KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN – At a mechanic’s shop-turned-frontline outpost on the east side of this besieged northern city, Afghan Army officer Shafiqullah Shafiq points to a Taliban sniper’s nest in a three-story building no more than 80 yards away that looms over the neighborhood. One of Shafiq’s men dashes into the open and blasts a volley of rounds at the target before ducking back behind a bullet-pocked wall fronted with tires and sandbags. Two days before, another soldier took a round in the head loitering too long in the same spot, one of five casualties Shafiq’s unit has taken over the past month.
For more than four weeks a battle has raged between government forces and the Taliban fighters who invaded this strategically important provincial capital near the border of Tajikistan. Having taken control of surrounding districts and border crossings in the province and cut off road access, the Taliban are slowly choking the city, probing for any weakness in its defenses.
The cover of darkness gives the insurgents almost free reign to creep through deserted streets and back alleys. Small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks can come at any moment from seemingly any direction, from dusk until dawn, leaving Shafiq’s force of 20 or so men sleepless and frayed. “They never miss a chance to attack us, and they are getting closer,” he says, flanked by several commandos and haggard policemen in mismatched uniforms. Several wear gray ARMY T-shirts, leftovers from a two-decade-long campaign the U.S. military has forsaken.
Since May 1st, when U.S. and NATO forces officially began pulling out after 20 years of war, the Taliban has waged a blitz across Afghanistan. District after district has fallen in rapid succession due to battlefield victories, deals with local power brokers, government retreats and surrenders. By one tally, the militants now control more than half the country’s district centers. According to the Long War Journal, they also threaten half of the provincial capitals, with 18 of 34 provinces at risk of a complete Taliban takeover.
Kunduz, a city of some 370,000 people, had fallen to the Taliban twice before – in 2015 and 2016 — but was retaken with the help of U.S. Special Forces and air support. A loss here now would be severely demoralizing and could have a domino effect at a time when other provincial capitals are under siege. Afghan officials say that security forces from other districts fell back in order to defend Kunduz, that districts given up without a fight are part of a tactical pull-back to protect more vital urban centers. Losing a city like Kunduz could puncture that notion.
The Taliban offensive is part of a strategy years in the making. Afghanistan’s north has long been the stronghold of warlords who command large militias of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras with a history of fierce resistance to the Taliban, whose traditional powerbase is the Pasthun-dominated south and east of the country. But experts say the insurgents have systematically recruited from minority communities, winning over leaders and foot soldiers who feel abused and marginalized, or unprotected by the government, a shift that has fueled the Taliban’s expansion in the region to a level not seen since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank, asserts that the Taliban strategy in the north “looks like a preemptive strike to prevent a northern opposition from organizing.”
Though Afghan security forces are holding back the Taliban in Kunduz for the time being, the fearful atmosphere has been heightened by the militants’ ability to strike deep inside government-held territory. On July 9th, a fuel tanker strapped with a magnetic “sticky” bomb exploded about 200 yards from the governor’s compound, casting a black cloud over the city center. Two days later, a video circulated of an Afghan Army helicopter ablaze from a Taliban drone strike inside the main base in Kunduz. (In late October, they used a drone to bomb the governor’s compound, killing four security officers in the first known attack of its kind.) Some businesses remain open during the day, but fluid street fighting and electrical blackouts are driving more and more merchants to close shop in anticipation of worse days to come. “As soon as I have enough money I will leave here,” says Amir Mohammad, 47, a sandwich vendor who used to work as a janitor for German forces based in Kunduz. “I would leave Afghanistan if I could,” he sighs, but his visa application was rejected.
In the belly of his high-walled headquarters, the new provincial governor, Najibullah Omarkhil, tried to cut short any discussion that the city could be overrun. “Be sure that our security forces are strong enough to defend the city,” he told Rolling Stone as gunshots echoed in the distance. He called the last Taliban occupation a “disaster” that was a “huge economic blow” to the city, driving away its business leaders, and lamented that the U.S. exit could once again turn his country into a staging ground for terror. “Countries threatened by terrorists should be helped by all,” he says. “The terrorists in Afghanistan are not only a threat to Afghanistan’s security – they are a threat to the whole world.” During a subsequent meeting with local journalists, he implored them to refrain from telling overly negative stories that would amount to Taliban propaganda and pledged that the government would protect them. The journalists listened with blank faces, unconvinced. The Taliban has been assassinating media workers around the country to silence dissent, and their stranglehold on Kunduz has compelled more than half the press corps to skip town.
