By Gordon Lubold, Margherita Stancati and Habib Khan Totakhil
WASHINGTON—Afghan troops backed by U.S. forces struggled to recapture a provincial capital following an alarming Taliban attack that renewed questions about the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw most American military forces next year.
The Taliban held on to the city of Kunduz against an aggressive counteroffensive in which at least 17 Afghan troops and an unknown number of civilians were killed, according to Afghan officials.
A U.S. airstrike was conducted early Tuesday by a U.S. F-16 as a “force protection measure,” a U.S. official said, after Taliban fighters stole a tank from Afghan forces and drove it toward the airport, where Afghan and coalition troops, including Americans, were located.
Another was conducted near the airport at night, said U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials also are providing coverage by aerial surveillance drones, officials said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who marked one year in office Tuesday, said that government forces were making progress taking back the city. “We shall not allow the citizens to be terrorized,” he said in Kabul.
But by nightfall Afghan forces had mostly given up their gains and retreated to two locations—the airport and a strategic hill on the other side of the city, according to Afghan officials, residents and the Taliban.
The Taliban surge, its first such victory since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, reinvigorated arguments by some senior U.S. military officials, lawmakers and others that the administration should rethink the size of the coalition force that will be left in Afghanistan.
The seizure of Kunduz underscored the weakness of Afghan forces, who took over responsibility for security this year as the U.S. military began withdrawing.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said he and others have been aware of the “deteriorating situation” in Afghanistan for some time.
“But what is surprising is the location of this attack, in the north, which is generally not the area of most of the Taliban activity,” Mr. McCain said in an interview. “So it is an indicator of the dimensions of the Taliban’s capability to launch a very significant and successful attack.”
He and other critics compared the situation to the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, which they say contributed to the rise of Islamic State extremists in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
“The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban is not unlike the fall of Iraqi provinces” to Islamic State, said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas) who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. “It is a reaffirmation that precipitous withdrawal leaves key allies and territory vulnerable to the very terrorists we’ve fought so long to defeat.”
President Barack Obama has pledged to also remove all but a small force of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, before he leaves office.
However, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, recently sent the Pentagon five options for force reductions over the next year that could allow for a much larger U.S. and allied force.
Gen. Campbell’s options include leaving the current American force of roughly 10,000 troops in place after 2016, or shrinking that force down to several hundred. Each option is accompanied by a risk assessment and a definition of “objectives and missions” that justify the different-sized forces.
A senior administration official said Gen. Campbell’s recommendations are under review at the Pentagon.
A Kabul-based foreign official said the attack was likely to bolster arguments that planned closures of coalition bases, including one run by German forces in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, should be delayed. The base is due to close in April. “This will have an impact,” the official said.
Under the current plan, the U.S. military presence will shrink to embassy-size by the end of 2016.
Mr. McCain said the U.S. has been drawing down forces too quickly for too long, contributing to the ability of the Taliban to mount such an attack. He said it was analogous to Iraq.
“Hopefully that would inform the president that we cannot continue this plan to arrive at an embassy-centric force, or we will see the Iraq movie all over again,” he said.
White House and Pentagon officials said that the attack, while a setback, wasn’t an ominous sign of Taliban strength or Afghan vulnerability.
“Obviously, this is a setback for the Afghan security forces,” said Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary. But he said “we have confidence in their ability to take on the Taliban in Kunduz.”
Late Tuesday, militants laid siege to the airport and briefly breached its perimeter before they were killed by government forces, said a senior Afghan security official. He also said U.S. Special Forces had reached the airport, where large numbers of civilians fleeing the city, including children, had sought shelter.
The hill, known as Bala Hisar, was surrounded by insurgents and it wasn’t clear how long the Afghan troops could hold out without reinforcements, the official said.
A senior Taliban commander in Kunduz said they would take control of the hill soon. “Our people have contacted the army there. They are willing to surrender,” he said in an audio message posted on the group’s website.
The Ministry of Defense said earlier that at least 17 Afghan troops and an unknown number of civilians had died in the fighting.
Afghanistan’s intelligence agency said Taliban’s shadow governor for Kunduz, Malawee Salam, was killed in an airstrike near the airport Tuesday night, a claim that the Taliban denied. It wasn’t clear if that was the U.S. airstrike.
Officials and residents in Kunduz said Afghan soldiers and police, led by elite special-forces, had regained control of the police headquarters and the provincial prison—but only briefly. By afternoon, residents said Taliban fighters were driving around freely in motorbikes and pickup trucks they had looted from Afghan forces.
Taliban fighters often enter civilian homes, posing a challenge to Afghan forces that can’t use heavy artillery in residential areas.
“The fact that they wear plain clothes makes it harder for Afghan forces to distinguish them from the civilians,” added an Afghan security official who fled Kunduz Monday. “They are using civilians as shields.”
Through loudspeakers, Taliban fighters chanted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” and “Long live the Islamic Emirate,” a term they use to describe their rule of Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
They also released photos and footage of flag-waving fighters in central Kunduz looting military equipment.
Abdullah Musazai, a resident of Kunduz, said one fighter told him the Taliban was “planning to withdraw from the city since they got what they came for: they have taken sufficient ammunitions and military vehicles.”
The takeover of the city, even if temporary, is a major propaganda victory for the Taliban and its new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. He came to power in July after the revelation that the group’s founder and spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for two years.
A hospital in Kunduz run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders said it is operating over capacity. It has treated around 170 patients over the past two days, many of them for injuries caused by bullets or shrapnel.
Although the hospital has foreign staff, the Taliban allowed it to remain open during the fighting.
Most other foreigners and Afghan officials escaped the city before the Taliban closed in Monday. United Nations staff and some employees of local nongovernmental organizations were evacuated. The insurgents later looted and burned some U.N. offices and other compounds.
Source- Wall Street Journal