Wednesday, September 30, 2015

U.S. Strikes Taliban-Held Land Near Kunduz Airport as Afghan Crisis Deepens
Afghan army on patrol.
New York Times
SEPT. 30, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — American warplanes bombarded Taliban-held territory around the Kunduz airport overnight, and Afghan officials said American Special Forces were rushed toward the fighting. But by Wednesday morning, the crisis in northern Afghanistan had deepened, as the Taliban continued to surge outward from Kunduz, the major city that the militants captured on Monday.

The militants claimed critical stretches of highway and continued to threaten the area around the airport, where hundreds of Afghan soldiers and civilians have been holed up since the city fell.

Over the past three days, the Taliban have achieved what appears to be their largest military victory in a war that has gone on for more than a decade. Not only have insurgent forces captured a city of about 300,000 people — the first urban center the Taliban has held since 2001 — but as the reeling Afghan government struggles to respond, it has become clear that not only Kunduz but a large chunk of Afghanistan’s north is at stake.

In Baghlan Province south of Kunduz, Afghan reinforcements on their way to the city have been delayed or stopped altogether amid Taliban ambushes along the main highway. It appeared on Wednesday that before the Afghan government could launch a significant counteroffensive in Kunduz, it would first need to reclaim some of Baghlan.

Reinforcements in large numbers “will not be able to reach Kunduz without a big fight,” said Ted Callahan, a Western security adviser based in northeastern Afghanistan.

Abdul Shaker Urfani, a member of a community council in a northern part of Baghlan, said that more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers were stuck in the province. They were trying to reach Kunduz, “but they can’t break the Taliban resistance,” Mr. Urfani said.

Soon after Kunduz fell, Afghan military officials spoke of an imminent counterattack, using the airport five miles south of the city as a staging ground. But it has since become clear that the airport itself is imperiled, caught between the Taliban forces in Kunduz and the insurgents controlling the countryside in every other direction.

By Tuesday night, Taliban forces pressing south from Kunduz had pushed through the perimeter of the airport compound, threatening several hundred soldiers and at least as many civilians who had fled to the airport from the city. In fighting on Tuesday night, at least 17 members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police were wounded and one was killed defending the area around the airport.

The situation for the Afghan forces improved somewhat toward midnight: American warplanes conducted airstrikes at 11:30 p.m. and again at 1 a.m. on Taliban positions near the airport, an American military spokesman said. The Afghan Air Force also fired weapons.

Around the same time, soldiers with the American Special Forces headed out toward the city with Afghan commandos, according to Afghan government officials. Whether the Americans were there to take Taliban positions or to call in airstrikes was not known. By morning, the American forces appeared to have returned to the airport, according to people there who spoke by telephone.

An American military spokesman refused to discuss the matter.

But it appears that at least one American operation in the city of Kunduz failed. An Afghan security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that American forces had sought to resupply a group of beleaguered Afghan soldiers trapped in an ancient fortress north of the city.

For more than two days, the soldiers, at least 100 of them, had been fending off the encroaching Taliban. But American efforts to airdrop ammunition and weapons apparently failed, the Afghan official said.

“They missed the base and dropped the weapons in the river,” the official said, although it was not clear whether the weapons actually landed in the nearby Kalagaw River or simply missed the position by a long distance.

By noon on Wednesday, the fortress had fallen and about 60 soldiers had surrendered or been captured by the Taliban, although at least a few dozen managed to escape, the official said.

Questions about how thousands of army, police and militia defenders could continue to fare so poorly against a Taliban force that most local and military officials put in the hundreds hung over President Ashraf Ghani’s government and its American allies.

The number of Afghan government forces and militiamen defending Kunduz Province was said to be more than 7,000 when the city fell. Some fled to their homes, others retreated to the airport and still others are unaccounted for.

Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.

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