The Taliban scored a huge symbolic victory after their fighters first captured a major city in northern Afghanistan in a seemingly unstoppable offensive in which they captured five provincial capitals in only three days.
Armed men swept over Kunduz on Sunday, a strategic town near the border with Tajikistan and an important political and military center. By mid-morning, they controlled the city center as pro-government forces retreated to the nearby airport. Residents fled as smoke from the city’s burning market engulfed the sky.
Videos posted by Taliban fighters showed that the city abandoned police compound, complete with cars and its main security and intelligence buildings intact. “The enemy left behind vehicles, weapons and equipment,” tweeted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, promising further progress.
The Taliban also overwhelmed the provincial capital of Sar-e Pol and the town of Taloqan on Sunday. Before communications in Taloqan were cut, a senior local official spoke of intense street-to-street fighting.
“The Taliban fighters are about 200 meters away,” the official said. “The city may fall because the security forces were unable to hold the lines. No help has yet arrived from Kabul. Authorities later confirmed that the city had been captured by the Taliban.
Of the five provincial capitals fallen since Friday, the northern city of Kunduz was by far the biggest gain for the Taliban. Previously, insurgents entered the city in 2015 and again in 2016, but were unable to hold it back each time.
Kunduz was also the scene of the Taliban’s surrender in 2001, when its northern army and foreign fighters abandoned their weapons following the US-UK-led invasion. The Biden administration’s decision in May to withdraw US troops two decades after what it sees as an impossible war has sparked a precipitous security collapse and a widespread Taliban offensive across the country.
“The capital of Kunduz province fell to the Taliban around 10 am this morning,” a local official said by telephone. “The town of Kunduz has been attacked by the Taliban in the past two months. They stepped up their attacks from several directions on the city on Friday. They totally captured him today.
According to the official, the Taliban began their main attack around 5 a.m. Sunday after the insurgents received reinforcements from neighboring areas, including Jawsjan province. The Taliban captured Sheberghan, the provincial capital of Jawzjan province on Saturday. The city was a stronghold of famous Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. On Friday, the Taliban invaded the southwest financial center of Zaranj.
“The most intense clashes involved the intelligence and police headquarters and the local governor’s compound,” another local official said in Kunduz. “The security officials fought with them, then withdrew to the airport. Several local governor’s bodyguards were killed when the compound was hit by mortars. “
The Taliban have taken control of much of rural Afghanistan since international forces began the final stage of their withdrawal in early May. The Taliban are now besieging more than a dozen other provincial capitals.
Government forces withdrew from Sar-e Pol, the capital of a northern province of the same name, on Sunday. Security forces as well as the commander and governor of the local police retreated to a military post on the outskirts. In the afternoon, it was under heavy Taliban fire. The insurgent group published video claiming that the situation inside the city has now returned to normal.
“The town of Sar-e Pol fell to the Taliban this morning and is now under Taliban control. They now control the whole province of Sar-e Pol, ”said one resident. “The commander and governor of the local police and some forces have retreated to an army post on the outskirts of town, which is also currently under attack by the Taliban. We are now concerned about the plight of people in the city.
” They [the Taliban] began their assault on the city last night. The attack came from several directions. They invaded the provincial capital around 9 a.m. this morning. The very first thing they did was break into the prison and release the inmates, ”the official said.
With most of the American and Western soldiers now gone, the Pentagon has sought to stop the Taliban’s advance by using air power. The Defense Ministry in Kabul confirmed that the United States launched airstrikes on Saturday evening to support the besieged Afghan army in the city of Sheberghan.
“The Taliban were targeted by a B-52 in the town of Sheberghan, Jawzjan, at 6.30pm on Saturday. The terrorists suffered heavy losses as a result of an airstrike by the US air force, ”said Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for the Department of Defense.
Residents of Kunduz and Sar-e Pol said insurgents were freely patrolling with captured Humvees in city centers and many people had already fled.
Latif, a resident, said: “The situation in the town of Sar-e Pol is devastating. There were heavy clashes overnight and in the morning we had a new ruler. They took control of the city in the morning and now ride their motorcycles freely around the city. People are terrified. I can tell you that half of the city’s population had already fled their homes. Some people came out. There are sporadic gunshots in this part of town.
In Kunduz, residents said several shops caught fire after being targeted by mortars. One, Jamal, said: “The whole town of Kunduz is on fire right now. Many stores have caught fire and a shadow of panic and fear hangs over the city. Many people have fled to other areas, even to areas under Taliban control, to escape the war. Most families have a member staying in their home to look after the properties.
Fighting also continued elsewhere in Afghanistan as Taliban fighters advanced towards the provincial capital of Samangan on Sunday afternoon. Intense fighting was also underway in parts of the economically important western town of Herat on Saturday evening.