Surviving Kunduz: Crime and violence swamp neglected Afghan city

Surviving Kunduz: Crime and violence swamp neglected Afghan city once hailed as model of governance
7 min read
Kunduz residents say the situation in their province has deteriorated due to a lack of governance, a resurgent Taliban and an increasing crime rate.
Kunduz remains the only urban centre held by the Taliban since 2001 [AFP]
For two brief periods in 2015 and 2016, all eyes in Afghanistan were on this Northern province, as Afghan forces tried to wrest its eponymous capital from the control of the Taliban.

To this day, the city of Kunduz remains the only urban centre to have fallen into the hands of the Taliban since the 2001 US-led invasion. Currently, the province is contested by both sides but the Taliban had withdrawn from the city centre.

Residents say that as the public's attention has shifted elsewhere over the years, the situation in their province has only deteriorated due to a lack of governance, a resurgent Taliban and an increasing crime rate.
 
"Survival in Kunduz is a matter of chance," says Samim Aryaee, a civil society activist. Aryaee says it's not just the Taliban and other armed opposition groups that the people fear. There is also the matter of violent criminal groups, who residents say steal and extort from the people. Worse yet, Aryaee and other residents say the police are unable to stop such groups.
 
Haji Jumaddin, who runs a jewelry shop 100 metres from the capital's main square, says he came face-to-face with these realities when his store was robbed by armed men in police uniforms on the morning of June 23.
 
"They came at 8am, in broad daylight and ran out with $40,000 worth of jewelry."
 
Over the years, as the Afghan people continue to struggle with a 35 percent unemployment rate, other major cities - KabulJalalabadHerat and Mazar-e Sharif - have had to deal with similar spikes in criminal activity, but Jumaddin says in Kunduz the police have been of little help.
 
"It was in the daytime, in the center of the city, the police were everywhere," says Jumaddin, but the robbers still managed to run into his shop, beat up his sons and pass a parked police ranger as they sped away in the car that was parked outside his store.

He ran to the police ranger, but he was told that because their commander was not there they couldn't do anything. When he made his way to the local police station, Jumaddin was given a more startling answer; the police recognised the criminals, but because they were connected to a local strongman nothing could be done.
 
In 2015, many Kunduzis said the abuses perpetuated by such strongmen, including those allied with the government, were what led to the initial Taliban takeover of their province.
 
Distraught but undeterred, Jumaddin turned to the local jewellers union, who accompanied him to the provincial police headquarters. They demanded that their businesses, with their high-value contents, be protected, as this was the fourth such incident in recent months.
 
"My hands are tied. There's nothing more I can do for you. You must take responsibility for the security of your shops," the police commander told them.
 
As the jewellers continued to make their demands to the police, they were startled by the sound of shouting and gunshots. When they went to see what had happened, they saw that another police commander, Abdul Wahab, had been killed by his own guard. The guard eventually fled the scene and reportedly sought refuge with the Taliban.
 
Leaving the police headquarters, the jewellers said to each other: "If they can't even protect themselves in their own HQ, what hope is there for us?"
 
The police commander’s death, later claimed by the Taliban, came only days after the group claimed responsibility for the assassination of Noor Mohammad Arab, an adviser to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The month of Ramadan also saw the Taliban-claimed killing of another member of the Afghan National Security Forces.
 
"In Kunduz, the Taliban have access to every part of the province," Khan Alam, a worried resident says.
 
"They send arrest warrants from Chardara district and kill people in Kunduz, those they don’t kill they bring to their own courts in Chardara."
 
Alam says life in Kunduz, a province that twice fell to the Taliban, has become a waking nightmare for residents as the Taliban are now joined by criminal groups who are running amok. 
 
This sense of fear has led many high-profile businessmen to flee the province, leaving only a few branches or representatives behind. Haji Ahmad Khan, who owns several businesses in the province, says he has closed down three of his shops and rented out his house so he can leave the city.
 
Omid Ghazanfar, whose own jewelry shop was robbed only days before Jumaddin's, says a large percentage of the criminal activity is occurring in government-controlled areas of the province.
 
"If the government can't manage the situation in Kunduz and arrest the criminals, then they should just let the Taliban take over. At least then our properties will be secure, because life in Taliban-controlled areas is much safer."
 
At least three of Kunduz's nine districts are currently under the control of the Taliban. A February report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank, found that local government officials are often absent from their own areas and instead work remotely from the provincial capital. The report also stated that in at least one district, the Taliban have managed to co-opt both governmental and non-governmental services.
When the Kabul government and its foreign allies do go after alleged Taliban fighters in Kunduz, it has far too often led to civilian casualties
Civilian casualties spared by none

When the Kabul government and its foreign allies do go after alleged Taliban fighters in Kunduz, it has far too often led to civilian casualties. In fact, the Northern province has been home to some of the most high-profile incidents of civilian killings by Afghan and NATO forces since at least 2009
 
Last year, an airstrike over a madrasa in Dasht-e Archi district led to the deaths of at least 30 children, despite the government’s insistence that they had targeted a Taliban gathering.
 
As talks between the Taliban and US representatives in Doha continue, the national unity government, which has so far been excluded from the talks, has upped their military operations, including the use of aerial strikes. However, these operations have come at a high cost. Earlier this week, a United Nations report on civilian casualties said that in the first two quarters of 2019, Afghan and foreign forces were responsible for more civilian deaths than the Taliban and other armed groups. 
 
The majority of these deaths were the result of aerial operations, which caused 363 deaths, including the deaths of 89 children.
 
"While the number of injured decreased, the number of civilians killed more than doubled, highlighting the lethal character of this tactic. UNAMA continues to express concern about the rising level of civilian harm as a result of aerial operations, particularly those conducted in support of Afghan forces on the ground and strikes on civilian structures," the report read.
 
Though Ghazanfar's vision of life in Taliban-controlled areas may seem counterintuitive, another local business owner who did not wish to be named, says it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.
 
"Shortly after my own shop was robbed the Taliban called me to say that if I can identify the robbers, they can track down them down and hang them for their crimes."
 
Citing increased corruption and weak governance, Kunduzis have now placed their faith in the ongoing Qatar-brokered talks between the  United States and Taliban, now in their seventh round. A local journalist, who also did not wish to be named, citing security concerns, said: 
 
"Right now, our only hope, the only thing that keeps us from fleeing Kunduz is the peace talks."
 
The journalist, who described the current situation in the province as "out of control," said too many people have lost faith in the government’s ability to address the security situation.

This is a startling confession for a province that in 2014, was seen as the model for the kind of government then newly-elected President Ashraf Ghani, wanted to create in Afghanistan.
 
"If peace and security aren’t restored soon, Kunduz will be abandoned," he said.


Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.

Ehsanullah Ehsan is a researcher and journalist from the Northern Afghan province of Kunduz who is now based between Afghanistan and the United States. He has reported out of Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, TRT World and ThinkProgress.