KUNDUZ, Afghanistan: Afghanistan on Tuesday mobilized reinforcements for a counter-offensive to take back Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents overran the strategic northern city in their biggest victory since being ousted from power in 2001.
Afghan security forces have retreated to the outlying airport, leaving the Taliban effectively in control of Kunduz after they stormed the city on Monday, capturing government buildings and freeing hundreds of prisoners.
The stunning fall of the provincial capital, which has sent panicked residents fleeing, has dealt a major blow to the country’s NATO-trained security forces and spotlighted the insurgency’s potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds.
“Yes, the enemy is in the city and they have taken over the prison and other buildings, but reinforcements are being deployed and the city will be taken back,” interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP on Monday.
Deputy Interior Minister Ayoub Salangi said security forces were ready to retake the city and vowed to investigate how the Taliban managed to seize a major urban center for the first time in 14 years.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted a triumphant picture on Twitter purportedly showing fighters raising the group’s trademark white flag at a roundabout in the city center.
Marauding insurgents stormed the local jail, freeing hundreds of prisoners including some Taliban commanders, officials said.
Kunduz was swarming with Taliban fighters, whom officials said overran the governor’s compound and the local police headquarters.
The local headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, was set on fire and a 200-bed government hospital was also captured.
Scores of unidentified bodies littered the streets after hours of heavy fighting, said local residents, many of whom were making a hasty exit from Kunduz — some by road while others headed to the airport.
The Taliban’s incursion into Kunduz barely nine months after the NATO combat mission concluded raises troubling questions over the capacity of Afghan forces as they battle the militants largely on their own.
The fall of the city coincides with the first anniversary of President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government coming to power, as it struggles to rein in the ascendant insurgency.
It will undoubtedly boost the image of new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour within insurgent ranks as he seeks to drive attention away from internal rifts over his leadership.
Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan and is a major transport hub for the north of the country, could offer the Taliban a critical new base of operations beyond their traditional southern strongholds.
In a statement late Monday, Mansour congratulated his cadres over the “major victory.”
Before Monday’s incursion, the Taliban made two brazen attempts this year to capture Kunduz city, which has been encircled by insurgents for about a year.
Kunduz was the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan in November 2001.
“As fighting rages in Kunduz, all sides must ensure that civilians and civilian objects are protected according to international humanitarian law,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“Reports that the Taliban have already sent armed fighters into a public provincial hospital are extremely worrying.”
The Islamist group has been largely absent from cities since being driven from power by the US and its allies, but has maintained often-brutal rule over swathes of the countryside.