Afghan forces retake Kunduz from Taliban, government says

Afghan security personnel keep watch as heavy fighting erupted near the airport on the outskirts of Kunduz on Wednesday.

Afghan security personnel keep watch as heavy fighting erupted near the airport on the outskirts of Kunduz on Wednesday.

(Nasir Waqif / AFP / Getty Images)

The Afghan government reported it had regained control of Kunduz after special forces soldiers pushed Taliban fighters from their positions in key areas of the city early Thursday.

Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, said the Taliban had suffered “heavy” casualties.

But the Taliban denied the government’s claims of retaking Kunduz, saying in an online statement that “life has returned to normal” in the city and their fighters managed to repel “hirelings,” as they refer to Afghan security forces.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military launched airstrikes and rushed special forces advisors to Kunduz as the Afghan army struggled to retake the strategic provincial capital from the Taliban and fighting spread outside the city, a crisis that is forcing the White House to rethink plans to withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan next year.


Nonetheless, Pentagon officials said the Taliban’s capture of a major Afghan city for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and the retreat of pro-government forces to an enclave at the airport, have strengthened their argument that leaving only a few hundred troops after 2016 would shake the Afghan government’s confidence and reinforce the insurgency.

White House officials already were “looking carefully” at several options offered this month by Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, including keeping about 8,000 troops in place. The fall of Kunduz has “made them even more nervous” about leaving entirely, a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

President Obama has pledged to end America’s longest war before he leaves office in January 2017. But some senior officials and lawmakers warn that the Taliban rout of Afghan security forces at Kunduz suggests that Afghanistan could follow the disastrous path of Iraq, which saw Islamic State extremists overrun major cities last year after the U.S. withdrawal there.

The White House indicated Wednesday that it is reconsidering its withdrawal plan after the insurgents’ success in an area once considered so secure that President Ashraf Ghani’s year-old government had cited it as a model for a country struggling to emerge from decades of war.

Obama has “routinely noted that conditions on the ground influence that policy process,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in response to questions about Kunduz. “That would be the case in this circumstance as well.”

Administration critics portrayed the challenge far more starkly.

“If we were to remain on the withdrawal schedule, we run the risk of Afghanistan experiencing a meltdown like Iraq,” said Lisa Curtis, a former State Department and intelligence officer now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “This puts a lot of pressure on the White House to drop this arbitrary deadline … and commit to keeping forces there.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution, said Obama must decide between those who say America has sacrificed enough in Afghanistan and those who say leaving will undermine that sacrifice.

“There’s a strong sense at the White House that the president’s commitment has been to end the U.S. participation in the two wars,” she said. “On the other hand, military leaders and allies say, ‘Look, all that has been accomplished cannot be lost. Now is not the time to pull the plug and run.’”

But an abrupt change in U.S. policy may not be necessary, argued Colin Cookman, research program officer at the congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace, who has studied the Taliban buildup around Kunduz.

“My expectation would be that Afghan security forces do eventually retake control of Kunduz with the current levels of relatively limited international support,” Cookman said.

He said Ghani’s administration would “definitely like to see U.S. support continue, particularly in terms of air power that could disrupt Taliban attempts to mass forces.” But its bigger concern is continued U.S. financial support, he said.

Washington has provided about $5.7 billion to the Afghan government this fiscal year, including $4.1 billion for the military. The U.S. government has given about $100 billion to Afghanistan since 2001. That does not include the cost of U.S. military operations in the country.

The White House had planned to cut the U.S. force from 9,800 troops to about 5,500 this year. In March, after Ghani visited Washington, Obama agreed to keep all 9,800 in place this year, but said he would leave only a few hundred after 2016.

Campbell and Ghani are urging Obama to reconsider again, citing the growing threat not just from the Taliban but from insurgents claiming allegiance to Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

Several hundred Taliban fighters captured Kunduz, a city of about 300,000 residents, early Monday.

Since then, U.S. forces have conducted five airstrikes near the airport, including three Wednesday, to “eliminate threats to coalition and Afghan forces,” according to Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.

Clashes between the Taliban and government forces have spread to outlying areas of Baghlan province, south of Kunduz.

U.S. officials were harshly critical of the performance and leadership of the Afghan army, a departure from the normally confident assessments issued by senior U.S. commanders and other officials.

“The retaking of Kunduz is not going to be easy or clean,” said a senior U.S. official in Kabul, the capital, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

He said Afghan troops had been “in a defensive crouch” since Kunduz fell. “Having said that, they haven’t given up the fight and are still in it trying to recapture lost ground.”

Afghan forces retook the police headquarters and main prison, according to the Defense Ministry in Kabul, after the Taliban reportedly freed more than 600 inmates on Monday.

Although some reports indicated the Taliban did not intend to hold the city, a senior Pentagon official said militants appeared to be “digging in” to make a counteroffensive as bloody as possible.

As of Wednesday, several thousand Afghan troops were deployed in or near Kunduz, U.S. officials said, including members of a well-equipped mobile strike force sent by commanders in Kabul.

The United Nations says more than 6,000 people have fled the city. It called on both sides to ensure that civilians were protected amid reports of kidnappings and trapped residents.

“The reports of extrajudicial executions, including of health workers; abductions; denial of medical care; and restrictions on movement out of the city are particularly disturbing,” said the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom.

The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz came as the insurgents had begun operating more freely in Afghanistan’s south and east, where U.S. forces suffered heavy losses during more than a decade of combat.

They have mounted high-profile assaults on guesthouses and other undefended targets in Kabul and regained ground in Helmand province in the south, where they once were largely defeated.

Afghan security forces remain plagued by problems with equipment, logistics and tactics. Many troops see their main duty as manning checkpoints rather than conducting offensive operations against insurgents.

The Afghan air force operates some attack helicopters and other aircraft, but it remains years away from being able to stand on its own, U.S. officials say.

Even before the attack on Kunduz, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan had been rising steadily. There were 143 airstrikes in August, the most since last October, when there were 217.

Ali M. Latifi is a special correspondent in Kabul. Times staff writers Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, and W.J. Hennigan, David S. Cloud and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.