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Afghans struggling to clear Kunduz of Taliban fighters

Afghan army soldiers inspect their armored fighting vehicles after returning from a nighttime patrol in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. Security forces are moving slowly to flush out the Taliban after the militants seized the city on Sept. 28.

JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2015

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — More than 10 days after Taliban fighters routed government forces from Kunduz, soldiers and police are struggling to secure roads and to clear insurgents from this provincial capital, the first major city to fall to the insurgents since the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001.

Government troops, backed by U.S. advisers and air power, have retaken most of the center of the city of 300,000 people, officials said.

It is clear, however, that claims by President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan officials that the city had been secured were overly optimistic. Taliban gunmen still operate in outlying neighborhoods, sometimes making small raids deeper into the city.

On Friday, sporadic small-arms fire and explosions echoed through the outer neighborhoods as police and soldiers pushed painstakingly through the leafy suburbs. Troops called in rocket strikes from Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopters outfitted as gunships.

“The Taliban are mostly in the outskirts, not in the city,” said Brig. Gen. Ahmad Habibi, commander of the army’s 2nd Brigade, 209th Corps, as he directed a small clearing operation south of the city center. “They operate in small groups that attack and then run away. Their goal now is not to take the city, but to make people afraid.”

Even if the government ultimately prevails throughout the city and its environs, the political and military damage to the Afghan government by last month’s rout in Kunduz has been enormous, shaking public confidence.

Ominously, the attack on Kunduz was part of a broader Taliban offensive in the north, far from its traditional southern base. Insurgents are now threatening Maymana, capital of Faryab province to the west.

In the wake of the Taliban offensive, the top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. John Campbell, has acknowledged to Congress that the Afghan forces cannot secure the country and that the U.S. should suspend plans to remove most of the 9,800 American troops still in Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Furthermore, the Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital, which killed 22 staff and patients, has strained relations with the international aid community, whose work is essential to rebuilding the country.

Afghans are continuing to carry out airstrikes in Kunduz, but American forces have not conducted any here since the hospital attack. Outgoing artillery fire from government positions continued regularly Friday night.

Near the main army base and the airport to the south of the city, military units were operating freely on Friday, if cautiously. But soldiers became nervous when questioned about areas farther away.

Military leaders have prevented both local and foreign media from reaching the burned ruins of the hospital, which was mostly destroyed in the American airstrike. The charity, known by its French initials MSF, has called the attack a probable war crime and has demanded an independent investigation.

Afghan officials are reluctant to talk about the hospital attack, beyond repeating their assertions that the facility was harboring Taliban fighters, an allegation MSF roundly dismisses. As recently as Wednesday night, commandos said they had been conducting mine-clearing operations near the hospital.

Some soldiers were observed Friday on a street detaining two young men they accused of stealing medical supplies from the abandoned hospital.

Troops had stripped the men of their shirts, handcuffed them and tied the allegedly looted supplies around the men’s necks.

Residents in some parts of the city have ventured out, reopening stores, shopping in the bazaars, and working their fields.

In other areas, however, they are still forced to dodge gunbattles between Taliban and government forces. Both Taliban and government troops are using residential and business buildings as fighting positions.

Many streets remain eerily deserted, as thousands of people fled the city during the fighting.

The debacle in Kunduz has become a major political liability for Ghani’s administration, which has struggled to convince Afghans that it has the ability to confront the Taliban onslaught.

The offensive shows that the Taliban have maintained their military momentum under new chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Mansoor took over after the shocking announcement this summer that longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died two years earlier, his death kept secret even from the rank-and-file.

Farshad Usayn contributed to this report.

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

 

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