“We are very scared about the future,” says a veteran Afghan correspondent working for a U.S. media outlet. He recalls hiding out in a mud-brick room for more than a week with stale bread and no running water when the Taliban first overran the city. In September 2019, his younger brother, a policeman, was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber. Now that government forces have fallen back from the districts and regrouped in Kunduz, he’s staying on. But he’s making plans to move with his family to Kabul, which won’t be easy. All commercial flights have ceased and overland travel amounts to a roulette game through Taliban country. “There are so many checkpoints,” he says. “Maybe they take me from the car.”
For residents on the periphery of Kunduz City, near-constant firefights have made daily life untenable. The UN estimates more than 35,000 people in Kunduz have been displaced over the past month, part of a gathering “humanitarian catastrophe.” Scores of families have crowded into walled schoolyards; many others are hunkered down on the road to the airport in hundred-plus degree heat, awaiting aid that is scant to non-existent. “Several years ago the fighting forced us to leave our home in the district; now we are displaced in the city,” says Mirza Mohammad, a father of five, looking on as his sons erect a tent of wooden poles hung with tarpaulins of stitched rice sacks. The family fled their home in the north of the city the night before, after a rocket crashed into their neighbor’s house. The fighting was so intense, there was not time to retrieve their bodies. Even here, he adds, “bullets fly over our heads all night.”
“When there is fighting we don’t know where to run; we are just lost,” exclaims Mohammad Shafi, a resident displaced from the same neighborhood, who is also living by the road with his family. “I am 50 years old and I have not seen peace and safety in all my life. We have lost relatives, been injured, seen our homes destroyed,” he trailed off. “If the government can do something for us, they should. Otherwise, let them all kill each other. They have caused so much misery for us.”
Late on a recent afternoon, police officer Din Mohammad drove his battered Humvee to the city’s northern front, the gateway to the Taliban-held Imam Sahib district, scene of some of the heaviest fighting. “They’ve tried so many times to break through,” says Mohammad, “but we’ve pushed them back.” At last count, the Taliban had penetrated four of the city’s nine municipal districts, but Afghan forces are holding the line to keep them from punching through to the city center. Block after block, shop fronts are shuttered and people scarce until we reach the forward outpost, a petrol station barricaded with bricks. Weary officers wave the odd motorcyclist across no-man’s-land to the Taliban side. There’s no telling who is a civilian and who may be scouting for the enemy. On the second floor of an adjacent building, policemen shoot through peepholes at Taliban fighters lodged in a mosque complex down the street.
Morale is lifted when a squad of Afghan special forces arrives. Their battle-dusted leader, Commander Bilal, who would only give one name, says they came from Kabul three weeks back to help break the Taliban momentum, one of many redeployed units carrying out nightly sweeps around the city to prevent the militants from closing in. “They are cowards; they won’t fight us face to face,” he says with a gap-toothed grin. Better trained and equipped, Afghan special forces account for a small fraction of the national security forces but are tasked with the most daunting, open-ended missions on the ground, an extraordinary burden that is taking a toll. Last week, a video surfaced that showed the Taliban summarily executing 22 special operations fighters on June 16th in Faryab province. The unit had reportedly surrendered after running out of bullets and receiving no air support.
Bilal has not had a break in six months and does not expect one soon. “We are in a state of emergency,” he says. “Even if we are tired and fed up, we have no choice but to keep fighting.” Asked if he wished the U.S. had not withdrawn its forces, he demurred, the consummate soldier. “It is a political issue, and we can not have a say in it.” But he allowed that more Afghan army and police forces were needed to fill areas they are clearing to prevent them from sliding back into Taliban hands as soon as they move on. A boyish-looking junior officer named Mohammad Ghani chimes in that the U.S. could still make a difference by backstopping Afghan air power and launching bombing missions from bases outside the country. While restrictive rules of engagement have vastly cut U.S. air support in recent weeks, select air strikes have targeted the Taliban. “They should do something so that the government does not collapse completely,” he says. “We are fighting very hard.”
The evening call to prayer rings out and, like clockwork, the shooting and mortar blasts intensify in the near and far reaches of the city. The night’s orders crackle through the radio; Bilal and his men check their weapons and gather at the edge of the street. One by one, they sprint across the militant line of fire then vanish down a darkening alley.