KABUL — Taliban insurgents seized control of key facilities across a major city in northern Afghanistan on Monday, driving back stunned security forces in a multi-pronged attack that also sent Afghan officials and U.N. personnel fleeing for safety.
The fall of Kunduz would be a huge blow to the Western-backed government in Kabul and give Taliban insurgents a critical base of operations beyond their traditional strongholds in Afghanistan’s south.
For the moment, Afghan officials acknowledged, much of the city was in Taliban hands, and Afghan authorities were left struggling over how to turn the tide.
Kunduz has “collapsed” into Taliban control, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Associated Press.
Afghan security officials said government forces have withdrawn in attempts to avoid civilian casualties and that they are planning a counteroffensive to regain Kunduz — a city that has already been the target of Taliban attacks twice this year.
“We are prepared, and measures have been taken to recapture the city,” the deputy interior minister, Ayoub Salangi, told reporters.
Both Afghan government leaders and the U.S.-led coalition view the defense of Kunduz as a key test of whether security forces could prevent the Taliban from expanding its reach in the country.
One Afghan official said Taliban fighters took control of all major government buildings in the city and that security forces had retrenched to try to defend the airport of the provincial capital, about 150 miles north of Kabul in a region that was once relatively stable.
“The defense line for government is now near the airport” on the outskirts of Kunduz, said Amruddin Wali, a member of the provincial council. “The Taliban has taken key government buildings such as the police and intelligence headquarters and burned down some of them.”
The U.S. military still has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, but it was unclear Monday whether any American personnel were stationed near the fighting in Kunduz.
Col. Brian Tribus, a coalition spokesman, said the coalition has not conducted any recent airstrikes in Kunduz. But Tribus said the coalition was providing intelligence and surveillance support to the Afghan army. Coalition forces also continue to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan military, but Tribus declined to discuss specifics of the mission, citing concerns about operational security.
Since the withdrawal U.S. and NATO combat troops by the end of 2014, the mission of American and other foreign forces in Afghanistan has changed to largely a training and advisory role. The remaining U.S. forces include trainers and a small contingent of counterterrorism troops with a specific mission to combat al-Qaeda.
The assault appears to be the first time during the 14-year Taliban insurgency that large groups of fighters had managed to penetrate deep into a major Afghan city with significant ground forces rather than isolated strikes and suicide bombings.
A statement from the Taliban also asserted it has taken control of all government buildings, and promised not to seek retribution against local police or military officials.
Kunduz would also hand the Taliban one of the linchpins of Afghanistan’s economy as the hub for the country’s grain region and other important crops.
On a broader level, meanwhile, the attack displays the Taliban’s battlefield power and coordination even as the radical Islamist insurgency faces internal discord following the acknowledgment last month of the death of its longtime leader, Mohammad Omar.
“This will have a lot of impact on morale on all sides,” said Attiqullah Amarkhail, a retired Afghan general and military analyst. “Government forces may lose morale, while opposition forces’ morale will be boosted as they can now say they can capture cities.”
But he noted Taliban gains do not necessarily foreshadow “the fall of the entire north or the fall of the government.”
Dominic Medley, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said all U.N. staffers were evacuated from the Kunduz area as security deteriorated.
The assault began shortly before dawn when hundreds of Taliban began advancing into the city from four different directions.
Though Afghan security units were backed by helicopter gunships, the Taliban managed to take over a 200-bed hospital, officials said. The hospital is about 1.5 miles from the governor’s office.
The militant group posted pictures to Twitter showing Taliban fighters standing with a doctor next to hospital beds. Later, the Taliban appeared to seize several other government buildings.
Taliban fighters also overran the local prison and set hundreds of prisoners free. Some inmates were seen walking down streets with their belongings.
In June, the Taliban briefly gained control of two of the city’s six districts. Within days, however, Afghan security officials had regained control of the areas.
Monday’s attack may be timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Afghanistan’s new national unity government.
On Sept. 29, 2014, after a months-long stalemate over election results, Ghani was sworn in to replace former president Hamid Karzai. The second-place finisher in that election, Abdullah Abdullah, was named to a new position of chief executive officer.
Ghani and Abdullah have struggled for much of this year to oversee an Afghan military that appeared surprised by the ferocity of Taliban attacks this summer.
This year’s fighting season was marked by clashes not only in historical Taliban strongholds in the southern part of the country but also in northern areas that had previously been relatively secure.
The insurgency has been infused by thousands of fighters who have been driven from neighboring Pakistan because of the ongoing Pakistani military operation in that country’s tribal belt.
But earlier this summer, both Ghani’s government and Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, stressed that Afghan forces were well-prepared to prevent significant Taliban gains on population centers.
Faisal Sami, an Afghan senator from Kunduz, said he and other local officials had grown increasingly worried in recent months that Ghani’s government did not have a serious plan for keeping the city safe.
In May and June, as the Taliban had initially advanced toward the city, the Afghan government quietly authorized armed militias to help overstretched security forces. The move was controversial in a country where such groups in the past have been used to fan ethnic divisions.
“This is a major embarrassment to this government,” Sami said.
In recent weeks, there were also growing calls for Ghani to replace the governor of Kunduz province, Omar Safi. Safi was traveling and not in the city when the Taliban overran his office Monday.
“The main reason for the deterioration of the security situation and the Taliban’s gains is bad management of the affairs by the governor and lack of attention from the central government,” said Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, chief for Kunduz’s provincial council.
Mohammad Sharif in Kabul contributed to this report.