The men who charged into the city of Kunduz at 3 a.m. on Monday 10 days ago wore masks in addition to headbands emblazoned with Islamic fighting slogans, witnesses say. Most of them came from the surrounding area -- hundreds of young men between the ages of 15 and 25, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Taliban occupied the city center for 48 hours. At the important traffic circle in the heart of Kunduz, they pulled the national flag from the flagpole and raised the white banner of their so-called "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" in its place.
It was the radical Islamists' fourth attempt within just over a year to bring the city back under their control. The Taliban held the city until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and it was one of the Islamist group's last bastions.
This thime around, their time could hardly have been more auspicious. Concurrently, representatives from 75 countries were gathered in Brussels for the so-called Conference on Afghanistan to discuss further financial aid for the country, which is currently sinking into a morass of terror and corruption.
The fight for Kunduz also demonstrates how demoralizing it is for the aid workers and members of the international military alliance to continually have start from the beginning. Accomplishments that took lots of hard work in dangerous conditions to build can be erased in just a few days by an attack. Most of the 56 German soldiers who died in Afghanistan fell here, in the north. And their families aren't the only ones asking what they died for. Because for much of the last two years, the Taliban has once again been on the advance.
In September and October of last year, the Islamists were able to occupy Kunduz for 15 days -- enough for them to plunder and burn down almost everything that the Germans had built up over the course of a decade. It was a military and political defeat that clearly demonstrated just how unprofessionally the Afghan security forces and the government operate in the city.
What happens in Kunduz has a significant influence on what happens in the rest of the country. The city is strategically important for northern Afghanistan and the Taliban hope to use it as a jumping-off point to conquer the northern provinces. Ultimately, they hope to link up with their southern forces to control the entire country.
"The city center is once again secure," the governor of Kunduz, Asadullah Omar Khel, told SPIEGEL last Wednesday, adding that the army had recaptured the governor's residence, the police station and the intelligence services building. But outside of the center, the Taliban is still active almost everywhere.
Governor Omar Khel is almost 60 years old and himself a former jihadist commander who fought against the Soviets. He believes that neighboring Pakistan is responsible for the success of the Taliban: "The enemies are being directed and supported by the ISI," the Pakistani secret service.
Criminals in Government
That could very well be true, but it isn't the whole truth. Afghanistan's warlords are also to blame. They are powerful tribal chiefs with private armies that protect their own criminal businesses. Despite this, several of them are now once again part of the government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, or at the very least belong to the influential elite.
One of these warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is currently the vice president of Afghanistan. His Uzbek fighters occasionally get into skirmishes with the Tajik militias belonging to other warlords. In June, Dostum's fighters murdered civilians in the province of Faryab, but the gunmen had no reason to fear punishment: Their commander is much too powerful.
This anarchy is driving the population into the arms of the Islamists. Because if the Taliban return to power, figures like Dostum would have to quickly disappear underground.
Meanwhile, the population suffers. Indeed, many are no longer sure who they should fear more: the Islamists or the government, with its criminals like Dostum.
On Tuesday, Nasim, a cable dealer in Kunduz who, like many Afghans, only has one name, wanted to bury his wife in Charamgari Cemetery last Tuesday. Bullets from a machine gun had passed through the mud wall of their house and fatally wounded the 50 year old. Nasim doesn't know who fired the weapon, and what difference does it make? He only knows that the access road to the cemetery wasn't passable because of the fighting. He was forced to head north instead, to the village of Kobai. Only there was Nasim able to bury his wife.
Thirty-year-old women's rights activist Arzu, from Kunduz' fourth district, was sleeping when the Taliban knocked on her door on Monday morning and demanded access to her roof. From there, they fired on government troops for hours. The terrorists didn't come down until the afternoon, at which point they patrolled the streets. "We are trapped here between the fronts," says Arzu.
As a result, the bazaar in the center of Kunduz is empty and the shops are closed. If there is electricity at all, it is only available for a few hours each day while drinking water and food are likewise scarce because supply routes have been disrupted, particularly in the east and south. It was only on Wednesday that Afghan security forces announced that the city had been cleared of Taliban.
How could the situation have deteriorated to this degre? After last year's raid, security experts working for President Ghani compiled a report concluding that it was crucial that the coordination between security force commanders be improved. That apparently hasn't been successful, particularly given that the Kunduz, with up to 10,000 soldiers and police officers stationed there, is more heavily defended than almost any other region in the country.
Regardless, the Taliban is rapidly expanding its influence in the north, especially along a ring road between the cities of Baghlan, Balkh and Kunduz. On Sunday, August 21, for example, they murdered 20 village police officers in a settlement there and the provincial council all fled to Kabul. Council head Mohammad Yusuf Ayubi publicly berated the government, saying that the area was no longer safe. He said the Taliban already controlled 80 percent of the area north of Kunduz, and that nothing had been done about it. He also warned that the city was about to fall. Even the head of the Kunduz intelligence service only barely escaped an ambush at the airport at the end of August.
Once again, it wasn't the Afghan army on its own that saved the city: It was primarily the air supremacy of the international protection force. Currently, 7,000 American soldiers are in the county, with the US providing aircraft and reconnaissance equipment. Their bombers and armed drones torment the Taliban. Of the 5,000 Germans who were once in Kunduz, only about 1,000 are left to train Afghan soldiers.
To understand what went wrong despite the billions of dollars in aid, one needs to go back 15 years to when the battle for Afghanistan began, in October 2001. Back then, there was no electricity in areas under Taliban control, no undamaged roads, no clinics, no schools and barely an intact house. But despite their efforts over the following years, the West was unable to come up with lasting solutions to the country's problems.
The long-time rivalry between the nuclear powers Pakistan and India continues. And Pakistan is pressuring Afghanistan -- which is a friend of India's -- by protecting and supporting the Taliban. Keeping the Islamists permanently at by is thus impossible, because they can always pull back to Pakistan.
West Is There to Stay
All participants in last week's conference in Brussels are fully aware that a political solution to the Afghanistan conundrum is vital on the long term. They generously pledged $15.2 billion in additional support for the next four years.
Western governments have realized that withdrawal from Afghanistan would solve nothing. They also apparently want to avoid repeating past mistakes. When the Soviets left the country in 1989 after nine years of bloody fighting, they continued to advise the government they installed -- led by former intelligence chief Mohammad Najibullah -- for a number of years. Then, though, Moscow cut off the flow of monetary and military aid. In 1996, Najibullah was brutally murdered by the Taliban and hanged from a traffic-police pedestal.
When a German paratrooper reconnaissance unit landed on the airfield in Kunduz in September 2003, officers had intense discussions with representatives of different ethnic groups and elders. They wanted to find out whether they, unlike the Soviets back then, were welcome -- a question which was answered in the affirmative.
What the Afghans didn't tell them, however, was that, although the Germans were welcome, their mission would be neither short nor easy. Such a mission, after all, has never been seen in Afghan history.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 41/2016 (October 7th, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.
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