Archi also fell to them. Government troop reinforcements took both back the following day but fighting in both areas continued. Imam Saheb’s district centre was attacked by the Taleban on 9 September.

AAN’s contacts also said that the Taleban continue, after the offensive, to set up frequent mobile check points on various parts of the highways that connect Kunduz to Takhar province to the east and Baghlan province to the south, searching vehicles for government officials. This happened as close as four kilometres to the east of Kunduz city’s main chawk, on the Kunduz-Takhar highway, and to the south of the city, in Angur Bagh village, about six kilometres away on the way to Baghlan.

How the attack unfolded: Pul-e Khumri

A day after the Kunduz attack, in the early hours of 1 September, the Taleban followed up with an attack on Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province and one of Afghanistan’s major industrial hubs. The city is located on the main highway between Kunduz and Kabul, at a point where the strategic route leading north from Kabul over the Salang Pass forks into two major roads, one leading northeast to Kunduz and the other leading northwest to Mazar-e Sharif. Fighting, including in residential areas, lasted several hours and then continued to flare up over the following days.

Taleban fighters attacked security posts in two areas, Band-e Du, in the west of the city, and Diwar-e Madan in the southwest. Jawed Besharat, the spokesman for Baghlan police chief, said the Taleban attacks were repelled and the Taleban had suffered serious casualties (read media report here). Afghan media quoted an interior ministry official admitting that “security forces have surrendered the area [singular in the original].” According to Safdar Mohsini, head of Baghlan’s provincial council, “the whole city [was] closed” by the fighting. An Afghan media report said that armed residents had supported government forces against the attackers. According to AAN sources, the armed residents were members of several different local popular uprising groups led largely by Jamiat-e Islami affiliated-commanders.

Local journalists in Pul-e Khumri said it took almost two days to repel the Taleban from the city. Fighting to the north went on even longer, till 5 September, when several Afghan Air Force raids pushed the Taleban out of positions there. There was still sporadic fighting reported on 10 September.

Speaking to AAN, Rahmatullah Hamnawa, a local journalist in Baghlan province, stated that during two days of fighting, ten people, including three policemen, were killed and 35 civilians and security forces wounded. On 4 September, another Afghan journalist reported that, similar to Kunduz, the city was “still surrounded” by the Taleban. Also, traffic north to Kunduz was partly interrupted by Taleban check-posts in Baghlan-e Jadid district, at least for government reinforcements. The insurgents reportedly allowed civilians to pass. On 8 September, the Taleban claimed the capture of Baghlan’s Guzargah-e Nur district, on the border with Badakhshan; there was no independent confirmation of this report, and claims it had been recaptured by government forces.

Regional context

Both offensives followed Taleban attacks and Afghan security forces conducting what are called ‘clearance operations’ and dubbed “Operation Pamir 207” in neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan provinces (see interior minister Andarabi speaking about this here). The government forces’ operations had commenced in mid-June and are still on-going, also as a result of Taleban attacks on several districts centres. In Takhar, government forces concentrated their efforts on areas around the provincial capital Taloqan and the district centre of Baharak over several weeks. As a result, the Taleban were pushed back in both areas but remain a threat to Baharak’s centre (read media report here).

Only on 30 August, the Friday prior to the Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri attacks, Taleban fighters took over Chahab district centre in Takhar for a few hours, before they were pushed out again by government forces – but not before they set fire to the district compound. Fighting continued in the area, and another airstrike was reported on 4 September. There was also fighting in Baharak and Darqad districts on the same day and in Yangi Qala district on 3 September. Earlier, on 10 August, an airstrike was reported from Eshkamesh district, allegedly killing 15 Taleban, continued by more fighting that forced 400 families to flee the area. UNOCHA spoke of over 4,000 newly-displaced persons from this area in the last week of August alone.

In early September, Taleban forces attacked the districts centres of Khwaja Ghar and Yangi Qala, according to government sources. Khwaja Ghar was apparently partly captured during the third attack on 9 September. Government sources denied that the Taleban had taken the entire town while they said they were sending additional forces and that the situation would “soon be back to normal.” Yangi Qala was reported as taken by the Taleban on 10 September.

In most parts of Takhar province, the Taleban have expanded their presence over the past few years and, in 2019, carried out several offensives against security forces to further expand their territorial control towards the provincial centre, Taloqan. In June 2019, reports emerged in the media that the Taleban were active in Qulbarz, 12 kilometres north of the provincial centre of Takhar. In the same month, the Taleban targeted the district centre of Baharak, 15 kilometres to the north of Taloqan, but failed to overrun the district centre. On 28 August, a suicide bomber was reportedly caught before he could blow up the district compound of Rustaq.

