Taliban widen offensive as Afghan army fails to retake Kunduz

Sune Engel Rasmussen — Guardian.co.uk Sept 30, 2015

A Taliban fighter sits on his motorcycle in Kunduz, Afghanistan

A Taliban fighter sits on his motorcycle in Kunduz, Afghanistan

The Taliban are widening their offensive in northern Afghanistan after government forces failed to take back Kunduz, the strategic city in the north, which on Monday was captured by insurgents. It is the largest Afghan city to fall to the Taliban in the 14-year war.

Despite claims from Afghan authorities that an airstrike had killed a prominent Taliban leader and more than 100 insurgents, it appears that the militants have dug in around the city.

According to local people, Taliban fighters are still walking the streets freely, assuring people they do not intend to harm civilians in an apparent attempt to win local support.

“They don’t punish [ordinary] people,” said Waqif, a local reporter who was still in the city, despite a mass displacement of families. “For the time being, they are not threatening.” He said that while the Taliban had initially told people not to leave their houses, some shops had reopened on Wednesday morning.

Backed by at least two US airstrikes, the Afghan army has sent support from neighbouring Baghlan and Kabul provinces, but Taliban ambushes and roadside bombs have impeded swift movement of troops and interrupted supply routes, including for medical stocks.

About 5,000 Afghan troops have congregated around the airport, according to a security official speaking to Reuters. But they barely make up for the large number of troops who fled the city when the Taliban invaded. According to local officials, morale remained low.

“We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight,” Mohammad Zahir Niazi, chief of Chardara district, told Reuters.

After a full day of fighting, the militants were digging in and still controlled most of the city, despite early government claims that they were being pushed back. The Taliban were encircling the airport until 3am on Wednesday morning, according to another reporter who spent the night there. If taken, the airport would help the militants choke off the city.

The Afghan intelligence service, NDS, claimed a “precision airstrike” had killed Mawlawi Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s shadow governor in Kunduz, along with a local representative of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and a dozen other insurgents.

The US military confirmed it had “conducted an airstrike in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport at approximately 11.30pm local time, 29 September, against individuals threatening the force,” spokesman Col Brian Tribus said. However, he did not confirm that Salam had been killed.

Afghan authorities also claimed that more than 100 insurgents, including at least three Arabs, had been killed. The ministry of defence said 17 Afghan troops had also died.

Meanwhile, Kunduz’s civilians are suffering. The local Doctors Without Borders hospital was working over capacity, with more than 130 injured patients, while the public hospitals had admitted almost 200 wounded, including 28 women, according to its spokesman, Wahidullah Mayar.

The UN estimated that at least 100 civilians had been killed in the fighting, and that up to 6,000 civilians had fled.

“I am deeply concerned about the situation in Kunduz following the Taliban’s attack on the city,” said Nicholas Haysom, the UN chief in Afghanistan. “The reports of extrajudicial executions, including of healthcare workers, abductions, denial of medical care and restrictions on movement out of the city are particularly disturbing.”

A resident who asked to remain anonymous said: “My house is burned, the town of Kunduz has been destroyed by the Taliban. Our poor people in Kunduz have been displaced, killed and wounded. Expensive shops have been looted by Taliban.”

During a visit to the US, Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, suggested to CNN on Tuesday night that the militants had infiltrated the city rather than fought their way through it, which reinforces the view from many in Kabul that the Taliban moved a lot of fighters into the city during the Eid holidays in preparation for the attack.

The fall of Kunduz is a great propaganda victory for the Taliban. A military win can help consolidate support for the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, at a time when the movement is plagued by rifts after the announcement of the death of its founder, Mullah Omar.

The biggest territorial win since 2001, Kunduz is also symbolically important, as it was the first city to fall after Russia’s retreat in the 1980s. It was also the last major city taken by the US-backed Northern Alliance, which toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

The troubles in Kunduz are likely to reignite discussion about prolonging US engagement in Afghanistan. Barack Obama is aiming for a withdrawal to a troop size small enough to be housed at the US embassy in Kabul by the end of next year, but critics in Washington DC insist that is premature.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Senator John McCain said the incursion on Kunduz was “an indicator of the dimensions of the Taliban’s capability to launch a very significant and successful attack”.

However, more than a sign of Taliban strength, the seizure of Kunduz may be a sign of the troubles faced by the security forces, propped up by at least $61bn (£40bn) from the US, in securing the country.

Ali Mohammad Ali, a Kabul-based security analyst said the invasion of Kunduz was evidence of the political weakness of the government. For the past six months, fighting had raged only a few miles from the city, he said.

“Everybody knew this was a threat, but nobody took it seriously,” Ali said. “Kunduz fell into the hands of the Taliban because of lack of political leadership, and lack of military leadership in responding to the crisis.”

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