The Taliban’s was a military, political and propaganda coup for the insurgent group, and even if government troops retake it fast, the impact of their initial defeat will make it harder for Kabul to fight, rule or pursue peace talks.
A key northern centre, Kunduz was the and is the first major centre they have taken since then. The assault marks a shift in strategy and confidence after years of sticking to rural areas to harry government and Nato troops.
It will cement the authority of the Taliban’s , make the prospect of peace negotiations more distant and difficult, and dent the morale of both government troops and ordinary Afghans as they head into the country’s bitter winter.
“Having a Taliban that is confident on the battlefield and which feels it can win militarily is not good for peace talks,” said Kate Clark of the Analysts Network, adding that even if the government could reclaim Kunduz huge damage had been done.
“People get killed and injured, and it also makes residents feel very very unsafe. It doesn’t go back to how it was before your area got lost to the opposition. If you live there, your confidence in the government is lost.”
Pictures of Taliban fighters and posing for selfies in the centre of Kunduz shocked Afghans in Kabul and other urban centres where most people had considered themselves relatively safe, even as fighting spread in rural areas.
The attack was timed for maximum political impact, with striking into Kunduz on the anniversary of president Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration as leader of a shaky national unity government.
Nor could the government claim it had no warning. For months, people in Kunduz had been raising the alarm about , and at one point over the summer Taliban forces reportedly surged into its suburbs.
The Taliban leadership flagged up its desire for popular support by handing out public orders to troops not to harm civilians, although there were reports of looting and that bodies of the dead lay uncollected in the streets.
Analysts said the insurgents would have to hold the town for months before they could claim it as a permanent base, like the Iraqi town of Mosul has become for Islamic State. Government forces are already fighting through the suburbs, and the Taliban’s traditional enemies have been gathering across the north and vowing to pick up arms and drive them out.
But extra troops must be drawn from other areas with security problems of their own, and the Taliban moved quickly to entrench themselves in the city, reportedly sowing the roads with bombs and fanning out through civilian areas where it will be hard for government troops to call on western air support.
And, although the Taliban are believed to be heavily outnumbered, in the past they have proved willing to take heavy casualties to hold on to lesser prizes in the south.
More than 200 fighters may have died holding on to rural Musa Qala district in Helmand in recent months, after an abortive government effort to reclaim the area, .
“It’s significant, a first big test for the Afghan national security forces. If the Taliban did manage to hold on to a city for an extended period of time, that would be a big blow,” said a former senior western diplomat in Kabul. “If they were still in charge of it next year or in a few months time, you’d begin to have Mosul-like parallels.”
The one small comfort that the government may be able to draw from the fall of Kunduz is that it will put Afghanistan firmly back on the international agenda, reversing a slow drift of attention towards Syria and other crisis areas.
Kunduz proved a bellwether when the Soviet Union cut funding and support for the Afghan military in the 1980s, after the Russian retreat from Afghanistan. Soon after, the country drifted into full-blown civil war.
The west insists it wants to stop that happening again, and there is little dispute that the Afghan military needs help with funding, hardware and technical assistance.
“In a way, the US [military] had already come back,” the former diplomat said, referring to after the former president, Hamid Karzai, who had been fiercely critical of Nato, stepped down. “We are committed to support.”