Afghanistan Mounts Offensive to Retake Kunduz City from Taliban


Afghan troops backed by US air support launched a counter-offensive Tuesday to retake Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents 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 forces also conducted an air strike in Kunduz province on Tuesday, a NATO statement said, without specifying the target.

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.

Insurgents also showed off seized tanks and armored cars, chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is the greatest) and promising to enforce Islamic 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 defense ministry on Tuesday 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.

President Ashraf Ghani in a televised speech said the Taliban were using civilians as human shields, which was hampering the efforts of security forces.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the civilian population in Kunduz was in "grave danger", raising concerns that casualties could mount if the violence intensifies.

"We are scared of leaving our homes, scared of being beaten by the Taliban," said Sadiqa Sherza, head of Roshani Radio, a Kunduz media network focused on women's issues.

"There's no electricity, no water, and ration shops are all closed," she said, adding that insurgents had burned down the radio station.

The United Nations and other aid agencies were forced to pull their staff from the city, which has seen a huge influx of civilians displaced by recent months of fighting.

The Taliban's incursion into Kunduz, barely nine months after the NATO combat mission concluded, raises troubling questions over the capacity of Afghan forces as they battle militants largely on their own.

"The upshot is that Afghan forces, despite their many improvements in recent years, remain a work in progress," said Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"And given the extent of the Taliban threat, work in progress isn't good enough."

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 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 told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

Kunduz was the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan in November 2001.

The Islamist group has been largely absent from cities since being driven from power by the U.S. and its allies, but has maintained often brutal rule over swathes of the countryside.

The Taliban stepped up attacks during a summer offensive launched in late April against the Western-backed government in Kabul.

On Sunday, 13 people were killed and 33 wounded at a volleyball match in the eastern province of Paktika.

The Taliban denied being behind the attack there, a volatile frontier region considered a stronghold of their allies the Haqqani network.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's thinly spread security forces are also having to deal with the threat from the self-styled Islamic State group, which is looking to make inroads in the troubled country.

The two groups -- both with blood-curdling brands of Islamic fundamentalism -- are seen as engaged in a contest for influence in Afghanistan.

After years of costly involvement, most NATO troops pulled back from the frontlines by the end of 2014, although a residual force of around 13,000 remains for training and counter-terrorism operations.