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Fall of Kunduz: Is Afghanistan Losing Psychological War Front?

Historian Don Luigi Sturzo said, “War does not arise merely from differences of ideas or from a clash of interest. Both these factors are overshadowed by long-range psychological preparation and conditioning”[i]. When the city of Kunduz was captured by the Taliban on September 28, the West’s response to the fall of Kunduz was characterized by shock which primarily emerged out of its pure lack of awareness of the Afghan security situation. However the Afghan establishment responded prudently. Afghan and US military leadership are both well aware of the ground reality. Since last few years this perception has been framed by the US and other western media and political patrons keeping their national interest in mind, particularly to support the decision of withdrawal of the forces from Afghanistan. Fall of Kunduz is not an exceptional event for Afghans and Taliban, in the history of thirty five years of war. It was just another turn which brought out the “psychological preparation and conditioning” of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Taliban. This paper will discuss about the reasons behind the fall of Kunduz and its future repercussions.

Why Kunduz?

Kunduz is predominantly Pashtun surrounded by Uzbek and Tajik dominated provinces. In 1997 when Taliban attacked Mazar-e-Sharif, Pashtuns from Kunduz supported the Taliban attacks. After the US attack on Taliban regime in 2001, Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book ‘Decent Into Chaos’, that, under ‘Operation Evil Airlift’ many Taliban commanders, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Al-Qaeda personnel were extracted from Kunduz. Prior to 2001 there were six Terrorists training centers in Kunduz and Takhar, the maximum numbers in any Northern provinces[ii] . Kunduz and Balkh was the center of activities of IMU. It is also the northern route for drug trade into Central Asia. Since 2006-7 increasing insecurity had raised demand for weapons in Afghanistan, which was met by smuggling weapons from neighboring countries. Hence the Darya-e-Panj weapons market located on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan become an important center[iii] with easy access to weapons. Thus this province has strategic geopolitical importance.

The attack on Kunduz was not an isolated incident; Taliban has been aggressive in northern areas in this fighting season undertaking operation ‘Azm’ since March 2015.  In April this year, Taliban carried out its first major offensive on Kunduz, and in the same month they beheaded 33 ANA soldiers in Badakshan which was a relatively stable province but became a hotbed from 2013 onwards. President Ashraf Ghani had delayed his visit to India because of the critical situation. During July-August, 2015  First Vice President  Dostum was building confidence among his Uzbek supporters against Taliban in his province of Jawazan and Faryab where he wields great power. Governor of Balkh and former Tajik Mujahidin leader Atta Nur declared that three major parties in Afghanistan, including Dostum's party, had joined hands to fight insurgents in northern Afghanistan.

Absolute time

After the withdrawal of majority of US forces, ANSF took over the responsibility of security; however Afghan leadership predicted in 2010 that, when the national security policy was formulated, such responsibility will pose a major challenge for ANSF. The policy paper reads “The perception that international forces may leave Afghanistan within the next two to three years, has encouraged the opponents of the state, making them more adamant and determined to oppose the state and continue their violent acts against the people. The psychological impact and the likely consequences of the debate over an early withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan on the security circles of the country especially the National Army, is a matter that should not be taken lightly”[iv]. And, to avoid this psychological impact on troops and the country as whole, ANA opted the strategy of defending provincial capitals rather than focusing on rural hinter lands. Until the fall of Kunduz, this strategy was successful but this particular event has greatly undermined its effectiveness. Tactical advances of the Taliban may have a psychological impact on the Afghans and the international community alike. These attacks will certainly compel the Afghan government and the US to change their strategy and concentrate on how to deal with the psychological threat posed by the Taliban. Afghans have a history of defection and switching sides, and if Taliban proves its influence through such attacks, it will have detrimental effect on public support for the state.

There are four reasons behind the Taliban launching its operations in Northern provinces this fighting season.

  1. Withdrawal of ISAF forces and a weak ANA which is primarily aiming for a stalemate, as an outright victory is difficult keeping in mind the challenges it faces.
  2. Dispersal of areas of operations to minimize its losses by changing the predictable pattern and source of battle.
  3. Projecting the image of Taliban’s ‘national struggle’ by attacking targets across the country.
  4. Existing Militia formations in the North which can switch sides and join the Taliban ranks.

          The inability of the government, however, in decision making, poor command and control system at operational level, lack of effective advisory support from US after withdrawal of its forces and limited aerial support are some of the conditions enabling the Taliban to win this Psychological war.

Future Repercussions

The Taliban has proved its reach and capabilities; in the future, Afghan militia and their leaders who are supporting the government in the north may defect and join the Taliban ranks.  This event might force to the US and its western allies to redraw their withdrawal strategy.  There is also the possibility that talks with Taliban may either be disrupted or may be accelerated with increasing international pressure on Pakistan, the latter seems more likely.

Author is Research Assistant at Centre for Land Warfare Studies. Views expressed by author are personal




[i] Palmer Norman D and Perkins Howard C, (2001), “International Relations”, CBS Publishers & distributors PVT LTD, New Delhi, 2001, P 190

[ii] Dodge T and Redman N, (eds), (2011), “Afghanistan: To 2015 and betond”, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, for IISS, 2011, P I

[iii] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan The office of National Security Council, “National Security Policy of Afghanistan 2010-2012”, P 30

[iv] Ibid P 28

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Shreyas Deshmukh

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