Kunduz fighting: Could city's fall boost peace prospects?

Afghan security forces make their way through a part of Kunduz on 1 October 2015 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Afghan forces launched a counter-offensive in Kunduz early on Thursday morning

A few months ago the prospects for peace in Afghanistan looked better than they had in years.

In July members of the Taliban met representatives of the Afghan government for talks in the pretty hill town of Muree, just outside Islamabad in Pakistan.

It was hailed as a breakthrough, the first very tentative sign that the Taliban might consider some kind of negotiated peace.

Those talks were disrupted by news of the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

But hopes were boosted just days ago when the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, hinted he might support talks under certain conditions.

So the Taliban seizure of Kunduz looks like a huge setback.

Suddenly the discussion is all about whether this marks the moment a resurgent Taliban begins to roll back the Afghan government.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Taliban leader Mullah Mansour recently hinted he would be open to peace talks if foreign troops were expelled and a security deal with the US scrapped

But the all too familiar scenes of war in Afghanistan do not mean all hope of a negotiated peace is lost. Indeed, the ferocious battle for Kunduz may actually make a negotiated peace more likely.

Why? Well, first off no-one thought the conflict would end as talks began.

When the main coalition forces pulled out in December, bloodshed was expected as the Taliban tested the strength and resolve of the Afghan forces.

But the movement has been at a low ebb, split by the succession battle that followed the surprise announcement in July that Mullah Omar had been dead for more than two years.

Long game

Kunduz demonstrates that the Taliban remains a formidable fighting force.

What it doesn't show is that the Taliban has ruled out the idea of a negotiated settlement.

Many observers believe its leadership recognises that they are never going to take back control of Afghanistan, opening up the possibility of some kind of political compromise.

In which case Kunduz could be seen as part of a long-term bid by the Taliban to strengthen their hand in future negotiations.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some 10,000 US troops remain stationed in Afghanistan

The bad news is that it also confirms that this is likely to be a very long game.

But the success of the assault on Kunduz may have repercussions that weaken the Taliban's position in the longer term.

There are still some 10,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan. President Obama has said complete withdrawal will take place by the end of next year.

The Americans will leave a tiny force based in the US embassy in Kabul.

Kunduz could well force the Americans to reconsider the policy.

Flicker of optimism

America's longest war in recent years is reckoned to have cost more than a trillion dollars and the lives of almost 2,500 US soldiers.

"Do they really want to see their huge investment here turn to dust?", the former Afghan interior minister, Mohammad Omar Daudzai, asked when we met earlier this week.

He hopes Kunduz will encourage President Obama to explore the options for keeping more troops on the ground.

A bigger US presence would strengthen the Afghan army, hampering the prospects of a further Taliban advance in the longer term. And that, in turn, might make them more likely to come to the table for talks.

So while we may not see a let up in the violence here in Afghanistan any time soon, there are reasons why a flicker of optimism may still be justified.

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