Taliban Fighters Overrun Kunduz City as Afghan Forces Retreat

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KABUL, Afghanistan — After months of besieging the northern Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, Taliban fighters took over the city on Monday just hours after advancing, officials said, as government security forces fully retreated to the city’s outlying airport.

Taliban Fighters Overrun Kunduz City as Afghan Forces Retreat
Smoke rose from a police station during clashes between Taliban fighters and Afghan security forces, in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Monday

The Taliban victory, coming suddenly after what had appeared to be a stalemate through the summer, gave the insurgents a military and political prize — the capture of a major Afghan city — that has eluded them since 2001. And it presented the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has been alarmed about insurgent advances in the surrounding province for a year, with a demoralizing setback less than a year after the formal end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials vowed that a counterattack was coming, as commando forces were said to be flowing north by air and road to Kunduz. But by nightfall, the city itself belonged to the Taliban.

Their white flag was flying over several public areas of the city, residents said, and by the insurgents had set fire to police facilities and were looting jewelry shops.

The loss of Kunduz represented not so much an overwhelming offensive by the Taliban as a gradual collapse under pressure by the country’s besieged security forces. For a year, local officials had been sounding the alarm about the insurgents’ advance toward the provincial capital, even as some Afghan and Western officials had sought to describe the Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan as marginal and largely confined to rural areas, far from population centers.

Now, the city’s fall poses a dire challenge to the assertion that the Afghan security forces can hold the country’s most vital cities. Kunduz is an important northern hub of just over 300,000 residents, according to one Afghan government population estimate from 2013, although there has been a large outflow of refugees this past year and the population is most likely lower now.

Despite the city’s encirclement over the past few months, there appears to have been little effort by the NATO-trained Afghan security forces to dislodge insurgents from the city’s outskirts over the past six months.

Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, said that no major government offensive or reinforcement of the city had been taken up recently, even though it was clear the Taliban had been amassing at the city’s gates for months. He said 70 percent of the province outside of the city also remained under Taliban control.

“The central government is neglecting Kunduz and its people,” Mr. Ayoubi said. “The local officials are incompetent, which is a major reason for the presence of the Taliban.”

One major militia commander who had helped lead the city’s defense, Mir Alam, said he was retreating to his stronghold north of the city. Mr. Alam, who is believed to have hundreds and perhaps thousands of men in his network, said that the government had called on neighboring provinces to each send 350 men as reinforcements, but few appear to have done so.

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“Those provinces had their own security problems,” Mr. Alam said by phone. “How could they send their reserved units to Kunduz? I don’t see any reinforcement coming to retake Kunduz city back.”

The American military, which continues to fly warplanes and drones over Afghanistan, did not conduct any airstrikes near Kunduz on Monday, a spokeswoman for the military coalition here said. It remained to be seen what, if any, assistance American military officials would provide.

The fighting began at dawn on Monday, with bands of Taliban fighters advancing from three directions, said Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the Kunduz police. In some places, they fought with police forces, but in other neighborhoods their advance was mostly unopposed.

By early morning the Taliban had already raised their white flag in parts of the city and had reached the central hospital in the Seh Darak neighborhood.
A doctor in the hospital said by telephone that after searching room to room for wounded members of the Afghan security forces, the insurgents posed for photos, apparently as proof that they had been there, and left.

Abdullah Khan, who works as a mechanic, said the militants had faced little resistance in his neighborhood.

“It was around 7 a.m. when six or seven Taliban fighters raised their flag in the main roundabout and people started fleeing,” Mr. Khan said.

Throughout the day, pictures circulated on social media of gunmen standing in the street carrying white flags. Using mosque loudspeakers, Taliban fighters claimed they would capture the city, one security official briefed on the events in Kunduz said.

On Twitter, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, urged Kunduz residents to stay in their homes until the fighting was over. Small groups of Taliban fighters could be seen in the west of the city walking around freely and interacting with residents, one resident said by phone.

While most highways were blocked by Taliban checkpoints, some families were fleeing the city by a side road that appeared to be open.

By afternoon, some of the heaviest fighting was focused around the central prison, where roughly 500 inmates were being held, including Taliban prisoners. Most of the senior Taliban prisoners, however, had been relocated to Kabul, the national capital, officials said.

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