KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN — There were no computers, no projectors, no microscopes and no cameras inside the classrooms of Kunduz University. Outside, the school’s tractor and jeep were gone. Taliban fighters had stolen them all, fleeing with refrigerators and even doors ripped from their hinges.
“We worked hard for 13 years to collect all this equipment,” said Abdul Quduz Zarifi, the university’s president, seated near a classroom wall pierced with bullet holes. “All was gone in one week.”
When it seized this northern city three weeks ago, the Taliban did not just destroy the present. It sought to maim the future of Kunduz, too.
The insurgents torched local government offices and buildings vital to the functioning of society: to bolster agriculture, to build up rural and urban areas, to house elected officials, and to fight narcotics. They destroyed part of the electricity and water department and devastated police stations. Shops and businesses were caught in crossfire. The Central Bank branch was looted; other banks were bombed, making it difficult for salaries to be paid. The insurgents also used mosques and schools as bases.
“The educational system has completely stopped operating,” Zarifi said. “The universities and schools are paralyzed.”
A week after the Taliban withdrew from this strategic city, the first the group had captured since its collapse after the 9/11 attacks, Kunduz is scarred, physically and psychologically. Residents who stayed during the siege are coming to grips with the damage, which could cost millions for the cash-strapped government to repair, while thousands who fled are returning home with fear and uncertainty.
True, the markets have reopened, and traffic is bustling again. In the Central Square, where the Taliban planted its white flag atop a traffic circle post, the Afghan flag now flies. American-trained Afghan special forces patrol in their tan Humvees. But underneath the veneer of normality is an uneasy sense that the insurgents could strike again.
“The villages around the city are under the Taliban control,” said Commander Ghafar, who heads an Afghan Local Police unit, one of the many community “ALP” militias the government has enlisted to fight the insurgents. (Like many Afghans, Ghafar uses one name.) “They are heavily armed. If they don’t get pushed out of these villages, the city will never be safe.”
The Taliban still controls most of Chardara, a district less than three miles southwest of the city. Afghan troops fire rockets and mortar rounds into surrounding areas, and helicopter gunships ply the skies. The Taliban sends rockets and mortar rounds back at the Afghan positions. And some parts of the city remain no-go zones: Taliban fighters, local officials say, could still be hiding inside houses.
On Sept. 28, the Taliban captured Kunduz after besieging the provincial capital for months, delivering a major blow to the U.S.-backed Afghan government and its security forces. Thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers here couldn’t stop a few hundred insurgents who took control within hours of advancing into the city. As many as 100,000 residents fled to other districts and provinces, according to U.N. and provincial officials. Many others were trapped in crossfire.
The takeover prompted U.S. airstrikes to help the Afghan security forces regain territory, but among the sites hit was a Doctors Without Borders hospital, the only trauma hospital in the region. The strike pummeled the facility, killing 22 and injuring dozens more. The U.S. military has since described it as a mistake, and several investigations are underway.
In interviews across the city this week, residents and officials described how insurgents swept into government offices, including the intelligence and security agencies, and stole laptops, computers and hard drives containing thousands of names and contacts of security force personnel, activists, journalists and civil servants. Then they systematically targeted anyone opposed to them, creating a hit list and deploying death squads.
A group of 10 Taliban fighters arrived at the green gate of Turdi Bai. They were looking for his 26-year-old son, Ismatullah. A year and a half ago, the former bodyguard stopped a Taliban suicide bomber from assassinating Mir Alam, a well-known pro-
government militia commander. Ismatullah lost both his legs in the blast.
“Please spare my son,” Bai recalled begging the fighters. “He can’t do anything now. He has no legs.”
The fighters refused. “We’re here to send you to the next world,” one said.
Ismatullah crawled across the courtyard and held his father’s hand and asked him not to beg anymore. Then, he crawled outside the compound, followed by the fighters.
There, they shot five bullets into his abdomen.
Later, the Taliban burned Mir Alam’s mansion. Yet in many other areas, the insurgents left residents alone. A drive around the city revealed that most houses and stores were untouched, save those that were caught in the exchange of gunfire between the insurgents and government forces. No jewelry shops reported being looted, and the Taliban provided a hotline for complaints.
The insurgents were looking in particular for government workers and officials, said Jaleel Sabiri, 21, a university student. The two-story house of his neighbor, a government official, was razed.
Some allegations of abuses committed by the Taliban were false. At the women’s hostel at Kunduz University, local Afghan television networks reported that the militants raped many of the students. The Taliban denied the reports and said it would target reporters from those networks. In interviews, three employees of the hostel said it had been closed for the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday when the Taliban arrived.
“There were no girls here,” said Mustapha Nazeri, the guard at the hostel, where red roses bloomed in the yard. “They all left seven days before Eid.”
Human rights activists say that other women were raped, especially relatives of government employees and the Afghan Local Police units. Many female activists and journalists have fled the city, raising concerns that efforts to improve women’s rights could slide backward. Local officials have also fled, crippling the city government.
Most have yet to return. Mir Alam, the commander, is still in Kabul, said his nephew Noor. And when reached by phone, the head of the provincial council said he feared returning because the Taliban could retake the city.
“The people who are brave are back,” said Hamdullah Danishi, the provincial governor. “Those who aren’t brave are not back.”
Sayed Mohibullah, 70, came back with 12 relatives on Tuesday. They had fled with only the clothes on their backs to Faryab province, a place they had fled 16 years ago during the Taliban rule. As he stepped into his house, Mohibullah was consumed by a fear of the future. During the clashes on his street — where residents said two civilians were killed in the crossfire and their bodies left on the ground for four days — his bakery shop, attached to the house, was destroyed.
“My workers have not returned, and I don’t have money to rebuild my bakery,” he lamented.
In another neighborhood, Mahajer Agha returned from Kabul to find his barbershop, along with the whole building that contained it, a charred hulk.
“I’m jobless now,” he said, standing in front of his shop’s remains. “I have lost my equipment, I have lost everything.”
Across this city, there’s palpable anger at President Ashraf Ghani’s government, the Afghan security forces and the militias for failing to protect the city. Many blame them for neglecting the province, even as the Taliban was at the city’s doorstep for months. Others said abuses committed by the ALPs and other pro-government militias led more people to sympathize with the Taliban. Some openly yearned for the days of Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who led the country until last year.
“Under Karzai, no province or city fell to the Taliban,” said Ghulam Rabbani, a provincial council member. “Many people here now think it was a wrong decision to have supported Ghani for president.”
At Kunduz University, no one knows when the doors will open again. Zarifi said the police needed to guarantee security before the 5,000 students can return.
As they withdrew from Kunduz, the Taliban members took with them heavy artillery, Humvees and large amounts of ammunition belonging to the Afghan security forces, local officials said. They also freed hundreds of inmates from the prison, who presumably joined them.
Mohammed Naim, 47, is not staying. On Tuesday, he packed his wife and children into his taxi, already brimming with their possessions. “I don’t have confidence in the Afghan security forces,” Naim said. “Now, it’s quiet. But the fighting can easily erupt here again after one or two months.”
So they were fleeing, he said, to the northern town of Mazar-e Sharif.
Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.