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Emboldened Taliban Overrun Parts of Kunduz and Taunt Afghan Forces

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."

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.

[Source: By Mujib Mashal, International New York Times, Kabul, 03Oct16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 11Oct16 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.