25 June 2015

Are the Taliban on the Verge of Capturing the Afghan City of Kunduz?

June 22, 2015

Taliban and Afghan Government Dispute Status of Kunduz

KABUL, Afghanistan — After Taliban insurgents said Sunday that they were on the verge of taking their first city, Kunduz in the far north of Afghanistan, officials there expressed alarm as residents began to flee the area. But the central government in Kabul said there was no cause for concern.

The Afghan government also announced Sunday that it had retaken the administrative center of Yamgan District, in northern Badakhshan Province, from the Taliban. But that only deepened the government’s credibility problem because just a week earlier officials in Kabul had claimed that they had already retaken Yamgan.

Some officials, including the Interior Ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, earlier denied that Yamgan had even fallen.

For months now, several districts in both Kunduz and Badakhshan Provinces in the north have gone back and forth between government and Taliban control, as the insurgents have intensified their fighting in parts of northern Afghanistanwhere they traditionally had been weak.

With the fighting often in remote, hard-to-reach areas, and both the Afghan government and the insurgents given to inflated claims and denials, it has been hard to get accurate information on the conflict in the area.

Sunday’s developments, if confirmed, would be the first time this year that a major population center has been directly threatened. Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city with a population of 300,000, is an important trading city on vital supply lines — and also smuggling routes — to Tajikistan, with that country’s border only about 40 miles from the city.

The insurgents’ spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, announced that after fighting all night Saturday, the Taliban had taken control of the administrative center and all 12 police posts in the district of Chahar Dara in Kunduz Province on Sunday.

The district not only adjoins Kunduz city, but its administrative center is also only about two and a half miles from the city’s outskirts. The insurgents captured 25 police officers there, according to Mr. Mujahid.

Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for the Kunduz Province police, denied that any police officers had been captured and said the Chahar Dara District had not fallen to the insurgents.

“The Taliban fighters didn’t take control of the district,” Mr. Hussaini said. “They took control of about 50 percent of the district, but we still have support from the central government and the Ministries of Defense and Interior.”

He insisted that there was no imminent threat to Kunduz city.

However, a senior provincial official in the city, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, said the situation there was grave.

“If the government does not send enough reinforcements, the city of Kunduz will fall to the Taliban,” the official said.

The fighting in Yamgan, in Badakhshan Province, although more than 150 miles to the east of Kunduz, was closely related, because the Afghan National Army Corps in the north is in charge of both areas, and both the military and the police have struggled over whether to concentrate their resources in Kunduz or in Badakhshan, as the Taliban have repeatedly shifted the focus of their attacks.

Both are important in different ways. Kunduz Province is heavily populated, with a million residents, while Badakhshan is remote and sparsely populated, but with lucrative mineral resources.

The Taliban said June 6 that they had overrun Yamgan District, with some local officials confirming that, but officials in Kabul insisted that it was still under government control. Then, on June 13, the chief of operations for the Afghan military, Gen. Afzal Aman, said at a news conference in Kabul that the government had retaken Yamgan. Taliban officials denied that and said they were still in control.

On Sunday, however, the spokesman for the Badakhshan Province police, Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, said on his official Facebook page, “Yamgan was retaken.” The insurgents also confirmed that, although they described their retreat from the district Sunday as a “tactical withdrawal.”

Mr. Seddiqi, who a week earlier denied that the district had fallen, on Sunday posted a message on Twitter saying, “Yamgan has been cleared this morning as the result of Afghan security force operations.”

Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhel, an Afghan military analyst, said the government’s erroneous claims were due to poor coordination between local officials and the security forces, and a tendency of commanders in the field to exaggerate their accomplishments and play down their failures.

Also, sometimes official spokesmen are simply dishonest, he said.

“Their spokesmen are not experienced, so they think by lying they will increase the morale of the security forces,” General Amarkhel said. “That doesn’t work. Today we have radio, TV, telephones, we know what is happening.”

While he was hearing the official denials of a problem in Kunduz, General Amarkhel said by way of example, a resident of Chahar Dara District called him and said he was fleeing and thought Kunduz would fall next.

Many local Kunduz residents also posted photos and videos on social media sites showing people fleeing Chahar Dara District for nearby Kunduz city.

On Sunday, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kabul, Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, confirmed both that Yamgan District had been retaken from the insurgents, and that Chahar Dara District had fallen to them. He blamed an Afghan local police unit in the district center, which had retreated when the insurgents attacked, for the collapse. “We are preparing to retake it,” he said.

General Waziri said, however, that the city of Kunduz was in no danger.

Throughout the country, the Taliban control only four of the more than 300 districts, all in southern Afghanistan, and two of them in Helmand Province, according to General Aman, speaking before Sunday’s developments. A third district in Helmand, strategic Musa Qala, is also reportedly on the verge of falling to the insurgents.

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