KUNDUZ: Afghan troops backed by US air support launched a counter-offensive on Tuesday to retake Kunduz, a day after Taliban militants overran the strategic northern city in their biggest victory since being ousted from power in 2001.
Gun battles erupted and Humvees rolled in parts of the city as Afghan security forces, who had retreated to the outlying airport after the fall, began a counter-strike backed by reinforcements.
The Taliban had captured government buildings and freed hundreds of prisoners on Monday, raising their trademark white flag throughout the city.
The stunning fall of the provincial capital, which has sent panicked residents fleeing, dealt a major blow to Afghanistan’s Nato-trained security forces and highlighted the insurgency’s potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds.
US military planes struck Taliban positions on the outskirts of the city, a Nato spokesman said. The attack at about 9am marked the first US air strike to defend Kunduz.
Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the Nato-led coalition, denied reports later in the day that there had been civilian casualties in the air strike.
Police said 83 Taliban were killed in the US action, a claim denied by the Taliban.
Precise losses in the fighting were not known but the Afghan health ministry said hospitals in Kunduz had so far received 16 dead bodies and more than 190 wounded people.
Despite the counter-offensive, Kunduz swarmed with Taliban fighters racing stolen police vehicles and Red Cross vans.
Militants also showed off seized tanks and armoured cars, chanting slogans and promising to enforce Sharia law, a Taliban video showed.
Deputy Interior Minister Ayoub Salangi said that security forces were ready to retake the city and vowed to investigate how the Taliban managed to seize a major urban centre for the first time in 14 years.
The defence ministry claimed that the police headquarters and city prison had been retaken, after marauding insurgents freed hundreds of prisoners including some Taliban ‘commanders’.
But several other government facilities, including a 200-bed local hospital, were still under Taliban control.
‘Attackers from abroad’
In a speech at the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan’s chief executive called on Pakistan to keep its promise to crack down on extremists blamed for destabilising his country.
Abdullah Abdullah’s address on Monday night came hours after the Taliban militants seized Kunduz in a fast-moving attack.
He claimed that some of the attackers had come from abroad, and said: “We call on Pakistan to do what its leadership promised to us a few months ago when they agreed to crack down on known terror outfits.”
He expressed optimism that the insurgency would be defeated, saying “these attempts will eventually fail to subdue us”.
In a televised speech, President Ashraf Ghani said the Taliban were using civilians as human shields, which was hampering the efforts of security forces.
He said that reinforcements were on their way to regain the city, which he said had fallen partly because government forces had shown restraint to avoid civilian casualties.
“The government is responsible, and cannot and will not bomb its own citizens.”
The fall of the city coincides with the first anniversary of President Ghani’s national unity government coming to power, as it struggles to rein in the ascendant insurgency.
It will undoubtedly boost the image of new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour within insurgent ranks as he seeks to draw attention away from internal rifts over his leadership.
Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan and is a major transport hub for the north of the country, could offer the Taliban a critical new base of operations beyond their traditional southern strongholds.
In a statement late on Monday, Mansour congratulated his cadres on the “major victory”.
“In the long run, we may not be able to retain control but this victory will dispel the Afghan government’s belief that we are strong only in areas bordering Pakistan,” a prominent Taliban ‘commander’ said.
The Islamist group has been largely absent from cities since being driven from power by the US and its allies, but has maintained often brutal rule over swathes of the countryside.
‘Winning hearts, minds’
Residents in Kunduz said the Taliban were patrolling the streets in vehicles they had seized from the army, police and Western aid agencies.
“Since yesterday they gained control of our hospital, central bank and other government buildings,” said Abdul Ahad, a doctor at the 200-bed hospital in the city.
“They have been behaving very well with everyone, especially doctors. They may win people’s hearts if they stay longer.”
A senior ‘commander’ in the Islamist movement said fighters had been ordered to treat locals well. “Mullah Mansour directed his ‘commanders’ in northern Afghanistan to take care of the local community by winning their hearts and minds through good behaviour and self respect instead of bullets,” he said.
The ‘commander’ added that the insurgency would not stop at Kunduz. “This is the beginning, and our aim is Kabul. You will see how we capture Kabul and hang these puppets there in squares,” he said.
Published in Dawn, September 30th , 2015