Emboldened Taliban Overrun Parts of Kunduz and Taunt Afghan Forces
By MUJIB MASHAL
OCT. 3, 2016
International By ELSA BUTLER 00:37
Taliban Launch Coordinated Attack on Kunduz
The Taliban began an assault on Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Monday and residents continued to worry about the poor security in their city. By ELSA BUTLER on Publish Date October 3, 2016. Photo by Bashir Khan Safi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban overran central neighborhoods in the critical Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz on Monday, planting their flag in the city’s main roundabout and shaking the Afghan government in a repeat of the insurgents’ assault on the city a year ago.
Fighting in the city continued into the night, and American officials said that aircraft were there to help and that other “assets” were moving in.
But on social media, the Taliban taunted the struggling Afghan forces and their American allies, providing a blow-by-blow account of their assault even as senior Afghan leaders traveled to Brussels for an international conference where they were to present a status report and ask for sustained international funding.
“What is point of backing a regime holed up in Kabul, riven with old rivalries & useless as a turd?” read one post from a Twitter account associated with the insurgents.
By nightfall, some Afghan officials were in panic mode, as insurgents pushed toward important government buildings in the city center. Those included the central Police Headquarters, where American Green Berets fought off waves of Taliban assaults for several days last October before breaking the insurgents’ hold on the city.
Gen. Qasim Jangalbagh, the provincial police chief, acknowledged on Monday that the Taliban had taken parts of Kunduz, but he said that additional troops had arrived. Before midnight, a post on his Facebook page claimed that the main square had been cleared of Taliban fighters, though residents reported heavy clashes continuing in a broader area of the city.
After an initial statement playing down reports that the city might be under “significant attack,” Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, the spokesman for the international military coalition, later said that international forces would become more closely involved. “We already have enablers there, including strike aircrafts in the air, and we are moving additional assets into the area,” he said.
Sher Mohammad Sharq, the commander of a local police unit in Aliabad District, which is essentially a suburb of the city, acknowledged problems in previous assaults when some Afghan forces surrendered quickly or fled. He said the district’s police leaders had met and all vowed to take stern measures against desertion.
“I told the police chief that if anyone runs away from the fighting, I am going to shoot him first,” Mr. Sharq said.
The coordinated Taliban attack, coming from four directions, began before dawn on Monday, according to Mahfozullah Akbari, a spokesman for the regional police. Shops remained closed and residents tried to flee as fighting continued across several parts of the city. Helicopter gunships were also seen targeting Taliban areas, some less than a mile from the governor’s compound.
“Taliban captured the central square of Kunduz city and all other government offices, except for the intelligence office, the Police Headquarters and the governor’s office,” said Sayed Assadullah Sadat, a member of the Kunduz provincial council. “If Taliban capture Kunduz city completely, they will gain enough ammunition and equipment for next year to fight with government forces, and they will destroy the lives of the people in Kunduz.”
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Civilians were caught in the line of fire, as residents reported that both the Taliban and Afghan forces used their homes to attack the other side.
Sardar Murady, who lives close to the highway leading to the district of Chardara, said the Taliban were using some civilian homes for fighting. “They told us not to lock the gates to our houses,” he said.
The assault on Kunduz comes almost exactly a year after the insurgents briefly overran the city in September 2015, making it the first urban center to fall to the Taliban since the collapse of their regime in 2001. American Special Forces took charge of the operation to retake the city, and in the process an American warplane mistakenly bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 42 people. The aid group accused American forces of a war crime.
The insurgents’ seemingly easy re-entry to the city of Kunduz, even if it is eventually repelled, is raising tough questions about the ability of Afghan forces to protect areas clearly under Taliban focus. Even after insurgents left Kunduz city last year, they maintained a hold on areas around the provincial capital, and local officials warned repeatedly that the city could fall again.
Though the Taliban have gained territory in large areas of the country, Afghan and Western officials have said that they are concentrating forces to defend strategic population centers. Yet the insurgents repeatedly test these forces in Kunduz and southern Helmand Province, areas where both the Afghan government and NATO have focused their resources.
