The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Taliban-held Kunduz, echoes of a 1988 guerrilla assault after the Soviets withdrew

People living in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz evacuate after days of fighting since the Taliban insurgents seized the city on Monday, Sept.28. (Video: Reuters)

As the Taliban tightened its grip on key parts of northern Afghanistan on Wednesday, parallels could be drawn to summer 1988, when the city of Kunduz fell to militants as a foreign army withdrew its troops.

The mujahideen assaulted Kunduz, a city of at least 250,000 people, within days of Soviet forces pulling out of it in August 1988. A top Soviet officer at the time, Lt. Gen. Boris V. Gromov, said that it marked the first time since the Soviet invasion that Afghan guerrillas had seized a major population center, but that Moscow would not reverse its planned military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[The bloody history of Kunduz, from the ‘Convoy of Death’ to the battle now raging]

Kunduz was taken back a week later by Afghan forces, with Afghan President Najibullah saying that his military had “wiped out” the rebels in Kunduz, according to a piece in the Los Angeles Times. But the Soviets helped them hold it in the following weeks, launching airstrikes that drew condemnation from the U.S. State Department and sending Soviet troops back to a military installation in Kunduz, the New York Times reported at the time.

That history has drawn attention as the Afghan military and U.S. Special Operations forces attempt to stanch a Taliban offensive in Kunduz this week. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers are believed to be holed up at the Kunduz airport, about five miles south of the city, and U.S. troops called in airstrikes Wednesday after coming under fire nearby.

Violence in northern Afghanistan has been escalating for months, as the Taliban and other militants flowed into the area and captured pieces of Kunduz province bit by bit. U.S. officials, meanwhile, are in the process of debating what the U.S. military future in Afghanistan should look like.

There are currently about 9,800 U.S. troops deployed across the country, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. President Obama agreed early this year to keep 9,800 American service members in Afghanistan through 2015, but he has vowed to end the U.S. war there by the end of his presidency.

[For Afghanistan veterans, the war will never end]

In 1988, the initial fall of Kunduz forecast wider problems across Afghanistan as Soviet military support for the Afghan administration at the time dwindled. The last Soviet military units withdrew from the country in February 1989, as militants surrounded the capital city of Kabul and bombarded it. Afghanistan plunged into a civil war capped in 1996 by the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the execution of Najibullah, four years after the Soviet Union cut all support to Afghanistan.

As noted in this Washington Post piece, guerrillas in northern Afghanistan in 1988 were organized primarily by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who opposed Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. He also fought against the Taliban until he was killed in a suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After his death, his Northern Alliance formed the foundation of the Afghan units that, aided by devastating airstrikes called in by U.S. Special Forces teams, advanced rapidly and drove the Taliban from power in Kabul.