Key Afghan city falls to Taliban in major government setback

September 29, 2015 3:53 am

 Taliban
fighters and young men take over an army truck on a street in Kunduz,
north of Kabul, , Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo / AP.

The Taliban captured the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz on
Monday in a multi-pronged attack involving hundreds of fighters, the
first time the insurgents have seized a major urban area since the 2001
U.S.-led invasion.
The fast-moving assault took military and
intelligence agencies by surprise as the insurgents descended on the
city, one of Afghanistan’s richest and the target of repeated Taliban
offensives as the militants spread their fight across the country
following the withdrawal last year of U.S. and NATO combat troops.
Within
12 hours of launching the offensive around 3 a.m., the militants had
reached the main square, tearing down photographs of President Ashraf
Ghani and other leaders and raising the white flag of the Taliban
movement, residents reported.
More than 600 prisoners, including
140 Taliban fighters, were released from the city’s jail, and many
people were trying to reach the airport to flee the city.

“Kunduz city has collapsed into the hands of the Taliban,”
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Associated Press.
“Security forces in Kunduz were prepared for an attack, but not one of
this size, and not one that was coordinated in 10 different locations at
the same time.”
The Taliban used social media to claim the
“conquest” of Kunduz and reassure residents that the extremist group ”
responsible for the vast majority of nearly 5,000 civilian casualties in
the first half of this year, according to the United Nations ” came in
peace.
A statement attributed to the group’s new leader, Mullah
Akhtar Mansoor, the self-styled Islamic emir of Afghanistan, said: “The
citizens of Kunduz should not worry about safeguarding their lives and
properties. Carry out your ordinary livelihoods in absolute security.
All traders, workers, staff of hospitals, municipality and governing
bodies should continue their daily routines without any fear or
intimidation.”
The Taliban have a history of brutality toward
those they regard as apostates, and have banned girls from school as
well as music, movies and other trappings of modern life in areas under
their control.
The fall of Kunduz marks a major setback for
government forces, who have struggled to combat the Taliban since the
U.S. and NATO shifted to a supporting role at the end of last year.
The
city is a strategic prize for the Taliban and its capture, however
short-lived, is sure to be used as a propaganda victory. This year’s
fight has severely tested Afghan forces, who lack air power and must
rely on the United States for selective airstrikes, and suffer huge
casualties and low morale. Nevertheless, they have largely held their
ground in the face of a Taliban strategy clearly aimed at forcing them
to spread resources ever-thinly across the country.
Sediqqi said
military reinforcements were being sent to Kunduz, where government
forces managed to fend off a major Taliban assault in April, the start
of the insurgents’ annual summer offensive. “We are trying our best to
clear the city as soon as possible,” he said.
Kunduz has been
regularly targeted by the Taliban, who have allied with other
insurgents, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and militants
driven into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan by an assault on their
hideouts near the porous border.
Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the
deputy chief of army staff, said Monday’s attack involved a large number
of Taliban drawn from across the north and included foreign fighters,
likely Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members with an eye on the Central
Asian states to Afghanistan’s north.
“Strategic areas, including
the airport, are controlled by Afghan security forces,” he said.
“Reinforcements have already arrived and attacks on the insurgent
positions will be launched soon,” he added, without elaborating.
Sediqqi said the target of the Taliban assault was the city’s main prison and police headquarters.
Earlier,
deputy presidential spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, had called the situation
“fluid,” saying Ghani was “in constant contact with the security and
defense leadership to provide them with guidance.”
“Our first priority is the safety and security of residents,” he said.
Analyst
Faheem Dashty said Afghan security and intelligence agencies had been
“caught by surprise” in what appeared to be a “big failure” of security
and intelligence.
“They were expecting a big attack but couldn’t defend the city,” he said.
Authorities
were similarly blind-sided by the April attack and subsequent massing
of fighters across the northern provinces, raising questions about the
adequacy of the government’s security and defense agencies.
A
senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in
order to discuss an ongoing military operation, said the U.S. military
was aware the Taliban had taken control of a hospital and a number of
government buildings in the city, and that both sides ” the Taliban and
government forces ” had sustained a significant number of casualties.
Early
indications were that the Afghan forces were in position to push back
the attackers and regain control of the city, although the outcome was
still in doubt, said the official, speaking earlier Monday before the
government announced the fall of the city.
The Kunduz assault
highlights the resilience of the Taliban following the revelation
earlier this year that their reclusive longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad
Omar, died two years ago. A bitter internal dispute over the appointment
of Mansoor has yet to be fully resolved, but seems to have had little
impact on the battlefield.

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