On Monday, fighting also raged in Helmand, where insurgents overran the district of Nawa, just south of the provincial capital, and killed the district’s police chief in an overnight attack. The district’s fall on Sunday night added pressure from an additional direction on the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, which has long remained surrounded by the Taliban.
A Taliban assault on Nawa in August was barely headed off, as delegations of senior generals shuttled back and forth from Kabul to help focus the security forces’ defense. Still, the district’s defenses had not been planned properly after the previous assault, said Nawa’s governor, Aqa Muhammad Takra.
“The government helped break the previous siege, but did not hold the area permanently by installing check posts on the main road and putting more forces in the district,” Mr. Takra said. “It became the focus of the Taliban again, and we haven’t seen any reinforcement to protect the district from falling.”
Nawa’s police chief, Col. Ahmad Shah Salem, who was central to the district’s defense during the assault in August, was killed in the attack on Sunday night, said his brother Abdul Wadud, a member of Parliament.
The death of Colonel Salem and the resumed fighting for Kunduz were the latest blows to the Afghan security forces, which have sustained record casualties this year. While the government does not release death tolls, figures for a couple of months this year suggest a significant increase in fatalities in the security forces over last year’s total, which was estimated at 6,000.
In July, 900 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed, according to the NATO commander in Afghanistan. In August, perhaps the deadliest month so far, President Ashraf Ghani told a group of civil society activists that 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed, according to Khan Zaman Amarkhail and two other civil society activists who attended the meeting.
Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to the Afghan president, said that figure included some civilians, as well.
“In August, the Taliban’s mobilization of all resources was unprecedented, and it was beyond their capacity,” Mr. Nadery said. “This is no longer an undeclared war — this is a declared war, and the Taliban had full-fledged support not seen before,” he added, referring to a long-held belief by Afghan and Western officials that the military in neighboring Pakistan is aiding the Afghan insurgents.
Correction: October 3, 2016
An earlier version of this article included an incorrect dateline. Najim Rahim reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, not Kunduz.
Reporting was contributed by Najim Rahim, Fahim Abed, Jawad Sukhanyar and Zahra Nader from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Afghan Forces Push Taliban Out of Kunduz Center, Officials Say
By MUJIB MASHAL and NAJIM RAHIM
OCT. 4, 2016
Security forces in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Tuesday. Afghan officials said that their commando forces had reclaimed the main city square from the Taliban. Credit Nasir Wakif/Reuters
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials said on Tuesday that their commando forces had reclaimed the main city square in Kunduz from the Taliban and were making gains elsewhere in the vital provincial capital, where the insurgents overran central neighborhoods on Monday.
Residents and local police officers reached by telephone said that clashes were continuing, with the insurgents focusing on the police headquarters and the governor’s compound.
Ahmad Javed Salim, a spokesman for the Afghan Army special forces in Kunduz, said a small team of American forces was on the ground near the governor’s compound to guide airstrikes if necessary.
“They are not fighting the Taliban; they are here to manage the air support,” Mr. Salim said. “We asked the United States forces for air support, and now we and the U.S. forces are in the planning stage.”
Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, a spokesman for the United States forces in Afghanistan, said he could not provide details on “the current disposition of enabler and train, advise and assist forces” because the operation was still underway.
General Cleveland said the American forces had not carried out airstrikes directly on the city but “had one air-to-ground engagement via a helicopter this morning in the west of the city,” adding that the helicopter dropped off Afghan forces to join the fight.
Asadullah Omarkhel, the governor of Kunduz Province, said the military’s clearance operations would continue until the city and its surroundings were free of insurgents. “The armed opposition are using people’s homes as shields, and that is why our clearance operations are slow, to make sure civilians are not harmed,” he said.
But Amruddin Wali, a member of the provincial council, said local officials were exaggerating their successes and accused them of deceiving the Afghan people and the central government.
“It’s not the home of the police chief, or the army division commander, or the zone commander that is burning,” Mr. Wali said. “It’s the ordinary people’s homes and lives that are ruined, and the officials are continuing with their lies.”