In neighbouring Badakhshan, Operation Pamir 207 aimed at recapturing the Taleban-held districts of Warduj and Yamgan before the arrival of winter. The two centres were taken in the first week of September but, according to analysts, not without a preceding “massive US bombing campaign“ that forced parts of the local population to flee (see here and here). Both districts had been in Taleban hands for the past four years; they were captured on 1 October 2015 and 18 November 2015. In mid-July 2019, the Taleban captured a lapis lazuli mine in Keran wa Munjan district, and then the district centre. Keran wa Munjan was also targeted by airstrikes in late August. (More AAN background on the Badakhshan Taleban here, here, here and here.)

Leading up to the Taleban attack in Kunduz, Afghan and US forces killed a number of Taleban commanders in drone attacks and night raids. (1) These operations scattered the Taleban in the province, as they forced key commanders to change their locations several times per night in order to avoid becoming targets. The government believed these security measures sufficiently reduced the Taleban’s ability to gather forces and carry out large-scale operations, at least temporarily. It is possible that this contributed to the Afghan government forces feeling too secure, and therefore underestimating the Taleban ability to regroup and strike against the provincial capital.

Casualties and disruption of people’s lives

The Taleban attack on Kunduz caused serious casualties to members fighting on both sides, as well as to civilians. According to the Ministry of Interior, 20 security service members and five civilians were killed and 80 others wounded on the first day of the fighting (see media report here). Local journalists in Kunduz told AAN that 30 security forces and six civilians were killed and 90 others wounded during the fighting in the city.

Local sources confirmed that most casualties were the result of the two suicide attacks reported above. For the Taleban, local journalists in Kunduz said most casualties were caused by Afghan and US forces airstrikes that, in order to minimise civilian casualties, targeted only those Taleban fighters who were clearly visible in the streets. For example, a school teacher from PD3, told AAN that an airstrike targeted a group of Taleban in his area killed 14 fighters and a civilian on the first day of their attack. A local journalist said that, altogether, 40 Taleban fighters were killed and 30 others were wounded.

During the fighting, Taleban social media activists circulated video footage of a group of Highway Police that had surrendered to the Taleban in the north of Kunduz city, in an attempt to psychologically affect the security forces and locals’ morale. But in fact, apart from one security checkpoint, the rest of the forces in Kunduz successfully repelled the Taleban attacks.

Local sources in both provinces told AAN that the Taleban attacks had severely disrupted people’s lives. In Kunduz, shops, schools and government offices were shut. There was neither electricity, nor water and mobile networks were down for two days. Speaking to AAN, a local journalist from Kunduz said he had faced serious difficulties reporting about the situation because telecommunication networks were disconnected and the internet was down. Another journalist said that many people had fled because of their fear that the city could fall to the Taleban once again, as in 2015 and almost again in 2016 (read AAN’s previous reports here and here).

Hamnawa, a journalist from Baghlan, described a similar situation in Pul-e Khumri. He said the Kabul-Baghlan highway was blocked, schools and shops shut, electricity and water cut off and the prices of food items had shot up sharply. Ajmal Popal, a taxi driver in Pul-e Khumri, told AAN he had to pay 40 afghanis (USD 0.50) for a piece of bread that usually cost 10 afghanis (less than USD 0.10).

How were the attacks assessed?

The initial Taleban attack on Kunduz city continued for more than ten hours. Only Afghan special forces reinforcements, including NDS units, and possibly US special forces, tipped the balance. But Taleban groups were still holding out in parts of the north and south of the city for another half day.

Abdul Hadi Jamal, the spokesman for the Pamir Corp 217 based in Kunduz, insisted when speaking with AAN that the Taleban had failed to take over parts of the city for anything more than a brief moment. He said he considered it “more of a guerrilla attack than an attempt to take over the provincial centre.” The Minister of Interior said in the Tolonews interview already quoted above that the Taleban targeted Kunduz city to reduce the pressure on Taleban forces in neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan.

The fact that the acting ministers for defence and interior, Asadullah Khaled and Masud Andarabi, and top US/NATO commander General Austin Miller visited the city on the first day while clashes were ongoing in other parts the city showed the enormous importance the government attached to repelling this attack and to demonstrating that all was well there. Their statement in a joint press interview with Tolo News, that security forces had been aware of the Taleban’s attack plan and security forces had been ready to defeat them, sounded hollow, however, given the time taken to move in reinforcements and go on the counter-offensive.

