Afghan forces were on Tuesday struggling to retake the key northern city of Kunduz from control, as insurgents attacked military convoys on the main supply routes and dug in around the centre of the provincial capital.
Kunduz was the first major town to fall under Taliban control since the hardline group was ousted from power in 2001, and its capture marks a significant military victory for its recently appointed leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Government forces had retreated to an airport on the outskirts of the city after the pre-Taliban attack, so they could fly in some support. But convoys of troops driving up to join the battle for Kunduz have been slowed by roadside bombs and ambushes, and there are reports that insurgent forces are pushing towards that base.
President Ashraf Ghani urged calm, as he insisted the police and army were already reclaiming parts of the city, and were well prepared for the biggest challenge of the 14-year war against the Taliban.
“I want to reassure my countrymen that the situation in Kunduz is under control. No need to let the enemy create panic through terror,” Ghani said. The city fell on the anniversary of his inauguration, adding to the political pressure on Kabul.
“It is a disaster for the Ghani government,” Pakistani militancy expert and author Ahmed Rashid told AFP, describing Kabul as “totally disorganised”. The Afghan troops in Kunduz numbered 7,000 including local militias, he said, while local reports put the number of Taliban attackers at fewer than 1,000.
Insurgent troops swept through the town in a on Monday. Security forces collapsed and fled, even though they outnumbered the attackers, who freed prisoners from a jail, visited the local hospital and paraded through town taking selfies in the centre.
The rapid collapse of Kunduz alarmed Afghans in Kabul and other towns. The government and its western backers had argued that even as the insurgency gathered strength in the countryside, security forces could protect urban areas.
Government officials and families who had the means to leave Kunduz fled on Monday, before the Taliban blocked the main routes out.
“From this morning, the Taliban have been setting up checkpoints in and around the city, looking for the government employees,” one resident told the Associated Press over the telephone. “Yesterday it was possible for people to get out of the city, but today it is too late because all roads are under the Taliban control.”
The battle will be a critical test for Afghan forces, who have had a difficult summer. The Taliban has been aggressive and government soldiers and police have had little of the foreign support, from medical evacuation to intelligence and air strikes, that they had got used to over the previous decade.
Most Nato troops left by the end of 2014, though about 13,000 remain to focus on training and counter-terrorism operations. US president Barack Obama has said that they will not fight the Taliban.
Afghan security forces claimed they had sent reinforcements and cleared the area around the central prison – from where the Taliban released several hundred inmates – and the police headquarters. “The Taliban are being pushed back. In a few hours the city will be free from their hands,” said Dowlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the defence ministry.
Inside Kunduz, however, residents said the Taliban appeared to be pushing towards the airport, set on a ridge outside the main town, where security forces regrouped and families and officials who had not fled took refuge.
“At the moment, it seems like the army is not even fighting,” said one Kunduz resident over the phone, while gunfire could be heard in the background. Another resident, who did not want to be named speaking to foreign journalists, also said the battle was drawing closer.
In the heart of Kunduz, relaxed Taliban fighters strolled the streets, although they ordered locals to stay away. “Civilians can’t leave their houses, the Taliban don’t allow them,” one witness said.
Mohammad Omar – also known as “Pakhsaparan” – a commander of a unit of the Afghan local police, admitted that large portions of the city were still under Taliban control, although he said several surrounding districts had now been cleared.
There was a single US airstrike early on Tuesday morning, which spokesman Col Brian Tribus said was conducted “in order to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces”. It is unlikely to be repeated unless the Taliban can be drawn out of the city, because of concerns about civilian deaths.
For now there are thought to be too many families still inside their homes; Kunduz had a population thought to be around 300,000 before the recent months of insecurity. Scores of those who remained were caught in the crossfire.
By midday on Tuesday, public hospitals in Kunduz had received 172 injured and 16 dead bodies, according to spokesman Wahidullah Mayar, and more than 100 casualties had been taken to a nearby Médecins Sans Frontières hospital.
“Our surgeons have been working non-stop to treat patients with gunshot wounds. We have added 18 extra beds to bring the total bed capacity to 110 in order to cope with the unprecedented level of admissions,” said Guilhem Molinie, MSF’s country representative.
The governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar Safi, who was not in town at the time of the attack, that he had been requesting support from the central government for months as the Taliban gathered strength.
Some analysts say the insurgent group’s support in the area is due in part to government support for militia members and security officials who have been implemented in abuse and corruption, from rape to robbery and killing.
Even in Kunduz city itself, some residents said that if the Taliban stick to their promises of fair treatment they may win support.
“Since yesterday they gained control of our hospital, central bank and other government buildings,” Abdul Ahad, a doctor at the 200-bed hospital in the city told the Associated Press. “They have been behaving very well with everyone, especially doctors. They may win people’s hearts if they stay longer.”
Signalling a different approach from Isis fighters who swept through Iraqi and Syrian towns, Mansoor offered a general amnesty for defecting government troops and promised “we do not believe in revenge”.
His message came on a Taliban publicity video that showed fighters roaming the city in seized vehicles, showing off tanks and cars, parading their flag in the main square and promising to bring in sharia law.
He also promises safety for ordinary residents, and tells government officials and doctors in the city to continue with their work.