In a muscular assault, armed fighters swept through the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, shooting wounded prisoners and searching house-to-house for their enemy. The city had been under siege for weeks, underscoring an uncertain time of change across the entire country.
That might sound like the Taliban assault on Kunduz on Monday. But it actually describes the November 2001 offensive on the city by the Northern Alliance, a rebel force that was backed by U.S. Special Forces. Kunduz fell Nov. 26, 2001, becoming the last major city in Afghanistan to be ripped from the Taliban’s control after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the U.S. invasion.
That history provided a backdrop as Afghan security forces scrambled Monday to respond to the Taliban reclaiming control of Kunduz, nearly 14 years later. Taliban fighters fanned out through Kunduz, freeing hundreds of insurgents from a prison and seizing control of government facilities. The city has “collapsed,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in an interview with the Associated Press. Taliban fighters posted photos and video of their victory online:
As noted in this history by the Afghan Analysts Network, Kunduz city and the surrounding province by the same name was the frequent site of atrocities, looting and betrayal between 1992 and 2001, as the Taliban seized control of much of Afghanistan. Kunduz was encircled by warring factions five times in that period, changing hands five times, according to the analyst network. The province became a major stronghold of the Taliban and a training site for some elements of al-Qaeda.
Both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban behaved brutally as the alliance wrested control away in November 2001. As this report in the Baltimore Sun noted, the Taliban looted at least one hospital, and the alliance conscripted doctors to care for their wounded before injured civilians.
And that’s to say nothing of the “Convoy of Death,” in which hundreds of Taliban fighters were allegedly killed after being captured in the 2002 rout in Kunduz. The U.S. group Physicians for Human Rights reported that it found about 3,000 Taliban fighters in the nearby Sheberghan prison, designed to hold about 800. Human rights workers were told repeatedly that some prisoners suffocated on the way there after being stuffed into sealed cargo containers. The practice was eventually detailed in a documentary.
Germany took a major interest in securing Kunduz in the following years, dispatching troops from its Bundeswehr force and a provincial reconstruction team. But fighting intensified as the war dragged on, with many of the same threats that existed in other parts of Afghanistan. Interpreters were killed, insurgents launched attacks on German soldiers, and the United States eventually sent 2,500 additional troops in 2010 to bolster the force.
Kunduz province also was the site of a Sept. 4, 2009, incident that drew a rebuke from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. According to an intelligence report leaked on the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, an airstrike was called on two tanker trucks filled with fuel that were stolen by insurgents. They were taken out by bombs from an F-15 fighter jet, killing dozens of insurgents, according to the initial report.
The incident turned out to be more complicated than that, however. The Taliban had invited civilians to siphon off fuel from the trucks, turning them into targets when the airstrikes came. According to the U.N. assistance mission, 74 civilians, including children, were killed in the strike. Other reports stated that there may have been fewer civilian casualties than that, but the incident was nonetheless seen by many as a mistake.
“Investigations were complicated as a result of the ensuring fireball, which incinerated a large number of people, making identification extremely difficult, the U.N. report said. “It is not disputed that some Taliban were at the site but it should have been apparent that many civilians were also in the vicinity of the trucks.”
The Germans handed off their military base in Kunduz to the Afghan military in 2013, as security there remained imperiled. A June 2015 report by the Defense Department to Congress on Afghanistan noted that Afghan units in both Kunduz and the eastern province of Konar had “struggled to react quickly” to insurgent offensives. More Afghan troops were rushed to the city in the spring after Kunduz was attacked then, but the situation remained uncertain.
A U.S. defense official said Monday that officials at the Pentagon believed that, based on past instances of Taliban assaults on population centers, Afghan forces would probably be able to retake areas of the city under Taliban control. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
The official said that under current authorities, the United States would be able to carry out airstrikes only if Afghan forces were judged to be ‘in extremis,’ or facing a critical threat from militant forces. “I wouldn’t rule out there being some sort of extremis situation,” the official said, while adding that it was too soon to say whether this would take place.
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.