Afghan forces rally to recapture city of Kunduz from Taliban

People described cowering in their homes as shrapnel flew and rockets crashed down

Afghan military personnel walk near the airport during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Kunduz. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan military personnel walk near the airport during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Kunduz. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

 

Afghan government forces on Thursday rallied for the first time to try to retake the city of Kunduz from Taliban fighters, engaging in heavy fighting near the city centre, residents and government officials said.

After nightfall, however, witnesses said the battle for the city was still undecided. People caught in the city described cowering in their homes as shrapnel flew, and the occasional mortar shell or rocket crashed down.

Despite the long-awaited response by government forces in Kunduz, it was not enough to reassure civilians in neighbouring provinces, as the outlines of a potential broad Taliban offensive across northern Afghanistan became clearer. Some in the nearby provincial capitals Pul-e-Kumri, in Baghlan province south of Kunduz, and Taliqan in Takhar province, to the east said they were preparing to leave rather than risk being trapped in a Taliban assault.

In Takhar, people were further unnerved by reports that a northern district of the province had fallen to the Taliban on Thursday morning. “People are in a state of fear here,” said Ahmad Khalid, a resident of Kunduz who had fled to Taliqan on Thursday. He said that as he walked around the city, he kept seeing other Kunduz residents who had sought refuge. But Takhar residents were talking about getting out. “The people in Takhar are also preparing to leave. They fear this city will fall more easily than Kunduz.”

The prospect of a domino effect in the country’s northeast with villages, districts and potentially another provincial capital falling under Taliban control was worrying Western military strategists as well. They believe that the longer the Taliban can stave off a decisive counteroffensive by the government, the more momentum the insurgents will gain.

In Washington, senior Pentagon and other US government officials confirmed Thursday that Kunduz had not yet been fully reclaimed from the Taliban, and expressed frustration and bewilderment at what they said was a slow, disjointed effort to carry out an effective counterattack.

The US official acknowledged the similarities with the sudden Islamic State offensive in northern and western Iraq last year, when the Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other spots melted away despite vastly outnumbering the attackers. “If the Afghans don’t check things really fast, it has the potential to be like Mosul,” the official said.

The Taliban interest in Kunduz and Takhar has its roots not only in the movement’s decades-long presence in the region, but also in economics. The roads through both provinces lead across the Amu Darya river to Tajikistan, making them some of the country’s most lucrative drug routes. They are used by traffickers moving opium from the poppy prolific provinces in the south to Tajikistan and on to Kyrgyzstan from which the opium or heroin finds its way across Central Asia and to Russia and Europe. Whoever controls the roads, gets to take a cut, and the Taliban have long financed themselves in part through poppy production.

A second benefit is the rich agricultural land in Kunduz and Takhar, which if they controlled the province they can use both as a source of income by taxing the farmers’ harvest and use to sustain themselves even if they were unable to readily obtain goods from the rest of the country.

“Last year in February and March we decided that the military struggle in the south had made no significant gains,” said commander Hajji Qadir, a Taliban commander in a district of Badakhshan province, Waduj, that fell to the insurgents on Thursday. “Therefore military offensives should begin in the northern region, particularly the four northeastern provinces,” he said, adding that they appeared “strategic and valuable.”

Even if the Taliban are forced to withdraw from the city of Kunduz, this recent show of strength will only make it that much easier for them to levy a share of the local commerce be that wheat or drug trafficking. By the day’s end it was hard to say that either the government or the Taliban controlled Kunduz, but the government appeared to be making headway.

Whether they would hold the ground through the night unless reinforcements arrived was not clear. To the south, a large group of Afghan soldiers who had set out days ago to help reinforce Kunduz remained mostly stuck in northern Baghlan province, advancing painstakingly slowly as they were frequently halted by Taliban ambushes and roadblocks, officials said.

New York Times