US withdrawal from Afghanistan: In the siege of Kunduz
KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN – At an outpost of a mechanic’s workshop on the east side of this besieged city in the north, Afghan army officer Shafiqullah Shafiq points to a Taliban sniper’s nest in a three-story building no more than 80 meters above the neighborhood. One of Shafiq’s men storms outside and fires a volley of bullets at the target before ducking behind a bullet-strewn wall with tires and sandbags. Two days earlier, another soldier had lingered in the same spot for too long, one of five casualties Shafiq’s unit suffered in the past month.
For more than four weeks, a battle has been raging between government troops and Taliban fighters who have invaded this strategically important provincial capital near the border with Tajikistan. After the Taliban take control of the surrounding districts and border crossings in the province and cut off road access, the Taliban are slowly suffocating the city and looking for weaknesses in its defenses.
The protection of darkness leaves the insurgents almost free to sneak through deserted streets and alleys. Small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks can come from seemingly any direction at any moment, from dusk to dawn, leaving Shafiq’s force of around 20 men sleepless and frayed. “They don’t miss an opportunity to attack us, and they’re getting closer,” he says, flanked by several commandos and gaunt police officers in unequal uniforms. Some wear gray ARMY T-shirts, holdovers from a two-decade long campaign that the US military abandoned.
Since May 1, when the US and NATO forces officially began their withdrawal after 20 years of war, the Taliban have carried out a lightning strike across Afghanistan. District after district has fallen in rapid succession through battlefield victories, deals with local power brokers, government withdrawals, and surrenders. Overall, the militants now control more than half of the country’s district centers. According to the Long War Journal, they also threaten half of the provincial capitals, with 18 out of 34 provinces at risk of complete takeover by the Taliban.
Kunduz, a city with around 370,000 inhabitants, had already fallen by the Taliban twice – in 2015 and 2016 – but was recaptured with the help of US special forces and air support. A loss here now would be severely demoralizing and could have a domino effect at a time when other provincial capitals are besieged. Afghan officials say security forces from other districts have stepped down to defend Kunduz, districts that have been surrendered without a fight are part of a tactical retreat to protect more vital urban centers. Losing a city like Kunduz could thwart this idea.
The Taliban offensive is part of a strategy that has been developed for years. The north of Afghanistan has long been the stronghold of warlords commanding large militias made up of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara who have a history of bitter resistance to the Taliban, whose traditional power base is the Pasthun-dominated south and east of the country. However, experts say the insurgents have systematically recruited minority groups to attract leaders and foot soldiers who feel abused and marginalized or unprotected by the government, a shift that the Taliban’s expansion in the region has not been for one since the US has fueled more seen level. led the invasion in 2001. The Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank, claims that the Taliban’s strategy in the north “looks like a pre-emptive strike to prevent the organization of a northern opposition”.
Although Afghan security forces are holding back the Taliban in Kunduz for the time being, the fearful atmosphere is compounded by the militants’ ability to strike deep in government-controlled territory. On July 9, about 200 meters from the governor’s premises, a tank truck attached to a magnetic “sticky” bomb exploded, throwing a black cloud over the city center. Two days later, a video was circulating of an Afghan army helicopter that caught fire in a Taliban drone attack at the main base in Kunduz. (In late October, they drone bombed the governor’s compound, killing four security guards in the first known attack of its kind.) Some stores remain open during the day, but flowing street fights and power outages are driving more and more merchants to close the store in anticipation of worse Days. “As soon as I have enough money, I’ll leave here,” says Amir Mohammad, 47, a sandwich seller who used to work as a caretaker for German troops in Kunduz. “I would leave Afghanistan if I could,” he sighs, but his visa application was rejected.
In the belly of his high-walled headquarters, the new provincial governor Najibullah Omarkhil tried to prevent any discussion of a possible crossing of the city. “Make sure our security guards are strong enough to defend the city,” he told Rolling Stone as gunfire echoed in the distance. He called the last Taliban occupation a “catastrophe” which meant a “great economic blow” to the city that drove away business leaders and lamented that the US exit could make his country a scene of terror again. “Countries threatened by terrorists should be helped by everyone,” he says. “The terrorists in Afghanistan are not just a threat to the security of Afghanistan – they are a threat to the whole world.” At a subsequent meeting with local journalists, he pleaded with them not to tell too negative stories that amount to Taliban propaganda and promised the government would protect them. The journalists listened with blank faces, not convinced. The Taliban have murdered media workers across the country to silence dissenting views, and their stranglehold on Kunduz has forced more than half of the press corps to leave the city.
