By Hamid Shalizi and Kay Johnson
KABUL (Reuters) - Under cover of darkness, groups of Taliban fighters carrying rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons sneaked through fields and villages toward the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from four directions.
Before sunrise, they had overrun at least eight of dozens of police perimeter checkpoints, each staffed by 15-20 men, that were the sole protection for the city center, according to witnesses and senior Afghan officials.
By sunset, the Taliban had effectively seized control of their first provincial capital in nearly 14 years of war.
As details surfaced of Kunduz's stunning capture, a picture emerged of a carefully coordinated insurgent assault, and of Afghan police and soldiers who were surprised, overwhelmed and unprepared to fight inside a major city.
"The Taliban were attacking from several directions and we did not know what to do," Kunduz deputy governor Abdullah Danishy said.
"The policemen at the outposts were there to provide security, but not to respond to such a large-scale attack."
It was a frank admission that points to the limitations of Afghan security forces, numbering some 352,000, upon which the United States has spent $61 billion to train and equip.
That effort has been the main thrust of Washington's exit strategy from Afghanistan, nearly 14 years after the United States led a military campaign to drive the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime from power for harboring the al Qaeda network.
"IT WAS TOO LATE"
Afghan reinforcements backed by U.S. air support battled to retake Kunduz on Tuesday, but faced fierce resistance and were hampered by a reluctance to use attack helicopters and heavy artillery in urban areas crowded with civilians.
Some Afghan officials believe that lack of readiness for urban warfare was why Kunduz fell so quickly once insurgents were inside the city limits.
"This is the first experience for Afghan forces to battle insurgents inside a major city," said Abdul Wadud Paiman, a member of parliament from Kunduz.
"They might not have such training and that's why they were confused and did not know what to do."
A senior Afghan government official agreed.
"Once the Taliban were inside the city, it was too late," said the official, who was familiar with Monday's events.
The U.S. and NATO training mission in Afghanistan declined immediate comment on events in Kunduz, but a spokesman defended the overall performance of fledgling Afghan security forces.
"They've understandably struggled at times to adjust. In light of these challenges, however, they've displayed remarkable courage and resilience," said Colonel Brian Tribus.
Interviews with Afghan officials and witnesses in Kunduz showed the swiftness with which the city fell.
The first attacks hit at least eight police checkpoints forming a perimeter around the city center.
Some questioned why Afghan National Police, and not better-armed army units or even special forces, were protecting the center of a city, especially given the Taliban had threatened to take it earlier this year.
"None of this should have come as a surprise to the security forces," said Omar Hamid, head of Asia analysis for IHS Country Risk security analysts.
"Under any normal tactical thinking, the Afghan forces would have put more seasoned troops in those positions."
Others noted that Kunduz officials had been asking for reinforcements for months.
"They asked for more troops but unfortunately did not get them," said Ghulam Bahawuddin Jilani, an Afghan politician.
TALIBAN LEARN FROM MISTAKES?
On Monday morning, Kunduz had about 2,000 national police and 3,000 soldiers protecting the city, backed by about 1,000 militiamen linked to local power brokers, Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini said.
If the battle for Kunduz exposed Afghan government forces' weaknesses, it also proved a public relations coup for the Taliban's tactical and strategic prowess.
U.S. and Afghan officials have this year sought to portray the Taliban as unable to take and hold major territory and weakened by confirmation of the death of the movement's founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The swift and well-planned assault on Kunduz, a city of 300,000, was intended to show the Taliban's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, is able to win in battle, a spokesman said.
"This is a message to those saying the Taliban had divided or weakened after Mullah Omar's death," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
He added that fighters who stormed Kunduz were under instruction to treat civilians well, admitting the movement had made mistakes in the past, including alienating the public with its brutal interpretation of Islamic law.
"There is a separate section within the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that will start its peaceful work later to invite people towards religion," Mujahid said, using the formal term used to describe the Taliban.
"They will not use any force or violence to force people into following sharia (Islamic law). We have learnt lessons from the past and will not repeat mistakes."
Whether the Taliban can hold Kunduz remains to be seen. Government reinforcements have been stalled by Taliban disruptions to supply routes, but may arrive overnight.
"I have no doubt the Afghan forces will retake Kunduz eventually," said IHS's Hamid. "But the damage to the reputation of Afghan forces is already done."
(Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in Kabul and Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan. Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)