Nato special forces have joined Afghan troops in the increasingly desperate battle for Kunduz, as one of the last two government outposts in the strategic northern city surrendered to the .
The heavily besieged airport, which sits on a hilltop a few miles outside Kunduz, is now the only place held by the Afghan army. The nearby Bala Hisar fort fell when soldiers there ran out of ammunition, deputy provincial governor Hamdullah Daneshi said.
While government forces are struggling to contain the Taliban inside the city, let alone recapture ground, the militants have fanned out. According to several security sources in and outside the government, the Taliban has managed to seize two surrounding districts: Imam Sahib, one of the richest districts in the country, and Qala-i Zal, from where the local commander, a notorious strongman named Nabi Gechi, seems to have fled.
The insurgents now hold five of Kunduz province’s seven district centres. A Western security adviser said that, despite vastly outnumbering the Taliban, government forces seemed to disintegrate and scatter as the militants advanced.
A majority of the troops fighting under Mir Alam, of the most powerful militia commanders in the area, were now holed up in Khanabad, alongside that district’s commander, Mohammad Omar, said the adviser.
special forces officially flown in to “advise and assist” Afghan commandos and ordinary troops joined combat in the early hours of the morning, spokesman Col Brian Tribus said. He declined to say what nationality the troops were.
They also called in an American airstrike on insurgent positions, Tribus said. Although the US and Nato have officially handed over the battle against the Taliban to Afghan forces, the terms of their mission allows them to fight when they come under direct threat.
That happened early Wednesday morning when a team of US special forces “encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport at approximately 1 am, 30 September,” Tribus told Reuters, adding that the soldier had acted in self-defense. “When they encountered the threat, they defended themselves,” he said.
Kunduz is the first major city in Afghanistan to come under Taliban control since 2001. When it many observers thought the assault was more a show of strength than a real attempt for territory, and expected the insurgents to fall back under government pressure as they had done after taking smaller towns around the country.
Instead, the army, police and local government officials have retreated and around 5,000 are now holed up in the airport. It is an island of government control in Taliban-held territory that extends far beyond the city walls, into neighbouring districts and along key roads.
If the airport falls, the Taliban will control all access to the city, making any operation to claim it back much more challenging.
The group have with roadside bombs and physical obstacles, and have skirmished with troops sent to reinforce government forces. Morale was fading even in parts of Kunduz with troops and supplies.
“We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight,” Mohammad Zahir Niazi, chief of Chardara district, told Reuters.
The Taliban’s treatment of will be a key test of a message from the group’s leader at the start of the assault, promising fair treatment for both civilians and their historic enemies.
The Taliban regularly assassinate soldiers, police and government employees across , but insisted anyone who surrendered in Kunduz would be protected.
“Our message to government officials and security personnel who are thinking about resistance or are hiding in fear of retribution is that they should abandon all negative thoughts spread about Mujahideen due to enemy propaganda,” said the Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in a. “Mujahideen are not thinking about retribution but have come with a message of peace.”
According to local people, Taliban fighters are walking the streets freely inside Kunduz assuring people they do not intend to harm civilians, in an apparent attempt to win local support.
“They don’t punish [ordinary] people,” said Waqif, a local reporter who was still in the city despite a mass displacement of families. “For the time being, they are not threatening.” He said that while the Taliban had initially told people not to leave their houses, some shops had reopened on Wednesday morning.
Even if the Taliban stick to their promises, the assault has already taken a heavy toll on Kunduz’s civilians. The local Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was working over capacity, with more than 130 injured patients, while the public hospitals had admitted almost 200 wounded, including 28 women, according to its spokesman, Wahidullah Mayar.
The UN estimated that at least 100 civilians had already been killed in the fighting, and that up to 6,000 civilians had fled.
“I am deeply concerned about the situation in Kunduz following the Taliban’s attack on the city,” said Nicholas Haysom, the UN chief in Afghanistan. “The reports of extrajudicial executions, including of healthcare workers, abductions, denial of medical care and restrictions on movement out of the city are particularly disturbing.”
A resident who asked to remain anonymous said: “My house is burned, the town of Kunduz has been destroyed by the Taliban. Our poor people in Kunduz have been displaced, killed and wounded. Expensive shops have been looted by Taliban.”
The fall of Kunduz is , a demonstration of unity and strength under Mansoor, after the group was roiled by news that founding leader Mullah Omar had been dead for several years.
The troubles in Kunduz are likely to reignite discussion about prolonging US engagement in Afghanistan. Barack Obama is aiming for a withdrawal to a troop size small enough to be housed at the US embassy in Kabul by the end of 2016, but critics in Washington insist that is premature.
The top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Campbell, has previously advised against the planned withdrawal of American troops, arguing that it would put the country’s security forces at risk of losing more ground.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Senator John McCain said the incursion on Kunduz was “an indicator of the dimensions of the Taliban’s capability to launch a very significant and successful attack”.
It was also a reminder of the failings of the 350,000-strong Afghan government forces, even after years of US training and billions of dollars in support, and of political failings in Kabul.
For the past six months, fighting had raged only a few miles from the city, largely ignored by the government, said security analyst Ali Mohammad Ali.
“Everybody knew this was a threat, but nobody took it seriously,” Ali said. “Kunduz fell into the hands of the Taliban because of lack of political leadership, and lack of military leadership in responding to the crisis.”
During a visit to the US, Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, suggested to CNN on Tuesday night that the militants had infiltrated the city rather than fought their way through it, which reinforces the view from many in Kabul that the Taliban moved a lot of fighters into the city during the Eid holidays in preparation for the attack.