NATO forces bolster Afghan troops in Kunduz

Kunduz, September 30

NATO said today its special forces joined Afghan troops in Kunduz to try to push back Taliban insurgents who have seized the city, fought off a counter-attack and advanced on the airport to shore up their biggest victory in 14 years.

Heavy fighting was under way near the northern city’s airport where government forces retreated, highlighting the potent challenge the militants pose after their lightning capture of Kunduz.

The Taliban’s occupation — now in its third day — raises troubling questions about the capabilities of Afghan forces as they battle the militants largely on their own after NATO’s combat mission ended last December.

The Afghan army was supposed to be bolstered by its own reinforcements for the campaign to retake Kunduz, but attacks on convoys headed for the city meant that back-up troops were only trickling in.

“The Taliban have laid landmines and booby traps around Kunduz, slowing the movement of convoys of Afghan army reinforcements driving to the city,” an Afghan security official told AFP.NATO said the foreign special forces had reached Kunduz and US forces had conducted three air strikes around the city since yesterday to support the Afghan troops.

The forces comprise US, British and German troops, a western military source told AFP on condition of anonymity, without specifying the number.

The Afghan spy agency said the overnight strikes killed Mawlawi Salam, the Taliban’s “shadow governor” for the province, along with his deputy and 15 other fighters.

But the fall of the provincial capital, which sent thousands of panicked residents fleeing, has dealt a major blow to the Afghan military and highlighted the insurgency’s potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds.

The Afghan security official said the militants had slowly infiltrated Kunduz during the recent Eid festival, launching a Trojan horse attack that enabled them to capture it within hours.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the fall of the city on Monday — achieved by a militant force significantly smaller than the army contingent — was “obviously” a setback but the US believed Afghan authorities would be able to regain control.

Cook added he was “not sure it reflects any new assessment of the Taliban”, but many analysts see it as a game-changer for a group which many had believed was fraying.

Despite the military build up, Kunduz remained largely under Taliban control — the first major urban centre in their grasp since they were toppled from national power in 2001.

Fighters erected checkpoints across the city and were seen racing stolen police, UN and Red Cross vehicles. Local bakeries were selling stale bread and residents reported woeful shortages of water and electricity, as many people hunkered down in their homes amid frequent gunfire.

“Kunduz looks like a ghost town. Only a few dare to go out -- every few minutes you hear gunshots,” a local doctor, who did not want to be named, told AFP.”

The Taliban this morning used loudspeakers, telling people to reopen shops, but who would dare do that?”