The government official quoted above said the attack on Pul-e Khumri was not as heavy as the one on Kunduz. Initial casualty reports from the government side on 2 September – four civilians, two members of the security forces and 21 Taleban fighters killed, and 20 more civilians and two members of the security forces wounded– and an Afghan media report saying it was a group of only 30 to 40 Taleban who had launched the attack seemed to confirm this assessment. However, fighting there stretched over five days.

Whatever the size of this attack, it was special insofar as – in contrast to earlier attacks on Kunduz – the Taleban not only blocked the Kabul-Kunduz road in Baghlan province (usually this is done only their stronghold, Baghlan-e Jadid district), but also attacked its provincial centre.

Conclusion

It is not clear whether the Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri (and later on Farah) were aimed at capturing the cities or rather were regular harassment attacks of the hit-and-withdraw type. The latter are often undertaken to keep defenders of government-controlled districts or provincial centres under pressure while avoiding the larger-scale concentration of forces necessary for a permanent occupation of an urban centre, that would likely provoke a powerful backlash, involving airstrikes and large-scale damage. This was seen, for example, in Ghazni in August 2018 (AAN analysis here and here). The attacks can also be read as a signal that the Taleban capabilities to launch effective attacks have not been diminished by airstrikes on their commanders and by government clearance operations.

Kunduz, a strategic province in the northeast, whose provincial capital also serves as the centre of this region of five provinces (together with Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan and Samangan), has also been the most insecure province in this region over the past five years. The Taleban took control of Kunduz city for two weeks in 2015, overran most of the city in 2016 (read AAN’s previous analysis here and here) and launched another, albeit weaker attack in 2017. However, this was not the beginning of the province’s troubles; security in the province began to erode around 2010 (see our 2015 dossier on this). In 2017, the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) categorised Kunduz as the Afghan province with the largest percentage of districts under Taleban control or influence (five of seven); by October 2018 – the last time such data was provided – all seven districts of Kunduz, including its provincial capital, were in that category (here, p246).

Baghlan followed in this same pattern, with only some delay; it has been plagued by insecurity since at least since 2013 (see also here and here).

Looking at the recent Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, it is become clear that both cities remain vulnerable and that the Taleban presence in their outskirts, just some kilometres away, both was underestimated by local officials – and this presence has not diminished after the recent counter-attacks. If minister Khaled’s claims that he had information about the pending attack was true, preventive measures had clearly not been taken quickly enough. Lessons from earlier attacks had still not been learned, including the lack of, or ignorance of, the Taleban presence around the city, as well as weaknesses in the security belt surrounding the city with its insufficient number of soldiers. The major issue, however, appears to be the lack of coordination – yet again – among local security forces, the national police and army, the public protection forces and the provincial National Directorate of Security. That lead to insufficient measures being taken that could have preempt edTaleban attacks in the first place.

The recent offensives indicate that Taleban forces are still well-placed in Kunduz province and continue to pose a serious threat to the local Afghan security forces. As the two surprise attacks showed, their abilities must not be underestimated.

Farah is following the negative security trend of Kunduz and Baghlan. Abdul Samad Salehi, a member of its provincial council, told the German Press Agency (dpa) on 5 September, that government forces only control security forces bases in three districts of the province outside its capital while there was no even a check post in seven others. In the January 2019 SIGAR report (with data from October 2018), only six of 11 districts in Farah were considered ‘contested’ – the middle one of five SIGAR categories – with the other five under government influence or control. Baghlan then had 13 out of 15 districts as ‘contested’, one under government influence and one with ‘high insurgency activity.’

The attacks were also perceived by most media as a show of strength during what was expected to be the final stage before a US-Taleban withdrawal agreement. They underlined the Taleban’s repeated statement that even the then about-to-be signed agreement with the US, which was reported to include a ceasefire with the western forces, would not have covered Afghan government security forces. Now that talks with the Taleban are off, there are fears about a possible intensification of violence and a continuing uneasiness about the lack of preparedness among Afghan government forces to protect the population.

Edited by Christian Bleuer and Kate Clark

(1) Reported examples were of Qari Wasem, in Khanabad district, in August 2019 (media report here); Qari Muhammad and Mullah Najibullah, in March 2019, and Mullah Abdullah, in November 2018 in Dasht-e Archi. On 3 September, government sources claimed that the Taleban’s general commander for the province, Qari Mansur, had been killed in an Afghan commando operation. However, we use these reports with caution, as there have been cases of misreporting (see for example this AAN analysis).