Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Kunduz as the last major city held by the Taliban before its fall to U.S.-backed mujahideen forces in 2001. It was the last major northern city held by the insurgent group; the southern city of Kandahar fell after Kunduz in 2001.

­Taliban forces were less than four miles from this strategic northern city Monday after seizing control of two key districts over the weekend, triggering fears that they could capture their first Afghan city since U.S.-backed forces toppled the hard-line Islamist regime in late 2001.

The government in Kabul has dispatched reinforcements, including Afghan special forces and their U.S. advisers and trainers, to try to repel the insurgents and rescue about 75 soldiers and police officers trapped inside their district base. But as of Monday evening, the Taliban remained in control of the districts, including one separated from Kunduz city only by a wide, brown river.

“It is a critical situation,” said Mohammad Omer Safi, the governor of Kunduz province.

Not since the Taliban’s collapse has the population of an Afghan metropolis faced such intimidation from the insurgency. Starting this spring, the Taliban has focused its efforts on gaining territory in Kunduz and other northern provinces, straying from its traditional battlefields in the south and east. Whoever controls Kunduz, a vast, rich agricultural region that was a former Taliban bastion, controls the roads to northeastern Afghanistan as well as smuggling and trade routes into neighboring Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia.

Two months ago, the Taliban reached the edges of Kunduz city, only to be pushed back by Afghan forces. But in recent days, its fighters have surged again and now control large swaths in four of the six districts in the province.

The Taliban advances coincided with a bold daytime strike mounted by the insurgents Monday on the heavily secured Afghan parliament in Kabul, deploying a suicide car bomber and militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades to target lawmakers. There were no fatalities, other than the seven attackers killed by Afghan forces. But it was a reminder that the Taliban, even as it presses into provincial areas, is also waging a bloody campaign against the national authorities and symbols of governance.

Civilians caught in crossfire

In Kunduz, a city of 300,000 people, the bloodshed is expected to intensify. With most U.S. and international troops departed and Afghan security forces stretched thin fighting on several fronts, the prospect of a Taliban takeover of the city has prompted the government to call into service many pro-
government militias, raising concerns about more violence and abuses.

“The city is under pressure from all sides,” said Haji Amanullah Othmanzai, a tribal elder, rattling off the names of areas overrun by the insurgents to the north, east, west and south of the city.

Thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire or displaced by the conflict, spawning a humanitarian crisis that is already worse than any seen in the north since 2001. Tens of thousands more remain trapped in battle zones, especially in the two overrun districts — Chardara and Dashti Archi. Over the weekend, wounded civilians, including women and children, streamed into the city to the Doctors Without Borders hospital, the only major medical facility in the region.

They included 13-year-old Ziauddin, who was shot in the chest by a stray bullet in his village in Chardara as he was lifting watermelons into a car.

“For 10 minutes, I didn’t feel anything,” Ziauddin recalled Monday, as he lay in a hospital bed. “But when I touched my chest, I saw the blood.”

A boy sells vegetables in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on June 20. (Majid Saeedi/For The Washington Post)

He nearly died. Because they had no car, his father placed him in a wooden pushcart and wheeled him to the river. They crossed in a boat into the city, where a relative drove them to the hospital. The journey took more than an hour.

“It was raining bullets,” said Ghulabdeen, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “I barely managed to get my son out.”

Concentration on the north

In the course of its northern-
focused campaign this year, the Taliban has advanced steadily from the province of Badakhshan, along the border with Pakistan, to Kunduz, a distance of more than 120 miles. Foreign fighters, mostly from Central Asia and flushed into Afghanistan from an ongoing operation in Pakistan’s border areas, have bolstered its ranks.

The goal is to forge a safe haven in Kunduz and other northern areas from which to destabilize the Afghan government as well as secular regimes in former Soviet Central Asian republics, say Afghan officials and military commanders. Ahmed Rashid, a prominent regional expert on Islamist militancy, has argued that militants aligned with the Islamic State are joining forces with Afghan and Pakistani Taliban factions along the Tajikistan-
Afghanistan border.

“The nature of the fighting has changed,” said Lt. Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the deputy chief of staff of the Afghan National Army. “The fighting in Badakhshan, in Kunduz, is taking place under the leadership of the foreign fighters. They want to be linked to the Central Asian terrorists and mafia groups. And so Kunduz and the north are strategically important for them.”

Others see a more symbolic reason for the Taliban’s concentration on the north. Kunduz was the last major northern city held by the group before its fall to the ­American-backed mujahideen forces two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks sparked the U.S.-led intervention. The Taliban, some say, is also seeking to bolster its bargaining position before possible peace talks with the government.

Mawlavi Salam, the Taliban commander for the north, is from Kunduz, noted the provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Sabur Nasrati. “They know the territory and the local people,” he said.

On Sunday, the insurgents seized control of Chardara district, just to the south of Kunduz city, forcing members of the Afghan security forces to flee. Taliban snipers, ensconced in trenches and firing expertly at targets, killed at least three Afghan ­soldiers, according to pro-government militia fighters involved in the battle and military and police officials. The insurgents also bombed a strategic bridge across the river, preventing Afghan forces from resupplying their comrades.

And when U.S.-trained Afghan special forces arrived at the scene, they mistook the pro-government militias for Taliban fighters and fired at them, wounding two, said local officials and militia fighters. Nasrati called the incident “a mistake.”

As of Monday night, the 75 Afghan soldiers and police officers remained trapped inside their base in Chardara district with enough ammunition for three days, said Safi, the provincial governor.

The government and military, he said, have asked the U.S. military for air support to push back the Taliban. That hasn’t materialized, save for a U.S. fighter jet screeching over the city Sunday.

If the 75 men don’t get help soon, Safi said, “they will all be killed.”

By Monday morning, the Taliban had overrun the district of Dashti Archi, east of Kunduz city, said provincial officials and tribal elders. But even with the Taliban close to the city gates, there was little sign of panic in Kunduz. Shops were open and markets were bustling.

“In the past 35 years of war in Afghanistan, the city has changed hands so many times,” said Othmanzai, the village elder. “The people are used to this now.”

As he stood by his son’s bed, Ghulabdeen declared that he needed neither side. His farm is under fire from both the Taliban and government forces. He can’t grow his tomatoes, and he’s running out of money, he said. “I pray to God to demolish both sides.”

Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.

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