Afghan forces say retake Kunduz, Taliban say battle ongoing
KABUL: Afghan officials said government troops recaptured much of the strategic northern city of Kunduz from Taliban insurgents early on Thursday, three days after losing the provincial capital in an embarrassing defeat for Kabul and its US allies.
Details of the overnight counter-offensive were still emerging, and it was not immediately clear which areas of the city of 300,000 were back under government control.
A Taliban spokesman denied the government had retaken Kunduz, saying insurgent fighters were still resisting government forces in the centre and controlled most of the rest of the city.
But Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said the Taliban had left Kunduz city and a clearance operation was underway. A ministry statement said 150 Taliban had been killed and 90 wounded in the overnight offensive.
"Afghan security forces got control of Kunduz city from Taliban overnight after heavy fighting," Hamdullah Danishi, acting governor of Kunduz province, told Reuters by telephone.
As soldiers and police sought to flush out Taliban insurgents, local officials reassured residents who had been under lockdown since Monday that life in the city would soon return to normal.
At least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in the fighting as of Wednesday, according to a tweet from health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar. He also said hospitals in Kunduz had treated about 340 injured.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the government's claims of success, and said fighting continued on Thursday.
"Enemy claims regarding the Kunduz situation are not true. Mujahideen (Taliban fighters) are resisting in the city's security circle," Mujahid said, adding the Taliban still controlled most of the city and surrounding districts.
"American forces are also involved in this fight, but we are still defending."
A coalition spokesman did not comment directly on what role coalition personnel played in the overnight offensive, if any, saying that they were "involved in Kunduz" in an advisory role.
"Our service members retain the right to protect themselves, if necessary, while performing their advise-and-assist mission," spokesman Col. Brian Tribus added.
On Wednesday, a group of coalition special forces, including US troops, engaged the Taliban in a ground clash, Tribus had said earlier.
He confirmed there had been five US air strikes against Taliban positions near the city and airport since fighting broke out on Monday "to eliminate threats to coalition and Afghan forces."
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law for five years, have been fighting to re-establish their Islamist rule after being toppled from power by a US-led intervention in 2001.
The once-quiet north of Afghanistan has seen escalating violence in recent years, as the insurgency sought to gain territory, and swathes of Kunduz province have repeatedly come under siege this year.
Yet the insurgents' pre-dawn assault on Kunduz on Monday caught the Afghan police and army by surprise, handing the Taliban arguably their largest victory in nearly 14 years of war.
The three days it took to bring a major city back under government control may have political consequences for President Ashraf Ghani, whose first year in office has been clouded by infighting and escalating violence around the country.
The city's capture by the Taliban was a blow to the narrative that the NATO-trained Afghan police and army were steadily improving and able to prevent the Taliban from taking over and holding significant territory.
Training the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces has been the heart of the US plan to end involvement in its longest war. NATO forces officially wound up their combat role last year, leaving behind a training and advising force of several thousand.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told Reuters on Wednesday that the crisis in Kunduz demonstrated the need for foreign troops to stay in the country.
"As far as I understand, the view of all those (US) Army generals and officers on the ground ... in Afghanistan, as well as our own security and military leadership, is that maintaining a level of force beyond 2016 is necessary," he said in New York.
While the government's recapture of Kunduz had been expected, the police and army struggled even as Ghani tried to assure citizens that the situation was under control.
The Taliban mined roads to Kunduz to block reinforcements arriving and launched an assault on the airport where some 5,000 government officials and troops were based.
Late on Wednesday, Afghan reinforcements broke through Taliban defences and reached the airport to prepare the ground for Thursday's counter-offensive.