‘A bellwether of things to come’

Raza Wazir speaks to Abubakar Siddique, who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and edits their website Gandhara, and is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan

‘A bellwether of things to come’
The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban comes 14 years after it was captured from them by US-backed militias. Is it déjà vu or the new reality?

Kunduz is a bellwether of today’s Afghanistan and the things to come. It tells us that without consistent international support, Afghanistan could lapse back into complete chaos, and once again become a center of regional instability and a key bastion of global terrorist networks. We should remember the role of international – particularly Central Asian – fighters in the fall of Kunduz and escalating violence across northern Afghanistan this year. Sadly, Kunduz also showcases the divisions within the Afghan national unity government and the larger problems of state building in Afghanistan since 9/11.

What were the security, political, and social factors that led to the fall?

We will know the exact cause of the fall of Kunduz when the Afghan government conducts its investigation as promised. I think it was a mix of all these factors. On a larger level, the NATO-led international coalition didn’t succeed in completely dismantling all the militant networks that threatened Afghan and regional stability. This enabled the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, and thousands of Central Asian fighters to essentially wait out the NATO presence in Afghanistan by carving out safe havens in Pakistan. They are now back in force in Afghanistan after being deprived of their last major sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

On the domestic front, Kunduz became a basket case of most major problems afflicting Afghanistan. These include feuds and factional rivalries, weak governance, foreign interference, and barely concealed competition over drug trade.
Kunduz became a basket case of problems afflicting Afghanistan

Pashtuns are a large percentage of this city’s population. Do you see an ethnic angle here?

This is a tricky issue that frankly needs a lot of research and reporting to get right in a war zone such as Kunduz. Northern Afghanistan in general – and Kunduz in particular – is multi-ethnic. Kunduz Province is sometimes called mini-Afghanistan for its patchwork of ethnicities. We must remember that the Taliban claim to be an Islamist movement whose ultimate aim is to enforce a political system and way of life they deem Islamic. Now, while many Taliban leaders are Pashtuns, they are not engaged in an ethnic or national liberation struggle. In reality, they might have little or no support among Pashtuns if you can take away the capacity to foment violence and intimidate people.

It is true that there are many rivalries in Kunduz, which are by no means Pashtuns versus the rest. There are certainly problems with some pro-government militias in the region who engaged in practices that made them unpopular among the people of Kunduz. People often oversimplify ethnic relations in Afghanistan and attempt to explain the conflict there through the prism of ethnicity. Like societies and countries everywhere, group grievances, identity politics, and competition over resources exist in Afghanistan, but it is certainly not the mainstay of the wars that attracted two superpowers and more than 100 countries during the past four decades.

Kunduz is far away from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. How valid is the claim made by some Afghan officials that Islamabad was behind the debacle?

I think we can say with some confidence that the Taliban have some backing in Pakistan. Obviously, thousands of their fighters wouldn’t be able to engage in a complicated insurgency for nearly 14 years without a safe havens in Pakistan. But there is no way to independently verify the extent of Pakistan’s involvement, particularly any covert role, in the fall of Kunduz.

What message did the Taliban intend to convey, and what lessons can the Afghan government draw?

The Taliban want to project power, and their new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, wants to say that he is in charge. But after making so many pronouncements about peace and commitment to Afghanistan, the Taliban are proving that they are just a warring faction and are averse to politics. This tells Afghans that the Taliban do not offer a pragmatic political roadmap toward a peaceful future for Afghanistan.

The big lesson that Kabul can draw from Kunduz is that the national unity government needs unity within its ranks and must unite the nation behind it. Kabul must focus on strengthening the Afghan forces along professional lines and resist forming militias.