The Taliban have staged a “large-scale” predawn attack on an important city in northern Afghanistan, even as leaders of the insurgent group are engaged in marathon peace talks with the United States on ending the deadly war.
Residents and officials said Saturday insurgents assaulted Kunduz, the capital of the province with the same name, from several different directions, triggering intense gun battles with Afghan government forces.
Both sides reportedly have suffered casualties and civilians also have been harmed, though exact details of the battlefield losses could not be ascertained from independent sources. The fighting disrupted power supplies and cell phone services to Kunduz, cutting off all communications.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Roohullah Amadzai told reporters the Taliban managed to enter central parts of Kunduz and took positions in civilian population, including the main hospital.
Ahmadzai said security forces, backed by airpower, were responding to the insurgent attack to force them out of the city while making sure civilians and patients were not harmed in the process. He confirmed both Afghan and foreign forces carried out airstrikes against Taliban positions in the city, killing at least 25 insurgents.
The Afghan city, located on a key highway providing easy access to much of northern border provinces, repeatedly has come under Taliban attack since 2015 and was briefly held twice by the insurgents. The Taliban has since taken control of much of the province.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed in his latest statement that insurgents remained in control of areas they overran at the start of the assault, and they have inflicted heavy casualties on pro-government forces during ongoing clashes.
The Taliban advances prompted top Afghan security officials to arrive in Kunduz later in the day along with the U.S. commander of international forces, General Scott Miller. A Kabul government spokesman, Feroz Bashari, said the officials will “lead clearance operations” against the insurgents. He also tweeted a picture of Miller with other officials from a meeting in the embattled city.
The latest battlefield insurgent attack came on a day when Taliban leaders resumed talks with U.S. interlocutors in the Gulf state of Qatar after taking a one-day break for internal consultations.
The crucial ninth round in the yearlong dialogue between the two adversaries in the 18-year-old Afghan war started on August 22 amid exceptions it would lead to a peace agreement. But it was not clear whether a deal was imminent.
The Taliban is pressing the United States and its NATO allies to pull out their troops from Afghanistan, while Washington wants counterterrorism guarantees from the insurgents, a nationwide cease-fire and the Taliban’s participation in intra-Afghan talks to permanently end hostilities in the country.
President Donald Trump said this week he plans to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from the current level of roughly 14,000. He would not discuss the fate of the residual force.
The Taliban has not responded to Trump’s latest statement, which runs counter to repeated insurgent assertions that in ongoing peace talks with the U.S., an understanding has been reached on a complete withdrawal of foreign troops.