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US airstrikes aid Afghan forces pushing Taliban out of Kunduz

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. forces say they have conducted roughly two dozen airstrikes in support of Afghan security forces who have been fighting for a week to clear Taliban insurgents from the embattled northern city of Kunduz.

Afghan security forces were leading the fight in Kunduz, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said Sunday. “U.S. enablers remain prepared to support” the Afghans, he said, but he would not give U.S. troop numbers, citing operational security.

U.S. officials have said the term “enablers” can refer to either air support or Special Forces members on the ground directing airstrikes. Since Oct. 3, when the Taliban launched a multi-pronged offensive on the provincial capital, U.S. forces have conducted about 24 airstrikes in Kunduz province, Cleveland said.

“The number of engagements is dynamic as we continue to provide ongoing support,” he said. “We don’t discuss the platforms that are used for operational security reasons as well, but I’ll tell you that both rotary and fixed wing assets have been used.”

Gen. Mohammad Radmanesh, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said U.S. forces were also helping transport large numbers of Afghan troops to the city where fighting continued in outlying areas.

After a week of fighting, U.S.-assisted Afghan forces are still working to clear the country’s fifth-largest city of insurgents. The militants briefly flew a flag over a main traffic circle — the same place they had raised it when they briefly seized and held the city a year ago. They have since been repelled from the city center.

“We were able to recapture the 1st, 2nd and 4th police districts (headquarters), and also another area called Khaakani, where the fighting was ongoing for several days,” Radmanesh said. “Afghan security forces still maintain the control of the areas that were retaken in the first day of the battle.”

Taliban fighting tactics, including the use of civilian residents as human shields, have hampered clearance operations, Radmanesh said.

“The reason we carry out our operation slowly and carefully is that the enemy have turned people’s houses into bunkers and placed (roadside bombs) in many areas,” he said. “Otherwise, Afghan security forces are trying day and night to eliminate the enemy.”

Initial reports indicated that about 24,000 people had fled Kunduz for the provincial capitals of neighboring Takhar, Balkh and Baghlan provinces, as well as the national capital Kabul, according to the United Nations.

Shelter and food assistance were being provided for those who fled, but “delivery of aid to Kunduz remains highly challenging given the ongoing fighting,” said Danielle Moylan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan.

In a televised address Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani said the Taliban had launched the Kunduz attack to cast a shadow on a donors conference last week in Brussels, where Kabul’s foreign backers pledged $15.2 billion for Afghan development through 2020, and in reaction to a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the insurgent group Hezb-e-Islami.

The insurgents have no plans for the country’s development, Ghani said, adding he would welcome  peace talks with Taliban fighters who no longer want to fight for “strangers,” a hint at Pakistan, which Afghan officials have long accused of backing the insurgents.

The fall of the city of roughly 300,000 to the Taliban in September 2015 marked the first time the insurgents had controlled a major urban center since their ouster in 2001. They held it for roughly two weeks before U.S.-aided Afghan forces retook it.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland