KABUL — American Special Operations troops and on-the-ground military advisers from the NATO coalition joined Afghan forces trying to retake the northern city of Kunduz from Taliban militants Wednesday, and some came under fire as the effort initially made few gains, officials said.
Personnel from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan were on a mission near the Kunduz airport, where hundreds of Afghan troops had gathered after retreating from the city, when they were engaged by insurgents and called in an airstrike, the officials said. The coalition spokesmen declined to comment on whether their forces returned fire on the ground.
The increased support from the coalition comes amid growing signs that Afghan forces are struggling to repel the Taliban fighters, who were able to seize Kunduz in a lightning strike Monday, dealing a major blow to Afghanistan’s Western-backed government.
An Afghan security official in Kabul said that a fort fell to the Taliban in Wednesday’s fighting in Kunduz and that an estimated 50 troops based at the fort had either surrendered or were captured.
“We did not expect this at all,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Early Thursday, however, officials said Afghan special forces were advancing into the city.
Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth-largest city and a strategic gateway to Central Asia, is the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since 2001, when the group began an insurgency after being driven from power in Kabul.
Col. Brian Tribus, a military spokesman, said the coalition troops were sent to Kunduz to “train, advise and assist” Afghan forces. He said the troops included a combination of U.S. Special Operations forces and soldiers from other countries that make up the international coalition.
Tribus later acknowledged, in an interview with the Reuters news agency, that “coalition special forces advisers” had called in airstrikes and engaged in combat when they “encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport.”
An Afghan official from Kunduz confirmed that coalition advisers are engaged in the effort to drive the Taliban from the city.
“I see them having meetings with [Afghan] commanders at the airport,” the official said. “Some actually take part in the fighting, too, while some others monitor the situation and give advice.”
The rules of engagement for U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan allow them to fight if they are threatened by insurgents.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 civilians have been killed or wounded in Kunduz this week. An additional 6,000 people have fled the city.
Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, said there also have been “reports of extrajudicial executions, including of health care workers,” in Kunduz. The reports could not be confirmed.
Despite promises Tuesday from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and military leaders that reinforcements had been sent to the area, officials said the situation is grim because Afghan soldiers in the city are running out of ammunition. Fresh troops have not been able to reach Kunduz because they are encountering improvised explosive devices and Taliban roadblocks as they try to push into the area, officials said.
Moeen Marastial, a former member of parliament from Kunduz, said he received several “frantic” phone calls and text messages from Afghan troops holed up at the airport Tuesday night as the Taliban advanced.
“From three sides they surrounded the airport,” said Marastial, noting that the airport was one of the last remaining havens for Afghan forces. “They said, ‘We don’t have arms. We can’t continue to fight.’ ”
Afghan soldiers in Kunduz, Marastial added, “are losing their morale and think they will be captured alive.”
About 1 a.m., some help did arrive in the form of a U.S. airstrike, one of at least two carried out near the airport overnight. They were followed by two more airstrikes about 5 p.m. Wednesday, also near the airport.
One of the overnight strikes killed dozens of Taliban militants and commanders who had been meeting in a warehouse, Marastial and other local officials said.
Still, a security official in Kabul said Afghan forces are in urgent need of even more assistance.
“It’s worse than bad,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Mirza Laghmani, who lives near the airport, said he has been locked in his house for the past three days.
“There is no ground fighting at the moment, but increased air assaults from drones and helicopters,” Laghmani said Wednesday afternoon. “Last night, the fighting was intense. . . . The Taliban succeeded in entering the airport from two directions, but a drone strike reversed the game.”
In other parts of the city, Kunduz residents are starting to run out of food, Marastial said.
“The bread shops are closed,” he said. “People cannot come out of their houses because they face three kinds of threats — aerial bombardment, the Taliban and thieves.”
Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a retired Afghan general, said the crisis reflects a disjointed command-and-control structure in the supervision of Afghanistan’s 352,000-member police force and army.
On Wednesday morning, the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, was summoned to the parliament to explain why Kunduz had fallen.
Nabil apologized to the nation, saying his agency had been monitoring the threat for months. However, he said, a plan for a comprehensive operation against Taliban fighters in the area this summer “was abruptly halted.”
He declined to elaborate publicly on the reasons behind the delay.
Tribus, the coalition spokesman, declined to disclose the number of troops present in Kunduz, when they arrived or where they are stationed, citing “operational security” concerns. But he said coalition special forces will be “advising and assisting Afghan special forces units in the area who are working to clear the city of Kunduz.”
Some coalition troops assigned to conventional military units are also in Kunduz to support the Afghan army.
About 13,200 coalition troops remain in Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan military. Of those, 6,800 are American. There are also 3,000 American troops in Afghanistan to support or carry out U.S. counterterrorism missions.
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Mohammad contributed to this report.