What the Battle of Kunduz Means for the U.S. and Afghanistan
by Nabi Sahak
On September 28, the Taliban shocked the Afghan public and government and the international community by capturing Kunduz city in northern Afghanistan. Afghan security forces have since retaken the city and restored a relative sense of normalcy, but observers have only begun to assess the implications of the battle. What message does this symbolic and short-lived Taliban victory and the stunning defeat of the Afghan security forces send to the Afghan public, the Afghan government, and the United States?
For the United States, the battle of Kunduz sent three messages: first, the Afghan government, although on its way to self-reliance, is far from being able to provide full security to its citizens. Second, while the Taliban movement has been fragmented since the death of Mullah Omar, it remains a serious threat to America and to peace and stability in Afghanistan under its new leader Mullah Muhammad Akhtar and his foreign and domestic fighters and supporters. And third, if the United States does not genuinely commit to long-term support for Afghanistan, the gains made since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 might be reversed. These gains came at a cost of billions of dollars in aid and thousands of Afghan and coalition lives. While substantial, these gains remain vulnerable.
The United States must not abandon Afghanistan because the consequences would be deadly. It did so after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and the outcome was Afghanistan’s decline from a post-conflict state into a haven where the world’s most dangerous terrorists, including the plotters of the 9/11 attacks, thrived for more than a decade. The then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared in 2009 that the U.S. must not “repeat the mistakes of 1989” by abandoning Afghanistan “only to see it descend into chaos and into Taliban hands.”
What should the United States do with Afghanistan in a world where much of the Middle East shares anti-American sentiments; where Iran, per the assessment of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, is “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, posing both a regional and global security threat”; where “Russia’s military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces,” according to the 2015 U.S. National Military Strategy; and where Pakistan, according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, remains “a haven for numerous Islamist extremist and terrorist groups?”
The answer is that in such a world, a genuine and long term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is of paramount importance both for U.S. national security and its regional interests. If Afghanistan falls into the hands of terrorists Afghans will not be the only ones to suffer, as shown by the 9/11 attacks. If the United States provides Afghanistan with genuine and meaningful assistance to help it become a strong and functioning democracy, then the region and the world will be a much safer place.
For Afghan statesmen, the battle of Kunduz showed that there is no time for political games. Unless they put aside internal hatred and bigotry, respect the rule of law, and introduce fundamental reforms in both the private and public sectors, they will lose their state-funded privileges and their services will no longer be needed. If the Afghan government does not want to see the horrors of the 1990s repeated and wants to continue to be counted as a respectable member of the international community, it must live up to its obligation of providing security to its citizens while preserving their human rights. The government must secure the public’s safety and the public in turn will aid the government’s efforts.
For the Afghan public, the battle of Kunduz sent a chilling message that terrorism is very much alive and that indiscriminate attacks will probably continue. The alternative to the Afghan National Unity Government and national solidarity is more violence that feeds terrorist groups. The looting, killing, food shortages, and spillover of violence into cities surrounding Kunduz served as yet another reminder that disunity and internal strife across ethnic lines will only embolden terrorists. If the terrorists succeed they will take the Afghan public back to the 1990s, when they routinely saw mutilated bodies on the streets and when their children went to sleep hungry. As President Kennedy once said, “Terror is not a new weapon. Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example.”
The battle of Kunduz proved once again that a strong and united Afghan public will subdue terrorism while a weak and a divided one will remain its victim. The long-term humanitarian, economic, and developmental implications of this battle demand that society responds to terrorism through genuine national reconciliation, not national division across ethnic lines. Terrorism in the south and north must be fought head on with equal levels of determination. Kunduz must serve as a wake-up call for all Afghans that their freedoms, their chance for peace and prosperity, their rights to life and the pursuit of happiness, and their very survival as a nation depend on their national unity, concerted efforts for peace, and consistent and collective rejection of terrorism.
About the Author
Nabi Sahak is a Rotary peace scholar at the University of Queensland's School of Political Science and International Studies and worked as a reporter for BBC Radio in Afghanistan.