Mr. Wali said the government controlled the area between Kunduz’s airport and the main city square, where it had parked armored vehicles. But, he said, “You can’t go past the main square without armored vehicles.”
The coordinated Taliban attack on Kunduz, about a year after the city was briefly taken by the insurgents, began from four directions before dawn on Monday. Alarm began to spread as the Taliban reached the main square, posting updates of their progress on social media.
While insurgent fighters infiltrated large parts of the city, the government managed to hold on to its main administrative and security buildings. Stern warnings were issued to members of the Afghan forces not to abandon their posts, as many have done in past assaults.
Civilians, once again, were bearing the brunt of the fighting, with the roads out of the city closed off by Taliban checkpoints. And though the Taliban’s main focus seemed to remain on Kunduz, the closing of the roads had residents in neighboring Baghlan Province also worried.
While exact casualty figures from the Kunduz battle were not available, with residents taking their wounded to different health centers across the city, at least 151 were wounded and one was killed, according to Abdul Hami Alam, the provincial health director.
Massoud Payez, who lives near the headquarters of the police in the city center, said that his neighborhood was still on lockdown and that movement in the city was limited.
“We can’t leave our homes. The shops and bakeries are closed,” Mr. Payez said. “The police are firing from the towers of their headquarters, and the commandos are also firing from one side. And the Taliban are at the other end of the street.”
Shafi Zakhil, the police commander for the second precinct, where the governor’s office is, said that the area was the front line and that United States forces were helping defend the governor’s compound.
“I am in Fatema Zahra School, which is in front of the governor’s office, and it is the front line,” he said. “U.S. forces are around the governor’s office and the police headquarters with their tanks. Taliban are on top of a building near the governor’s office and police headquarters.”
Qand Agha, an officer inside the police headquarters, said that the Taliban had mounted 11 attacks on the building since Monday night but that they were pushed back by the police each time.
American military officials say they are determined to prevent major cities from falling the way Kunduz did last year. But the fallout from an American warplane’s deadly barrage on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz during efforts to retake the city last October hangs over any decision to have American forces directly enter the fighting. At least 42 people were killed in that continuous series of airstrikes, which the Doctors Without Borders called a war crime.
The timing of the latest assault on Kunduz seemed aimed at embarrassing the leaders of the Afghan coalition government, who are in Brussels to ask for continued financial support at a conference attended by dozens of world leaders.
The governments represented at the conference are expected to pledge more than $3 billion in annual development aid over the next four years, in addition to the funds spent by NATO and the United States in covering much of the expenses of the Afghan security forces.
In the southern province of Helmand, Afghan officials said their forces were trying to push back the Taliban from Nawa district, the fall of which to the Taliban has added pressure on the already-besieged provincial capital city, Lashkar Gah. The insurgents basically overran the entire district on Sunday night, killing the district’s police chief. On Tuesday afternoon, there was conflicting information about whether the district governor’s compound was controlled by the Afghan forces or the Taliban.
Aqa Muhammad Takra, the district governor who was in Lashkar Gah, said Afghan Army forces were still holed up in the district governor’s compound, which was surrounded by the Taliban. Additional Afghan forces had arrived to try to break the siege, and they managed to recover the police chief’s body from the police headquarters, he said.
Jawad Sukhanyar and Zahra Nader contributed reporting from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.
Improvised Bomb Kills U.S. Service Member in Afghanistan
By HELENE COOPER
OCT. 4, 2016
WASHINGTON — A member of the American military was killed in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan on Tuesday while on a mission against Islamic State fighters, the Pentagon said.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said the service member had been killed by an improvised bomb that exploded during a foot patrol. Mr. Cook declined to identify the person or provide the branch of the military in which he or she served, pending notification of family.
He did say that “this was a combat situation.”
No other American or Afghan service members were killed in the explosion.
It was the third death of an American soldier in hostile fire in Afghanistan this year, as the United States military mission there has been reduced to a smaller advisory role.
In January, Staff Sgt. Matthew Q. McClintock was killed in the Marja district, in Helmand Province. In August, Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson, a Green Beret, was killed when his patrol triggered a roadside bomb. Another American and six Afghans were wounded.