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Veteran Observer Dissects Taliban Kunduz Victory


Michael Semple

Irish academic Michael Semple, a former UN and EU adviser on Afghanistan, says the main aim of the Taliban capture of the city of Kunduz is to re-arm themselves. He says the development is cause of deep alarm for Kabul and might prompt its Western allies to revise their plans for Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: The Taliban overran a major city in Afghanistan. What led to the fall of Kunduz?

Michael Semple: The Taliban are committed to prosecuting their military campaign. They want to create the impression that they are strong and determined. They want to persuade both their supporters and enemies that they will win, so this is a show of force.

They have two objectives: They want to demoralize the government, creating a sense of panic; also, they want to resupply. The Taliban have no major arms and ammunition supplier. They have to procure them themselves. Often they have been short of ammunition, so I'm sure an important objective and loot all government stores [in Kunduz]. They probably expect to be driven out, but they will take the government stores with them. This is a resupply mission.

RFE/RL: Afghan critics have blamed Kabul for the city's fall. What is your take?

Semple: It is the responsibility of the Afghan government and its security forces to provide security for its citizens. I think many realized it is unable to hold remote rural areas, but they have a reasonable expectation that the Afghan government will maintain security in urban areas. So, clearly, that has been a major breach of security.

I talked to senior Afghan security officials today [September 30] and yesterday who said quite clearly that for them this underlines the need for reform and professionalism of security forces.

I'm sure the message the Afghan government will pass on to international allies like the United States is they are involved in a real war and support for the Afghan security forces has to be serious and professional. They are well aware one of the major problems in the international and U.S. program of building up the Afghan security forces was the air force, and they felt that too often -- since the U.S. has reduced the amount of air support for Afghan forces -- the Afghan units were left in the field without adequate support and at times, like the Kunduz battle, they acutely feel the shortage of air support.

RFE/RL: Isn’t this a major setback for President Ashraf Ghani’s government?

Semple: It certainly is cause for deep alarm, and there will be a lot of recrimination inside the government. Ghani will try to seize on it as an opportunity to show his own leadership.

If the Afghan security forces do indeed manage to re-enter Kunduz and push the Taliban out, and there's talk that even their governor has already been killed in the fight for the city, for example, then -- if the Afghan government is back in control of Kunduz in a few days -- it will look slightly different, and maybe they can weather the criticism.

RFE/RL: Are the Afghan forces strong enough to fight the Taliban? Or will the Afghan government need to remobilize the former militias?

Semple: As it has been seen in places like Iraq, raising militias -- which operate outside a professional command structure -- is a double-edged sword. They may be able to recruit men and motivate them to go into battle, but nobody is accountable for what they do on the battlefield in the areas they capture. That is a big problem.

One of the reasons we are seeing this fighting in the north is indeed because of the complex tribal and ethnic picture in Kunduz and also in neighboring provinces like Baghlan. All major ethnic groups of Afghanistan are represented in the population of Kunduz. If you start supporting militias and giving [them] a free hand to those areas, they all have a history of enmity with some of their neighbors. You run the risk of making things worse rather than better, so the government will be extremely reluctant to rely on militias to try to secure places like Kunduz.

But they will also find the failure so far of their conventional security forces will encourage some of the former militia leaders to demand exactly such a free hand, so that's one of the political/security problems the Afghan government will face in the days ahead.

RFE/RL: Do you think the fall of Kunduz will prompt Washington to review its withdrawal plans for Afghanistan and deploy additional forces?

Semple: I'm sure all those responsible for the U.S. assistance mission are asking themselves what more they can do to make that assistance more effective to ensure the Afghan government can actually secure its territory.

I don’t see any political will to increase the number of troops on the ground, but I think there will be rethinking on how long the U.S. has to provide assistance, how long to maintain the number of advisers and special forces at the current levels, and they will be looking for other kinds of support they can provide.

One of the Taliban’s actions is that while in all their political messaging they claim they want to see the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, by launching operations like this the Taliban actually encourage international forces to stay longer, not to leave.

RFE/RL: The Afghan government has repeatedly blamed Pakistan for supporting the Taliban. What does Pakistan really want to achieve from its support for the Taliban?

Semple: They have never made that explicit, because any support to the Taliban is covert, not open. Pakistan's government repeatedly says it would benefit from seeing a secure neighboring country, and I think one of the great puzzles people find in the analysis of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations is trying to work out exactly the answer to that question.

I will argue that the security of Afghanistan and Pakistan are intimately related, and if there is insecurity and instability in Afghanistan it will have a bad impact on Pakistan.

The military campaign in Afghanistan is moving not toward a Taliban victory but toward chronic insecurity and essentially civil-war-type conditions. That can only be bad for Pakistan's security, which would explain why they would provide support to the Taliban military campaign. Pakistan does not in any way stand to gain from the Taliban destabilizing Afghanistan.

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