Afghan city of Kunduz mostly quiet, residents venturing out

KABUL: Residents of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz began venturing out of their homes as calm returned to the streets on Monday, officials and residents said, in the first signs of normalcy following the deadly Taliban blitz last week that captured and held Kunduz for three days.

Clashes were still underway between government forces and the Taliban on the city's outskirts on Monday, according to Khosh Mohammad, a member of the Kunduz provincial council.

Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said the national flag was raised over the provincial governor's office and the acting governor, Hamidullah Danishi — appointed last week to replace Mohammad Omer Safi who was abroad at the time of the attack — had returned to work.

Meanwhile, the medical charity Doctors without Borders continued to press US and Afghan officials for an independent investigation into the bombing early Saturday of its hospital in Kunduz, in which at least 22 people were killed. Some top US officials said the circumstances surrounding the incident remain murky, but others indicated the US may have been responsible.

The commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell told a press conference in Washington the air strike was requested by Afghan forces who reported being under Taliban fire, and was not sought by US forces. He said he was correcting an initial US statement that said the airstrike had been in response to threats against US forces.

"We have now learned that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from US forces," Campbell said.

US officials, speaking earlier on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident publicly, said American special operations forces advising Afghan commandos in the vicinity of the hospital requested the air support when they came under fire. The officials said the AC-130 gunship responded and fired on the area. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said it's not certain yet whether that was what destroyed the hospital.

Christopher Stokes, the general director of MSF, the charity's French acronym, said on Monday he was "disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack."

"These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital," Stokes was quoted as saying in the statement.

The Afghan and US governments have pledged a full investigation, which could take some days. President Barack Obama said he expected a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the bombing, and that he would wait for those results before making a judgment.

Former governor Safi, in an interview with The Associated Press, said he had warned the government that the city was vulnerable to Taliban attack.

Safi was sacked on September 30, two days after the Taliban overran the city with a surprise attack from multiple fronts, and three days after he left for Turkey on a four-day break approved by the president, he said.

He said Taliban militants had been in control of 60 percent of the province, also called Kunduz, for at least three months and were just two to three kilometers (1.2 to 1.8 miles) outside the city.

"I made the central authorities aware of it," he said. He said he wrote numerous proposals for securing the city against a Taliban onslaught, for the National Security Council and the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, a powerful body in charge of appointing provincial governors and supporting governance at local and provincial levels.

Kunduz is an important city on the Tajikistan border, a hub for smuggling routes for drugs and guns to and from Central Asian countries, and alcohol into Afghanistan, Safi said. He described Kunduz as a hub for a powerful drug mafia, which operated in collusion with politicians and security forces. He said there were also around 2,000 illegally armed militiamen inside the city, and widespread support for the Taliban among residents.

During his time in office Safi said he seized and burned 16 tons of drugs, and one of his bodyguards was killed in an assassination attempt on him.

As the Taliban gradually moved on the city, he said, and with security forces stretched thin due to demands in other parts of the country, the city's fall became inevitable.

The multi-pronged Taliban assault on Kunduz took the Afghan authorities by surprise and hugely embarrassed President Ashraf Ghani's administration. The Taliban held the city for three days before largely melting away as the government counter-offensive began on Thursday.

Safi, who has a degree in security and risk management from a British university, said that since last December the city had successfully repelled three Taliban attacks, including a major attempt to overrun it in April.

"I sent a letter a month ago suggesting there was a risk to Kunduz city, to the IDLG explaining that we need a strong security belt for the city. I designed the security belt and requested 15 security bases," he said. "The total cost for this was 18 million afghanis, which is around $250,000. I sent numerous emails, follow-up calls. But the government could not find this money to make this belt."

The IDLG and the president's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. One IDLG official confirmed, however, that Safi's reports had been received. Speaking on condition that he not be identified as he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, the official said a security plan was now being formulated for Kunduz "based on Safi's proposals."

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, chairing a council of ministers broadcast on live television, said the government had been warned "many times" that Kunduz might come under attack but "no one listened."

In the center of Kunduz, shops opened and people were seen walking the streets Monday and government troops have largely cleared the militants from the city, said Sarwar Hussaini, spokesman for the provincial police chief.

But the Taliban left destruction in their wake. Qayum Khan, a resident reached by telephone, described corpses on the streets but could not tell if they were civilians or insurgents. Grocer Sardar Wali said he felt it was "normal ... so I have opened my shop."