When Afghan forces finally managed to push Taliban fighters out of the northern city of Kunduz, residents began the process of burying their dead.
Throughout the nine days of fighting, street-side battles meant that those left in the city were unable to take their dead and injured to the hospital, which itself was dealing with supply and staff shortages.
The fighting, which began overnight on October 2, was the second time in a year that the Taliban made a play for the city of 300,000 residents.
Last September, Kunduz became the first urban centre in the country to fall into the hands of the armed opposition in 14 years.
The Taliban’s ongoing efforts to once again retake the city (at least four attempts have been made since September 2015) have once again highlighted the difficulties the Afghan National Security Forces are facing against the resurgent Taliban.
Hedaytullah Hamdard, a Kunduz resident, said the latest round of fighting had left him feeling dejected. “People had dead bodies in their houses for days; they had to wait for the bullets to stop flying to bury them.”
Hamdard questioned the ability of the Kabul government — which has been left to take on the armed opposition on its own since the withdrawal in 2014 of international troops — to provide security to the citizens. “We know now that they are not able to protect us anymore,” he said.
For Hamdard and other Kunduz residents, the feeling that government forces are unable to repel the Taliban, and other armed groups, is especially troubling as tens of thousands of residents across the country find themselves in a constant push-and-pull between the government and Taliban forces.
In the last three months, several cities and districts in the north, south and east of the country have either been taken over or come under threat of Taliban takeover. Though the Taliban rarely hold land for long periods of time, the back-and-forth is particularly difficult for the people.
“We are not moving towards peace; this is happening all the time,” Hamdard said of the cat-and-mouse game.
The constant battles for control of territory have also been well-documented by the Kabul government’s Western backers.
In July, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — the top US watchdog on Afghanistan — reported that in the first four months of this year, the armed opposition was able to wrest control of five per cent more territory from the Afghan government.
By the end of May, the armed opposition — a conglomerate of different forces including the Taliban — held 34.4 per cent of the territory. This represents the highest percentage since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
Even more damning was a letter SIGAR sent to the Pentagon in August. The letter, made public on October 7, says Afghanistan’s security forces may be full of “ghost soldiers”, despite Washington’s allocation of more than $68 million to build up the Afghan police and military.
Matihullah Dehati, a civil society activist, makes similar allusions to dysfunction among the province’s civil and security ranks. “We fear the local officials and their corruption. If they remain in power, the situation will not improve, because they may again compromise Kunduz.”
A report by the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank, released after the fall of Kunduz last year, said corruption amongst the ranks was in part responsible for the Taliban’s ability to take control of the city for 15 days.
“Many Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) units, led by weak or corrupt commanders, did not fight and threw down their arms and ran away,” the report said.
When Tirinkot, the capital of the southern province of Uruzgan, nearly fell in September, security forces reportedly turned over their positions to the opposition.
Looking at the devastating toll the fighting has taken on Kunduz, residents say their fears of a further deterioration in security are made evident by the state of their city.
In addition to the human toll — official statistics on civilian deaths have not been made public, but hospital officials have said more than 230 injured civilians were brought to the hospital during the fighting — residents must deal with the cost of rebuilding.
Several of the markets have been destroyed as nearly every shop in the city has been hit by stray bullets. The few undamaged shops have seen a huge rush, but a lack of supply means prices remain high.
During the fighting, the bread bakeries which remained open charged up to 50 afghanis for a loaf of bread that usually costs only 10.
With humanitarian aid still unable to reach the city, there is a water shortage, but the provincial government has promised help.
Speaking to the local media, the deputy police chief, Col Masoom Hashimi, said: “The municipality is busy cleaning the city, with the [electricity utility] beginning work on restoring electricity supply.”
Ehsanullah Ehsan contributed to this report from Mazar-i-Sharif
Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2016