Afghan President Ashraf Ghani vowed Tuesday to retake the city of Kunduz from the Taliban, a day after the militant group seized the capital of the province of the same name. The U.S. conducted an airstrike over the city even as militants fanned out over Kunduz, their first major gain since they were forced from power in 2001 following the U.S.-led invasion.
In a televised address to the nation, Ghani, who is marking the anniversary of his ascent to the presidency, said Afghan forces had launched a counteroffensive in Kunduz, a city of 300,000 people, and are “retaking government buildings.” He said reinforcements, including special forces and commandos, are either in the city or on their way there.
Dowlat Waziri, a deputy spokesman for the defense ministry, told The Guardian that reinforcements had been sent from Kabul and Balkh provinces.
“The Taliban are being pushed back,” Waziri said. “In a few hours, the city will be free from their hands.”
But it may not be that easy—even with U.S. airstrikes.
Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, said the airstrike conducted early Tuesday was mean to “eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces.” It is unclear if there will be more.
The Taliban had besieged Kunduz for months. The northern city is not only an important transport hub, but it was also the Taliban’s northern stronghold before the U.S. invasion. The group already controls large parts of the province.
Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, told The New York Times on Monday the government’s response to the months-long Taliban buildup had been inadequate. He called the local officials in Kunduz “incompetent.”
The AP reported Tuesday that Taliban gunmen were patrolling the streets of Kunduz, “searching for government loyalists and sealing off exit routes for anyone who wished to escape.”
The Guardian adds:
As of noon on Tuesday (07.30am GMT), public hospitals in Kunduz had received 172 injured and 16 dead bodies, according to spokesman Wahidullah Mayar. In addition, Médecins Sans Frontières said their hospital in Kunduz had admitted more than 100 casualties, and was operating on full capacity.
Kunduz’s fall is a major setback to Ghani’s attempt to bring order to Afghanistan, which has been wracked by decades of conflict. Violence has steadily increased since the departure of U.S. and NATO troops last year, and Afghan security forces have been unable to fill the gap.
But the city’s fall is a major victory for the Taliban, which has been riven by factionalism since the death of its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was confirmed in July. It’s likely to not only bolster the group, but also strengthen Mullah Akhtar Mansour, its new leader.