“We are very afraid of the future,” says an experienced Afghan correspondent who works for a US media company. He recalls hiding in an adobe room with stale bread and no running water for more than a week when the Taliban first overran the city. In September 2019, his younger brother, a police officer, was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber. After the government troops withdrew from the districts and regrouped in Kunduz, he stuck with it. But he plans to move to Kabul with his family, which will not be easy. All commercial flights have ceased and overland travel is like playing roulette through Taliban land. “There are so many checkpoints,” he says. “Maybe they’ll get me out of the car.”
For the residents on the outskirts of Kunduz, almost constant firefights have made everyday life untenable. The UN estimates that more than 35,000 people were displaced in Kunduz last month as part of a rallying “humanitarian catastrophe”. Numerous families have huddled in walled schoolyards; many others sit on the road to the airport in a heat of over a hundred degrees and wait for help that is hardly or not at all available. “A few years ago, the fighting forced us to leave our home in the district; now we have been displaced in the city, ”says Mirza Mohammad, father of five, and watches his sons erecting a tent made of wooden poles, which is hung with tarpaulin made from sewn rice sacks. The family fled their home in the north of the city the night before after a missile hit their neighbor’s home. The fighting was so intense that there was no time to recover their bodies. Here too, he adds, “bullets fly over our heads all night”.
“When there is fighting, we don’t know where to run; we are simply lost, ”shouts Mohammad Shafi, a resident who has been displaced from the same neighborhood and who also lives on the street with his family. “I am 50 years old and have seen no peace and security in my entire life. We lost relatives, were injured, our houses were destroyed, ”he broke off. “If the government can do something for us, they should do it. Otherwise let them all kill each other. You have caused us so much suffering. “
Late one afternoon, police officer Din Mohammad drove his battered Humvee to the city’s northern front, the gateway to the Taliban-occupied Imam Sahib district, the site of some of the worst fighting. “They tried so many times to break through,” says Mohammad, “but we pushed them back.” At the last count, the Taliban had invaded four of the city’s nine boroughs, but Afghan troops are holding the line to prevent them from entering to penetrate downtown. Block by block, shop fronts are closed and people are rare until we reach the outpost, a gas station barricaded with bricks. Tired officials wave one or two motorcyclists across the no man’s land to the Taliban side. There is no telling who is a civilian and who is scouting out the enemy. On the second floor of an adjacent building, police are shooting through peepholes at Taliban fighters who are housed in a mosque complex at the end of the street.
The mood lifts when a squad of Afghan special forces arrives. Their battle-hardened leader, Commander Bilal, who wanted to name just one, said they came from Kabul three weeks ago to break the Taliban’s dynamic. “They are cowards; they won’t fight us face to face, ”he says with a patchy grin. The better trained and equipped Afghan Special Forces make up only a small fraction of the national security forces, but are tasked with the most daunting, open-ended missions on the ground, an extraordinary burden that is taking its toll. A video surfaced last week showing the Taliban summarily executing 22 special forces fighters in Faryab province on June 16. The unit reportedly surrendered after running out of bullets and receiving no air support.
Bilal hasn’t taken a break in six months and is not expecting one anytime soon. “We are in a state of emergency,” he says. “Even when we’re tired and full, we have no choice but to keep fighting.” When asked if he wished the US hadn’t withdrawn its troops, he, the accomplished soldier, contradicted. “It’s a political issue and we can’t have a say.” But he acknowledged that more Afghan army and police forces would be needed to fill the areas they are vacating so they don’t fall back into the hands of the Taliban once they move on. A boyish-looking junior officer named Mohammad Ghani heralds that the US could still make a difference by holding back the Afghan air force and launching bombings from bases outside the country. While restrictive rules of engagement have sharply reduced US air support in recent weeks, selected air strikes have targeted the Taliban. “You should do something to prevent the government from collapsing completely,” he says. “We fight very hard.”
The evening call to prayer sounds and the shots and mortar shells intensify like clockwork in the near and far of the city. The commands of the night crackle through the radio; Bilal and his men check their weapons and gather by the roadside. One by one they sprint across the militant line of fire and then disappear into a darkening alley.