3 October 2015

Taliban Tighten Grip on Afghan City

Sept. 30, 2015 

The Afghan government knew about the threat the Taliban posed to the northern city of Kunduz but its forces were stretched too thin to act before the militants took it over this week, a top official said.

A pre-emptive attack “was planned for quite some time, but it didn’t happen in time,”Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, told The Wall Street Journal.

The Taliban, who seized control of Kunduz on Monday, tightened their grip Wednesday, leaving only the local airport firmly in government hands, even as the U.S. military deployed troops and carried out airstrikes in support of its allies.

Mr. Abdullah said an Afghan force of roughly 1,000 soldiers and police was being mobilized to retake the city from a Taliban force that numbers approximately 3,000 across Kunduz province, including militant groups from Central Asia.

“The Kunduz operation has started,” he said, adding that the government hoped to take back the city over the next two days. “We can’t afford to contain them there,” he said of the Taliban.
Aides acknowledged, however, that reinforcements were having trouble reaching Kunduz, and a decision about how to proceed was pending. The Taliban set up checkpoints around the provincial capital and controlled all major roads leading to it, Afghan officials and the Taliban said.


The United Nations estimates that more than 100 people have been killed since the violence started this week.

Afghan forces took over responsibility for security this year as the U.S. military began withdrawing. The Taliban assault came as U.S. military officials are reviewing options for U.S. troop levels, which under current planning will fall from about 10,000 now to just a few hundred by the end of 2016.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. is monitoring efforts to retake Kunduz and that President Barack Obama would weigh conditions on the ground in determining whether to change the timetable for withdrawal.

In the interview, Mr. Abdullah said the seizure of Kunduz didn’t come as a surprise. Residents had been complaining for some time about the threat posed by the Taliban, he said, and Kabul was long aware of the Taliban’s focus on the city.

But Afghanistan’s military and police force weren’t able to address the security threat there ahead of time because those forces have been stretched thin operating elsewhere in the country, he said, including in Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, in southern and eastern Afghanistan, respectively.

Mr. Abdullah, whose government has publicly pressed the U.S. to reconsider its drawdown of forces, said the assault underscores the need for American forces to stay in Afghanistan.

“We absolutely think that the withdrawal in 2016 as it is planned at the moment, that this is a big risk for us,” Mr.. Abdullah said.

U.S. troops have stepped up their involvement in defending Afghan and international coalition troops and reclaiming Kunduz from the Taliban, who were chased from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The U.S. has carried out five airstrikes to protect American personnel at the airport this week. U.S. military officials in Washington said U.S. special operations personnel were at the airport outside Kunduz, but haven’t engaged in direct ground combat with the Taliban.

U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. and other coalition troops in Afghanistan, said the coalition special-operations forces were in Kunduz to assist Afghan troops. “Our service members have the right to protect themselves if necessary,” he added.

Afghan officials said several thousand Afghan forces and some 100 U.S. special operations personnel were in the heavily fortified airport, while other government troops battled militants in surrounding villages.

The Taliban said they were determined to hold on to Kunduz to take control of other areas in northern Afghanistan.

“We will make Kunduz our stronghold and gather our forces here to achieve more triumphs,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. “We won’t lose Kunduz, and we will enforce the Shariah law here.”
Reinforcements of Afghan security forces from Kabul arrived to join operations against the Taliban in the city of Kunduz on Wednesday. PHOTO: JAWED KARGAR/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Many Afghan troops being sent as reinforcements to Kunduz were stuck in the neighboring province of Baghlan, where they came under Taliban attack, Afghan officials said.

The area was also heavily mined, and residents were beginning to flee.

“People are so scared,” said Mohammad Ajmal,who lives in Baghlan’s capital, Pul-e Khumri. “Most of the shops are closed. Restaurants and hotels are empty.”

The Taliban also captured two districts outside Kunduz city, Imam Sahib and Chardara, according to an Afghan official and residents.

On Wednesday, they seized a hill overlooking Kunduz. Sixty government fighters surrendered, two dozen of whom managed to escape. Afghan special forces later recaptured the hill, but the fate of the remaining 36 troops wasn’t known.

Life in Kunduz was at a standstill, as the cost of basic goods skyrocketed and people

Nicholas Haysom, the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, said there were reports of “extrajudicial executions, including of health-care workers, abductions, denial of medical care and restrictions on movement out of the city,” all of which he called disturbing.

Most foreigners and Afghan officials had fled the city.

On Wednesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fired the governor of Kunduz province, who was abroad at the time of the Taliban takeover, and appointed Hamdullah Danishi as his successor. It isn’t clear when Mr. Danishi would arrive in Kunduz.

—Ehsanullah Amiri in Kabul and Carol E. Lee in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Margherita Stancati atmargherita.stancati@wsj.com

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