The Taliban are once again threatening a strategic provincial capital in northeastern Afghanistan almost a year after capturing it briefly.
The Afghan forces are fighting to prevent more gains by the Taliban, such as the recent advances in the rural districts of northeastern Kunduz Province resulting in imperiling its provincial capital, also called Kunduz.
The Taliban’s two-week hold over Kunduz in September and October resulted in significant losses including reprisal killings and an exodus of civilians. One U.S. airstrike supporting the Afghan forces in reclaiming the city hit a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.
Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said enough government forces are ready to defend Kunduz against the Taliban, who briefly overran the neighboring district Khanabad and also blew up a major highway bridge connecting Kunduz with Tajikistan.
“We have enough units from our Pamir corps, and we also have enough special forces there,” he said. “They will be supported by our national and local police forces. If needed, we also have enough reinforcements on standby [in the capital] Kabul.”
Provincial police chief Qaseem Jangalbagh said Afghan forces are working to repair the Alchin Bridge that connects Kunduz to the Shir Khan port on the Panj River, which forms a considerable part of Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan.
Afghan Civil Order Police Commander Major General Zmarai Paikan said Afghan forces in the region also have NATO’s backing.
“God willing, we will also be able to rely on airborne support from NATO's Resolute Support Mission [forces] whose command has assured us to provide assistance to our forces in the defense of Kunduz," he said.
Hayatullah Amiri, the district governor of Khanabad, said the Taliban are in the midst of a major offensive in the region. He said the insurgents launched a spectacular attack from five different directions to briefly capture Khanabad on August 20.
“Based on our reports, some 300 to 400 Taliban fighters took part in the offensive,” he said. “They also had reinforcement units to cover them from behind in case some were wounded or killed. Fighters joined them from [the nearby] Imam Sahib, Dasht-e Archi, and Chahar Dara districts.”
Shortly after the recapture of Khanabad late on August 20, Kunduz provincial Governor Asadullah Omarkhil told Radio Free Afghanistan that foreign fighters were also among the insurgents.
“There are both local Taliban fighters as well as foreign [fighters] such as Uzbeks and other Central Asians [fighting against the Afghan forces]," Omarkhil said. "Their leadership is mainly in the hands of members of Pakistan's ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency],” Omarkhil said.
Islamabad has always denied such claims by Afghan officials.
He said that even now only 50 percent of areas in Khanabad are under government control and the rest are under Taliban influence.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban took military vehicles and weapons when it seized the district. It is unclear whether Afghan forces recovered that hardware when they recaptured Khanabad.
Amiri also spoke of the material losses inflicted during the fall of Khanabad.
“During the several hours the district was in the hands of the insurgents, they took computers, printers, and other electronics with them,” he said. “In a number of district offices, they broke chairs and tables and took documents from the district court and prosecutor’s office. We have now sealed off the offices for further assessment.”
Despite the assurances given by Afghan officials, residents of Khanabad are worried.
Shamsuddin Rahimi, a 35-year old teacher, is one of them.
Along with his eight family members, Rahimi witnessed the fall and recapture of Khanabad.
“We are afraid. I am concerned about the lives of my children. God forbid some of us would be harmed by a [stray] bullet.”
He added that since the fall of the district their local school is closed.
“We are concerned around the clock. I am a teacher but cannot go to school now. Our school has been closed for a week. Our children have been deprived of their education.”
He says that in addition to the insurgents pro-government local militias locally known as Arbaki are a major nuisance.
“They are irresponsible armed gangs extorting money from locals,” he said. “They make people prepare them food and buy them clothes and shoes.”
Rahimi said his monthly salary of $100 is not enough to buy food and basic supplies because prices have skyrocketed in the wake of ongoing fighting.
“We have no electricity, and when there is no electricity there is no drinking water, either,” he said.
Kunduz officials say recent fighting has displaced more than 3,000 families in the region.