As the Taliban , one of Afghanistan’s strategic northern cities, a forgotten conflict forced its way back on to the agenda. This is a watershed moment, not only for but for central Asia, where the growth of violent jihadi groups remains a serious concern. Kunduz is close to Tadjikistan and the capture of this town represents the first time a major urban area has fallen into the hands of the insurgent movement since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 by a US-led international coalition.
Both the fact and the symbol send severe shockwaves through the central government in Kabul, which continues to struggle to establish authority. The attack has taken place just one year into the presidency of the Afghan leader, Ashraf Ghani. Huge questions now hang over the prospects of peace talks with the Taliban – a policy Mr Ghani has been trying to pursue. But , which has been predicated on the supposition that the end of Nato’s combat mission in December 2014 would be compensated by the build-up of Afghan national security forces. These were not only unable to prevent the fall of Kunduz, but their attempt to retake the town a day later failed dismally. Whether the arrival of Nato special forces on Wednesday, along with US air strikes, would be sufficient to shore up Afghan government forces as they again went on the offensive, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, thousands of panicked residents .
After the west , Kunduz was the last Taliban stronghold to fall. So its recapture by the Taliban, even if it was to turn out to be only temporary, could be a game-changing moment, signalling the failure of the post-Nato transition period. The Taliban have demonstrated that they are able to break out of their southern strongholds and to threaten to take swaths of territory in the north. They have also shown that their clout is not limited to rural areas. There are now clear signs of a rapid deterioration in Afghanistan, only five months after a previous Taliban onslaught on Kunduz had been repelled.
Western strategy failures in Afghanistan are nothing new. After the Soviet withdrawal of 1989, was allowed to drift. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, western attention shifted to Iraq. A combination of negligence and misconceived strategic decisions (like the 2005 Nato deployment in rural Pashtun regions, which was felt there as an occupation) have had big consequences. The corruption of successive western-backed Afghan governments made things worse. And by publicly setting a 2014 deadline for the end of their combat missions, Nato and the US allowed the Taliban to play for time.
It is not inevitable that Afghanistan will collapse totally into the hands of the . One certainty, however, is that civilians will be the first victims of further instability and violence. International security will be threatened if Islamic State, which has been trying to get a foothold in the region, is able to step in. It was a mistake to think Afghanistan would succeed in taking care of itself once foreign troops withdrew. Proclaiming a war has ended doesn’t mean that it really has. More focus and more aid are indispensable if further deterioration is to be averted. What happens in Kunduz is a reminder of the price tag for international neglect of Afghanistan.