KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Government troops seized control of the strategic northern city of Kunduz on Thursday, the Afghan president announced, following a six-hour battle that saw the Taliban insurgents who had held it for three days largely melt away.
Despite the claim of victory, residents hunkered down inside their homes said they could still hear explosions and shootings in the provincial capital, whose fall to the Taliban was a humbling defeat for President Ashraf Ghani and raised questions over whether the U.S.-trained military was capable of defending the country now that most coalition forces have withdrawn.
"Intense fighting is continuing in the streets of the city," said Zabihullah, speaking by phone from his home near the main city square. "The situation is really critical and getting worse, and I've just heard a huge explosion from a bomb near my house."
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the operation to retake Kunduz was launched late Wednesday, with ground forces moving from the airport — where they had massed since the city fell — over roads that had been mined by the insurgents.
By 3:30 a.m. Thursday the battle was over, he said, and Kunduz was under government control. He conceded, however that troops were still going street to street to clear out final pockets of Taliban resistance, and it could be some time before all insurgents had been cleared from the city and its surrounding districts.
He said 200 fighters had been killed in the assault.
Ghani, appearing at a televised news conference with his defense and interior ministers, said the city was retaken with no fatalities among the government security forces. He praised the government troops, saying they "were able to foil one of the most significant operations in Afghanistan in 14 years."
But the "good news" from Kunduz, "should not make us complacent," Ghani warned. "The war is ongoing."
Earlier Thursday, the Taliban denied they had lost the city and the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that it was still in their hands. In remarks posted later on his Twitter account, he claimed that "life in Kunduz is normal" — an apparent attempt to refute government assertions that the insurgents had been driven out to the city's more far-flung neighborhoods.
Acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai said late in the day that sporadic clashes were still taking place. "Small guerrilla forces remain in various neighborhoods. We have to clear all the surrounding areas and open transport links so people can come and go," he said.
In the Bandr-i-Iman Sahib district in the west, resident Munib Khan said the Taliban were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and were putting up a heavy fight.
Kunduz, with a population of 300,000, fell under the control of Taliban-led militants on Monday, after a surprise pre-dawn attack took the government, military and intelligence agencies by surprise.
Its fall was a major setback for Ghani, whose pledge to bring peace when he took office a year ago is now largely discredited as a wave of panic at the prospect of more insurgent victories sweeps the country.
"Ghani's whole reputation is tarnished," said political analyst Haroun Mir. "We now have the very bad, but distinct impression that victory is with the Taliban. It wouldn't have mattered how long they held the city — even one hour would have been enough for them."
The goal of the insurgency was not to hold Kunduz — they have neither the manpower nor firepower to consolidate control of a large urban center. "Their goal was to inflict a big blow on the government. They achieved it and it will take a long time for the government to recover," Mir said. "There is huge panic across the country."
The insurgents have had their eye on the city for months, having launched a major attack in April, which was repelled, and a number of smaller subsequent attacks. Thousands of Afghan troops were deployed to the region, but the city appears to have fallen to a just a few hundred insurgent fighters, raising questions about Ghani's leadership and the competence of his appointees, not only in Kunduz but across the country.
At Thursday's news conference, Ghani announced the creation of a "security commission" to insure the city is made safe and an "investigative commission" to look into what went wrong.
The seizure of Kunduz marked the first time the Taliban has taken an urban center since their regime was crushed in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Michael Semple, professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Transformation and Justice at Queen's University in Belfast, described the seizure of Kunduz as a "raid" in which the insurgents looted weapons, ammunition and vehicles.
He said the Taliban had shown that under their new leader, Mullah Aktar Mansoor, they have become a disciplined and motivated fighting force that Ghani needs to take seriously.
"The fighters have taken the position that they don't care how he has been appointed," he said, referring to the controversy over Mansoor's selection to replace Mullah Mohammad Omar after the revelation in August that Omar had been dead for more than two years.
"The Taliban are a well-equipped, high-morale group, reasonably good at fighting as it tries to impose its will on the country."
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.