The Taliban’s grip on a major Afghan city lasted only three days, but even as government forces reclaimed Kunduz on Thursday they faced urgent questions over how it fell to the insurgents in the first place.
President Ashraf Ghani announced that he would send a delegation to study the fall of Kunduz and that security and government officials found responsible would be punished. The first political casualty was the provincial governor, who was out of the country when Taliban forces took over the city of 300,000 on Monday and was fired for the perceived failure of leadership.
Security officials had few explanations for the failure of Afghanistan’s Western-trained soldiers and police to secure the city, including more than 700 elite special forces troops based at Kunduz’s airport for about a month who were unable to fend off the multi-pronged Taliban onslaught.
The Afghans were caught flat-footed despite watching the Taliban make gains over the last several months in the surrounding province of Kunduz, an economic hub on the border with Tajikistan, at one point controlling as many as four of the province’s seven districts.
One Afghan security official blamed a lack of coordination among the forces at the airport, which will be dismaying to U.S. units that had spearheaded the training of the commandos.
“Because the attack was so sudden, there was a lot of disorder among the ranks at the air base,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “There was no clear command in charge, so there was a lot of scrambling until some level of order could be established.”
The performance of Afghan forces has come under a microscope as the Obama administration weighs whether to delay plans to remove almost all the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Allies including Germany, with the third-largest contribution of troops in the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, are also considering keeping troops in the country longer, analysts said.
Pentagon officials have said the Taliban’s brief capture of Kunduz – the first time the militant group had seized a major city since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 – strengthens their argument against sharply reducing the U.S. military presence. Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has presented the White House with options that include keeping about 8,000 troops in the country after 2016.
Some Afghan officials were openly lobbying for a continued U.S. troop presence.
“Maintaining the current number of American troops in Afghanistan can help us maintain the progress we have made in the past decade,” said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive in Afghanistan’s unity government. “It will also help our national security forces become more stronger, well equipped and better trained.”
The U.S. has spent more than $60 billion on training the Afghan forces, but was forced to use airstrikes and deploy military advisors to Kunduz this week to help kick-start the Afghan counterattack.
As Taliban fighters reportedly went door-to-door looking for government officials and security force members in Kunduz -- and frightened residents hid in their basements – the Afghan forces were initially stymied by land mines the insurgents had planted around the city, the Afghan security official said.
The Afghan response was also delayed due to orders to minimize civilian casualties in a city where insurgents were believed to be hiding in homes, he said.
Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said Thursday that the Taliban had suffered “heavy” casualties in the counterattack. One government estimate claimed that 200 Taliban fighters were killed, but that figure could not be independently confirmed.
The Taliban denied that Kunduz had slipped from its grasp, and residents reached by telephone said they continued to hear gunfire in various areas. Many civilians were low on supplies as the city remained virtually cut off.
At least 43 people have been killed and more than 330 injured in four days of violence, according to the Afghan Health Ministry. The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which is operating the only functional hospital in the area, said it had received 296 wounded patients, including 64 children, through Wednesday night.
“You could hear the sound of shelling, rockets and airplanes,” Masood Nasim, a doctor with the aid group, said in a statement. “Some bullets have come into the hospital, some even through the roof of the intensive care unit.”
The human rights group Amnesty International, citing accounts from people who fled Kunduz, said Taliban fighters were using a “hit list” to track down activists and Afghan security forces, including members of the U.S.-backed Afghan Local Police, a community-based security force. The group said Taliban members burned and looted the homes of security forces and killed their family members.
Germany, which had been the lead NATO nation responsible for security in northern Afghanistan following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, has also announced a fact-finding mission to study why the city fell.
At its largest, the German mission included more than 5,000 troops focused mainly on humanitarian and development efforts. The mission was widely regarded as a success when its troops withdrew from northern Afghanistan in 2013 and handed its Kunduz base to Afghan forces.
But now German officials are studying whether to slow the departure of 850 remaining troops participating in a smaller North Atlantic Treaty Organization advisory mission.
The fall of Kunduz has been likened to the collapse of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that was overtaken by Islamic State militants last year, and has been cited by some analysts as a sign of the dangers of withdrawing international forces too quickly from a conflict zone.
“Much of the German public was shocked with what happened in Kunduz, and that it happened so quickly and violently, but in defense policy circles this is a worry that has been going around for a while now,” said Patrick Keller, coordinator for foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank.
“Some fear a scenario that may be similar to what happened in Iraq,” Keller said. “It reinforces the minority view in Berlin -- a vocal minority -- that we should have stayed longer in Afghanistan.”
Latifi is a special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.
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