The Afghan government is under pressure to rethink its national security plans after warnings that the Taliban is growing stronger around the northern city of Kunduz, even after its fighters were driven out of the provincial capital two months ago.
Residents of the city, which was overrun by the Taliban after a surprise offensive at the end of September, are warning that efforts to push the Islamists back from the surrounding area have failed. They fear the insurgents could seize Kunduz again if they chose to.
“The Taliban is not far from here,” said Marshal Aymag, a tribal elder. He urged the Afghan government to act swiftly and seize the Humvees and weapons looted from the security forces by the insurgents. “They may storm the city again, using the weapons that were meant to protect Kunduz from them.”
Farmers, traders and some government officials in Kunduz – once seen as one of the most secure districts of Afghanistan – are angry that the Taliban has still not been dislodged from swathes of territory in neighbouring districts.
A provincial judge told The Independent that people in Kunduz were losing trust in the government. “The President’s credibility is on the line,” he said. “Taliban are just two kilometres from the city. They are on the roads, they are in the villages, in the fields, everywhere.”
He said the presence of 7,000 Afghan soldiers since the city was retaken appeared to have achieved little. “What have they been doing?” he asked.
During the battle to retake Kunduz, an MSF hospital was hit by an American air strike, killing 22 patients and staff, after it was mistaken for a Taliban compound. That incident, blamed partly on wrong information, added to the government’s embarrassment.
The danger was starkly illustrated during a visit by President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, when nine Taliban rockets struck the city, one landing 400 metres from the police headquarters where he was listening to the complaints of 100 residents.
“It is good, Mr President, that you travelled from the airport to the city in a helicopter,” said Mirza Laghmani, a tribal elder, “because we didn’t have any vehicles to receive you. The Taliban has looted everything they could lay their hands on and destroyed the rest.”
President Ashraf Ghani’s fact-finding mission established that the Taliban had seized 37 armoured government vehicles, 1,000 weapons and ammunition on the first day of the assault. The acting provincial governor, Hamdullah Danishi, admitted that there were serious security problems. “The situation has not improved,” he told the President. “If we don’t get rid of the heavy weapons and Humvees the Taliban looted, they will create bigger and graver challenges.”
The Afghan President admitted that there had been “a huge intelligence failure”. He has dismissed the city’s intelligence chief, General Gul Nabi Wardak, and most of his staff, and called on illegal militias attached to rival politicians to fall into line. “This is my last warning,” he said. “Join the Afghan National Security Forces or I will use force to remove you.”
But for some, like farmer Haji Mani, the challenge is not only the Taliban. “The people are also tired of the government and the illegal militias,” he said hesitatingly, prompting the President to nod in encouragement. “The Taliban tax us, the militias tax us and government officials demand bribes. Who can we go to?”
A member of the President’s entourage admitted the rocket attack suggested the Taliban knew he was in Kunduz.
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