KABUL — Taliban insurgents intensified a third day of attacks Monday near the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, cutting off main roads to adjacent provinces and reportedly blowing up a bridge that links Afghanistan to neighboring Tajikistan. The sustained assault deepened fears that Kunduz could fall again into insurgent hands, as it did for two weeks in September and October in one of the worst setbacks for government forces in the 15-year war.
Senior Afghan military officials, as well as the civilian defense minister, have rushed to Kunduz to take charge of the fighting. Government forces have waged seesaw battles with insurgents since Saturday, and the Taliban has gained control of two districts near the provincial capital as well as another area in adjacent Takhar province.
The latest fighting comes days after a major Taliban push into Baghlan province just south of Kunduz and several weeks after Taliban forces began closing in on Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. Lashkar Gah is another strategic city the insurgents have long sought to seize, forcing both Afghan and U.S. reinforcements to rush to the region.
Speaking to reporters in Kunduz on Monday, the deputy army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Murad Ali Murad, vowed not to allow the Taliban to retake Kunduz. In Kabul, the senior U.S. military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, told journalists Monday that U.S. officials are “very confident that Kunduz will not fall. We will be there to assist.”
Cleveland said that the Taliban insurgents “are still clearly a threat” but that they have “still not been able to achieve their main strategic goal, to seize a major population center.” He would not specify what role U.S. forces are playing in Kunduz, but he said A-29 light-attack aircraft have been deployed there, with U.S.-trained Afghan pilots.
Afghan police officials said U.S. attack helicopters were also brought into the fight Monday and were attacking positions in Ali Abad District, which connects Kunduz city to Baghlan.
Cleveland noted that although U.S. forces are not authorized to participate in direct ground combat in Afghanistan, they can help Afghan forces “prevent strategic defeat” and, under recent orders from President Obama, can also provide “strategic effects,” such as allowing U.S. warplanes to do “more deliberate targeting.”
In Helmand, U.S. warplanes and Special Forces troops have been deployed during the recent fighting, and on Monday, U.S. military officials said they had sent an extra 100 troops to provide force protection in a police zone in Lashkar Gah.
While eager to help save Kunduz, U.S. military officials are anxious to avoid the kind of errors that led to a fatal U.S. airstrike on a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders during last year’s battle in early October. That inadvertent bombing, blamed on a mix of human error and missing equipment, killed at least 42 people, including patients and medical staff.
Despite vows by Afghan and U.S. officials that Taliban fighters would not be permitted to repeat their humiliating takeover of Kunduz, provincial officials said the insurgents had launched a multi-pronged attack from three sides of the city. The officials described numerous fluid clashes, with Taliban and government forces gaining and losing ground. They also said electricity has been cut off in Kunduz and Takhar provinces.
“It is a fighting situation up here,” the Kunduz police chief, Qaseem Jangalbagh, said in a brief telephone interview Monday, as loud sounds of gunfire and heavy weapons could be heard in the background. He said the government has regained control of Khan Abad district near Kunduz, which fell to the Taliban on Saturday, as well as another district in Takhar. The insurgents attacked from four directions “but have suffered heavy casualties,” he said. “Our losses are very low.”
Mohammed Yusuf Ayobi, head of the provincial council, described a more chaotic and dire situation when reached by phone. He said that government helicopters were “pounding Taliban positions” but that the insurgents still controlled 80 percent of Khan Abad. Taliban spokesmen have also said they seized weapons and vehicles from retreating Afghan forces.
“There are lots of civilian and military casualties,” Ayobi said. “Hundreds of people who can are fleeing day by day.” He said that the insurgents were attacking the north and northwest sectors of the city and that the roads linking Kunduz to three neighboring provinces and Tajikistan “are all closed, mostly because of the fighting.”
Analysts said Kunduz would be an important strategic prize for the Taliban for several reasons: It is close to the border and an important corridor to Central Asia, it produces an abundance of wheat and rice for domestic consumption, and it is an important city in the northern region far from the insurgents’ traditional home base in southern Afghanistan.
They also said the latest Taliban assaults are especially destabilizing for the Afghan government, which is facing strong public criticism and a crisis of legitimacy amid growing disputes between its two top leaders. Its most vocal critics include former militia commanders from the northeast who control numerous troops in the Kunduz region.
“The Taliban attacks on Kunduz come at a very sensitive time politically,” said retired Afghan army general Atiqullah Amarkhel. The insurgent advances and the discord between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah “can demoralize the army and security forces in general,” he said. “The Taliban could not have chosen a better time for their attacks than now.”