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Taliban Seize An Afghan City That's Been Contested For Decades


American special forces are involved in the struggle to retake a city from Afghanistan's Taliban. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition describes the special forces as advisers. They're supporting Afghan forces around Kunduz.


The government still controls the airport outside that city. It's a refuge after the Taliban captured much of the surrounding area. Inside Kunduz, residents report militants going house to house. They're said to be looking for government workers.

MONTAGNE: Roads into Kunduz are blocked. The U.N. has raised concern about executions. The New York Times describes an accused looter seized by the Taliban and nearly killed, then dramatically spared.

INSKEEP: The fall of this city highlights the centuries-old challenge of controlling an ethnically mixed and mountainous country. A very old map on our office wall offers a clue as to why. The map is taken from an atlas published in the 1850s, and it shows an independent kingdom of Kunduz.

MONTAGNE: Afghanistan eventually absorbed Kunduz, and Kabul-based researcher Lola Cecchinel says the government made a special effort to keep control. It flooded the province with new residents, ethnic Pashtuns seen as more loyal. Generations later, it was Pashtuns who formed the heart of the Taliban movement.

LOLA CECCHINEL: So there is a big settlement of Pashtun populations in Kunduz, and those populations have been left out or perceived as left out since the new government came into place in 2001, where most influential positions in the administration, the provincial governor, the chief of police, etc., were monopolized by the winners of the war games, the Taliban. So this population of Pashtuns have been excluded from access to power, to decision making and to resources.

MONTAGNE: So what you're saying is is the non-Pashtun took over, and, also, many of them are what we would call warlords. I mean, they're corrupt, and they've been running this particular province in this city for their own gains.

CECCHINEL: Exactly. Kunduz is in the hands of warlords for the controlling the means of violence, for controlling the roads, for controlling the appointment of civil servants in the administrations, for instance. So it's definitely a big feature that explains the violence and the conflict in Kunduz.

MONTAGNE: Clearly, there is a lot of symbolic value to one of the major cities in Afghanistan to be overrun by Taliban. It shows weakness in the government and in the Afghan army. But strategically, how important is Kunduz?

CECCHINEL: It is extremely important in terms of what Kunduz represents and for the central state. It has always been strategic because it is populated with very different ethnic groups, and it has a lot of potential for violence. Kunduz sits at the crossroads of different provinces. Kunduz is rich in terms of resources. It's extremely important for political power because political activists in Kunduz have a lot of influence in Kabul through different mechanisms - for example, through the parliament or through connections with warlords who are actually influential in the ministries in Kabul. So it's definitely strategic.

MONTAGNE: Is there anything else about Kunduz that, say, could've been fixed, if you want to put it that way, but wasn't?

CECCHINEL: It's definitely a very complex province because of the ethnic makeup, because of the history of violence. But the government in my view has failed to be inclusive, it has failed to actually allocate resources fairly to the populations, and it has mostly empowered warlords and people in their influence.

MONTAGNE: Do you see Kunduz coming back into the orbit of the central government, or is this it for the time being?

CECCHINEL: I think the Afghan security forces will outnumber the Taliban, and the Taliban do not have, I think, the ambition to stay and to hold Kunduz, and they don't have the means. They don't have the logistics. And they have been implementing a strategy which is more aimed at securing territories in the rural areas where the state has little or absolutely no access in control and gaining influence over the population in those areas rather than in the cities where it's very easy for them to be defeated.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

CECCHINEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Lola Cecchinel is head of research for ATR Consulting, speaking to us from Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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