KABUL — Afghan forces attempted to strike back Tuesday in the northern city of Kunduz but faced stiff resistance from the Taliban, whose fighters overran the city a day earlier in a major blow to Afghanistan’s Western-backed government.
On Tuesday evening, Taliban units threatened the city’s airport, thwarting efforts by Afghan troops to overcome one of the militant group’s biggest offensives in the 14-year war.
As part of the counteroffensive, Afghan forces were backed by at least two U.S. airstrikes, including one intended to consolidate their positions around the airport.
The fight to reclaim Kunduz — Afghanistan’s sixth-largest city and a strategic gateway to Central Asia — is one of the Afghan military’s biggest tests in its campaign against the Taliban, and it raises questions about the withdrawal timetable for U.S. and other coalition troops.
“Obviously, this is a setback for the Afghan security forces,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday. “But we’ve seen them respond in recent weeks and months to the challenges they face, and they’re doing the same thing in Kunduz right now.”
Defense officials expressed optimism that Afghan forces, including commandos and special forces, would quickly expel from Kunduz the estimated 500 Taliban fighters in the city.
A U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operations, said in Washington on Tuesday that the Taliban attacked Kunduz partly “for publicity purposes.”
“They did what they had to do, and they’re going to take a beating [getting] out of there,” the official said, predicting that Afghan forces would dislodge the militants from the city within weeks.
The counteroffensive, however, did not appear to be going as well as hoped.
Safiullah Ahmadi, a Kunduz official who is helping to oversee the government response, said in an interview earlier Tuesday that Afghan forces had retaken the main police station in Kunduz.
But Ahmadi said that Taliban fighters still control large sections of the city, including major government buildings, and that “a big operation” was needed to dislodge them.
Mirza Laghmani, a resident, said Tuesday night that “intense fighting” raged near the airport, with government forces facing ambush-style attacks by the Taliban on roads leading into the city center.
Meanwhile, casualties mounted. The aid group Doctors Without Borders said its trauma hospital in Kunduz has been “inundated” with more than 170 injured patients, including many suffering from gunshot wounds.
The U.S. military still has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, but it is unclear whether any American personnel were stationed near Kunduz, 150 miles north of Kabul.
Analysts said the Taliban advance demonstrates that Afghanistan still lacks basic command-and-control procedures for managing its 352,000-strong military and police forces.
Afghan police officers stationed in Kunduz, for example, are thought to have abandoned their posts as the Taliban approached. There have also been questions about why more army personnel were not stationed in Kunduz, which the Taliban attacked twice this summer.
Taliban fighters looted banks and office buildings on Tuesday, according to a local police official. Photographs circulating on social media showed Taliban fighters riding in Red Cross vehicles.
Other images showed Taliban fighters gathered around an old Russian-made tank, probably left over from the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Billboards depicting slain and current anti-Taliban commanders were torn apart.
The Taliban’s seizure of the city is a crushing setback for President Ashraf Ghani, who is struggling to manage the biggest crisis of his year-old presidency.
“This incident will embolden the Taliban,” said Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, a senator from the southern province of Helmand, where the Taliban controls large swaths of territory. “This government should resign. . . . We had warnings about the fall of Kunduz. No one listened.”
At a news conference in Kabul, Ghani defended the military response, saying the Taliban fighters had infiltrated Kunduz disguised as civilians. They hid in houses and suddenly burst out early Monday, quickly overwhelming security officials, who struggled to differentiate between militants and residents, Ghani said.
“The problem here is that a traitor enemy had turned the local population into a shield,” he said. “The government of Afghanistan is a responsible government and can’t and won’t bomb its people, its countrymen, inside a city.”
The country’s second-ranking leader, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, announced that he was leaving the U.N. General Assembly in New York earlier than planned and heading home.
“Afghanistan is suffering, and its people demand solutions that are practical, verifiable and durable,” Abdullah said in his U.N. address on Tuesday, appealing specifically to neighboring Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban and other militant factions.
In Washington, the fall of Kunduz is raising new questions about President Obama’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next 16 months.
Pentagon leaders have indicated that they may ask Obama to slow the planned drawdown.
“The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban is not unlike the fall of Iraqi provinces to ISIL,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State militant group.
“It is a reaffirmation that precipitous withdrawal leaves key allies and territory vulnerable to the very terrorists we’ve fought so long to defeat,” he added.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, issued a statement comparing the fall of Kunduz to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.
“It is time that President Obama abandon this dangerous and arbitrary course and adopt a plan for U.S. troop presence based on conditions on the ground,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Kunduz was just one of several flash points Tuesday.
In Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan, local officials reported that hundreds of Islamic State militants attacked several outposts but were repelled. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters appeared to threaten numerous small cities in Baghlan province, which borders Kunduz province. Kunduz city is the provincial capital.
Haroun Mir, founder of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies, said Afghan forces would quickly recapture Kunduz.
Despite its rapid advance on Monday, Mir said, the Taliban is still not a fighting force equipped to defend ground for extended periods. The Taliban already appears to be ferrying looted ammunition, military vehicles and computers out of the city, local officials said.
“They are loading up trucks with stolen goods to carry them to their stronghold, because they know they can’t stay in Kunduz city much longer,” said Sultan Arab, a local police commander.
Still, Mir said, “the damage is already done.”
“Who is responsible for this — the governor, the police chief, military leaders — is still not clear,” he said. “But it’s clear what happened in Kunduz can happen anywhere. It can even happen in a city such as Kabul.”
Murphy reported from Washington. Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul, Missy Ryan in Washington and Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.