Islamabad (AFP) - The Taliban's lightning seizure of Kunduz is an unnerving victory for a group which many had believed was fraying and a disaster in symbolic terms for Afghanistan and its Western allies, analysts warn.
The hardline Islamists stormed the northern provincial capital on Monday, effectively overrunning it in their biggest triumph since being ousted from national power in 2001.
By Tuesday Afghan troops backed by US air support had launched a counter-offensive.
But even if it succeeds, the militants appear to have shut down speculation over fissures in their leadership, boosting the authority of the incumbent, and starkly exposed Kabul's inability to counter the insurgency.
"It is a disaster for the Ghani government," Pakistani militancy expert and author Ahmed Rashid told AFP, describing Kabul as "totally disorganised".
The Afghan troops in Kunduz numbered 7,000 including local militias, he said, while local reports put the number of Taliban attackers at fewer than 1,000.
But the government had "no strategy, no ability to defend the city", Rashid said, comparing the Taliban offensive to sweeps by the Islamic State group which controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
"The timing of it is very important," Rashid said.
"It certainly shows the Taliban are still a united fighting force, which is different from being a united political force. They are still determined to overthrow the machine."
That contrasts with recent speculation of internal rifts under a new and divisive leader scrabbling to hold the group together in the face of a growing recruitment threat by Islamic State.
- Rise and fall -
The hardline Islamists, whose name means "students", emerged from religious schools in refugee camps in Pakistan in late 1994 as Afghanistan suffered a bloody civil war.
Backed by Pakistan, they advanced quickly through a population traumatised by years of deadly fighting and desperately seeking stability, and in 1996 captured the capital Kabul.
Television, music and cinema were banned, girls were stopped from going to school, women had to wear the all-covering burqa and men were required to grow beards.
Transgressors were punished with public beatings, thieves had limbs amputated and public executions were carried out in front of large crowds.
But after the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Taliban's fall from power came swiftly when they refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. A US-led invasion toppled them in December 2001, triggering the long and bloody insurgency.
- Insurgency -
Taliban and Al-Qaeda cadres fled to Pakistan's wild, mountainous border regions to regroup and try to drive foreign troops from Afghanistan. Suicide bombings and ambushes spiralled against Afghan and international forces.
Ashraf Ghani took over as president in September 2014 after 13 years of rule by Hamid Karzai. Last December NATO ended its combat mission, leaving Afghan troops to fight the insurgents without the full support of foreign forces.
In July Taliban officials and government representatives met for the first time for talks near Islamabad, raising hopes of a negotiated peace.
But the talks were scuppered when news emerged of the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban's talismanic but reclusive founding leader.
One-eyed Omar was the only leader the Taliban had ever known, and his death -- shrouded in confusion and controversy -- threatened to split the group.
His deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour was named as replacement, but there was bitterness about his succession and some hardliners thought he was too close to Pakistan's shadowy military establishment to be his own man.
The cracks seemed to present an opportunity for IS to recruit disgruntled former militants and strengthen its foothold on Taliban turf. Since January IS has been joined by dozens of former Taliban commanders from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Mansour trumpeted Monday's incursion into Kunduz as a "major victory".
Rashid warned the Taliban's resurgence could have wider implications for Central Asia -- and even cause concern in the corridors of the Kremlin.
"The groups that took Kunduz don't include just the Taliban but a number of Arab, Central Asian and Chechen groups, which means a much wider fallout," he told AFP.
The Kunduz assault will also undoubtedly boost Mansour's image within insurgent ranks as he seeks to cement his authority by burnishing his credentials as a commander. It will discourage those in the Afghan government who had sought to capitalise on Taliban divisions to weaken the group.
What happens next depends on how much the Taliban value their symbolic gains, said Rifaat Hussain, a leading Pakistani academic and analyst.
Those may be so great that they do not mind ceding control of Kunduz, he said.
But, he added, if the Taliban do prepare for the long haul, they could set their sights next on the western city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
"If the objective is to get a toehold to expand their influence, the future doesn't look promising for Afghan forces," he told AFP.