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U.S. troops dispatched to Kunduz to help Afghan forces
Special Operations forces from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan came under fire from Taliban militants Wednesday after being dispatched to the northern city of Kunduz to help Afghan forces retake it from insurgents who seized it earlier this week, coalition officials said.
The coalition troops were on a mission near Kunduz airport, where hundreds of Afghan forces gathered after retreating from the city, when they were engaged by insurgents and called in an airstrike, the officials said. They declined to comment on whether the coalition forces returned fire on the ground.
The increased support from the U.S.-led coalition comes amid growing signs that Afghan forces are struggling to repel the Taliban fighters, who were able to seize Kunduz in a lightning strike Monday, dealing a major blow to Afghanistan's Western-backed government.
An Afghan security official in Kabul said a military fort fell to the Taliban in Wednesday's fighting in Kunduz and that an estimated 50 security forces based at the fort had either surrendered or were captured.
"We did not expect this at all," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Kunduz, Afghanistan's sixth-largest city and a strategic gateway to Central Asia, is the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since 2001, when the group began an insurgency after being driven from power in Kabul.
"Coalition special forces advisers, while advising and assisting elements of the Afghan Security Forces, encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport at approximately 1 a.m." on Wednesday, Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the coalition, told the Reuters news agency. "U.S. forces conducted an airstrike to eliminate the threat in Kunduz."
Tribus would not say what nationality the special forces were, but when asked if the statement meant they had engaged in combat, he said, "Yes," Reuters reported.
The rules of engagement for U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan allow them to fight if they are threatened by insurgents.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 civilians have been killed or wounded in Kunduz so far this week. An additional 6,000 people have fled the city.
Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary general's special representative for Afghanistan, said there have also been "reports of extrajudicial executions, including of health care workers," carried out in Kunduz. The reports could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Earlier Wednesday, hundreds of Taliban fighters nearly overran the Kunduz airport, according to local officials.
Despite promises Tuesday from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and military leaders that reinforcements had been sent to the area, officials said the situation is grim because Afghan soldiers inside the city are running out of ammunition. Fresh troops have been unable to reach Kunduz because they are encountering improvised explosive devices and Taliban roadblocks as they try to press into the area, officials said.
Moeen Marastial, a former member of parliament from Kunduz, said he received several "frantic" phone calls and text messages from Afghan troops holed up at the airport Tuesday night as the Taliban advanced.
"From three sides they surrounded the airport," said Marastial, noting the airport was one of the last remaining safe havens for Afghan forces after the Taliban seized the rest of the city on Monday. "They told me, 'If the government does not do something in the next 10 to 15 minutes, this would be the last voice from us.' They said, 'We don't have arms. We can't continue to fight.' "
Afghan soldiers in Kunduz, Marastial added, "are losing their morale and think they will be captured alive."
Around 1 a.m., some help did arrive in the form of a U.S. airstrike, one of at least two carried out near the airport overnight. They were followed by two new airstrikes around 5 p.m. Wednesday local time, also near the airport.
One of the overnight strikes killed dozens of Taliban militants and commanders who had meeting in a warehouse, Marastial and other local officials said.
Still, a security official in Kabul said Afghan forces are in urgent need of even more assistance.
"It's worse than bad," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Another Afghan official from Kunduz confirmed that coalition advisers are now also actively engaged in trying to trying to drive the Taliban from the city.
"I see them having meetings with [Afghan] commanders at the airport," the official said. "Some actually take part in the fighting, too, while some others monitor the situation and give advice."
Mirza Laghmani, a local Kunduz resident who lives near the airport, said he has been locked in his house for the past three days.
"There is no ground fighting at the moment, but increased air assaults from drones and helicopters," Laghmani said Wednesday afternoon. "Last night, the fighting was intense... The Taliban succeeded in entering the airport from two directions, but a drone strike reversed the game."
In other parts of the city, Kunduz residents are starting to run out of food, Marastial said.
"The bread shops are closed," he said. "People cannot come out of their houses because they face three kinds of threats -- aerial bombardment, the Taliban and thieves."
Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a retired Afghan general, said the crisis reflects a disjointed command and control structure in overseeing Afghanistan's 352,000-member police force and army. The Taliban was also able to take advantage of rifts between local and national politicians, he said.
In Kunduz, for example, the governor was appointed by Ghani, while the police chief was appointed by the country's second-ranking leader, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
As the Taliban stormed the city on Monday, military leaders in Kabul apparently did not realize how dire the situation was until it was too late, Yarmand suspects that
"The information that passed through chain of command in the province and then to Kabul did not reflect the on-the-ground reality," Yarmand said.
On Wednesday morning, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, was summoned to the parliament to explain why Kunduz had fallen.
Nabil apologized to the nation, saying his agency had been monitoring the threat for months. However, Nabil said, a plan for a comprehensive operation against Taliban fighters in the area this summer "was abruptly halted."
He declined to elaborately publicly on the reasons behind the delay.
Earlier, Tribus, the coalition spokesman, said the coalition troops were sent to Kunduz to "train, advise and assist" Afghan forces. That statement marked the first time that coalition officials publicly confirmed they are actively involved in boosting the Afghan troops on the ground there.
He said the troops involved a combination of U.S. Special Operations forces as well as troops from other countries that make up the international coalition.
Coalition officials declined to release the number of troops now present in Kunduz, when they arrived or where they are stationed, citing "operational security" concerns.
But Tribus said coalition special forces will be "advising and assisting Afghan special forces units in the area who are working to clear the city of Kunduz."
Some coalition troops assigned to conventional military units are also in Kunduz to support the Afghan army.
U.S. forces are also continuing airstrikes against Taliban fighters who pose a threat "to the force."
Two airstrikes were conducted Tuesday near the airport on the outskirts of the city. The airport is a key staging ground for the Afghan military, but Taliban fighters had been advancing toward it. U.S. forces conducted a third airstrike early Wednesday, also near the airport, Tribus said.
"All three strikes were conducted for coalition protection reasons," Tribus said.
About 13,200 coalition troops remain in Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan military. Of those, 6,800 are American. There are also 3,000 American troops in Afghanistan to support or carry out U.S. counterterrorism missions.
On Wednesday, the coalition announced that a soldier was killed in northern Afghanistan due to a "non-battle cause." Officials stressed that the death was not related to the ongoing conflict in Kunduz.
[Source: By Tim Craig, The Washington Post, Kabul, 30Sep15]
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|This document has been published on 01Oct15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|