An Afghan soldier raises his hands as a victory sign, in Kunduz city, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Dehsabzi)
KABUL, Afghanistan – The new leader of the Afghan Taliban said Friday that the capture of the northern city of Kunduz this week was a “symbolic victory” that showed the strength of the insurgency — even though the Taliban pulled out of the city after three days.
Still, the three-day occupation of Kunduz was “a historic event,” which was “celebrated by the ordinary people of the city,” claimed Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Mansoor, who spoke to The Associated Press over the telephone from an unknown location, was appointed the Taliban leader in August, after revelations that the group’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had died more than two years ago.
The Taliban captured Kunduz in a blitz Monday and held it until Afghan government forces pushed them out on Thursday. The fall and three-day occupation of this important city of 300,000 residents, along a strategic road to the border with Tajikistan, was a huge boost for Mansoor whose leadership of the Taliban had been questioned from the start.
At the same time, it was a humbling defeat for Afghan 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over whether the U.S.-trained military was capable of defending the country now that most coalition forces have withdrawn.
“The victory is a symbolic victory for us, and moreover, it is also a historical event which will be remembered,” Mansoor said. “People who said we were a small force with an unchosen leader can now see how wrong they were about the potential and strength my people have.”
The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since their 1996-2001 regime was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion. Kunduz was the first provincial capital and urban area they have taken since then.
Ghani has launched an investigation into how the Taliban, with only a few hundred gunmen, could have overwhelmed the city defended by a few thousand government troops.
A statement from Ghani’s office on Friday said initial reports indicated the Taliban had looted and burned government property, as well as offices of non-government organizations such as the U.N, shops and media outlets, and that they committed “rape, torture and murder.”
The statement offered no details on the allegations of those atrocities but Amnesty International and U.N.’s representative in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, have also cited reports of extrajudicial killings and kidnappings in Kunduz during the battle over the city.
In Kunduz, residents said sporadic firefights continued Friday as troops swept the city street-to-street to dislodge militants still hiding in people’s homes. There was no water and electricity, and supplies of food and other basics were yet to come in. Hospitals were running short of medicines and facing staffing problems, doctors said.
“We urgently need medical supplies because the battle is still going on and so we expect more casualties,” said Saad Mukhar, head of the city’s public health department, adding that supplies sent from Kabul were being held up on the way.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had supplies ready to be flown into Kunduz as soon as the airport reopened. “Medical staff in the city cannot get to the hospitals because of the on-going fighting,” Kunduz-based doctor Peter Esmith Ewoi said in an ICRC statement.
The spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, Wahidullah Mayar, tweeted that 60 people had been killed and around 400 wounded in the fighting since Monday. Most of the residents spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.
Meanwhile, there were reports the Taliban were taking advantage of a security void elsewhere as Afghan troops from neighboring provinces had been redeployed to Kunduz.
Qudratullah Zaki, a lawmaker from Takhar province, adjacent to Kunduz, said militants attacked three districts there before being repelled. In the Khwajar Ghar district, Afghan forces fought a four-hour gunbattle with militants, said the province’s spokesman, Sanatullah Timor.
Residents in Takhar and districts around Kunduz city were reported arming themselves in case the Taliban move into their areas. In Badakhshan province, east of Takhar, Taliban raided Wardoj district, forcing government troops to retreat after heavy battles Friday, the provincial governor’s spokesman Ahmad Nawid Frutan said.
Mansoor said the success of the Kunduz takeover had also allegedly countered Afghan government propaganda “that the people of Afghanistan are against the Taliban and want to rid them from their country.”
The city’s seizure has rattled many in Afghanistan, concerned that the Taliban’s expanding footprint could mean they are gearing for a more intense war with Afghan troops. Before this year’s summer fighting season began, Afghanistan’s northern region was not known for a strong Taliban presence, unlike the country’s south and east. But Kunduz sits on lucrative smuggling routes for drugs, minerals and weapons to and from the Central Asian states, where many of the non-Afghan fighters who have joined the Taliban originate, officials have said.
The capture of Kunduz has also seriously tarnished Ghani’s reputation, according to 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,” Mir said.
Initially, Mansoor’s appointment caused a huge and public rift in the Taliban, whose leadership is said to be based in neighboring Pakistan, when Mullah Omar’s family objected to the appointment, though they later rallied behind Mansoor.
The takeover of Kunduz was allegedly run by one of Mansoor’s own appointees, Mullah Abdul Salam, and could help shore up his legitimacy in the leadership position.
Mansoor is also likely to use the Kunduz operation to push a more populist image of the Taliban, remembered for their extremist interpretation of Islam and brutality under Mullah Omar.
Mansoor told the AP that his fighters who entered Kunduz had tactically avoided residential areas and civilian casualties.
“We were making sure to cause minimum civilian casualties but then the police forces and government security forces, to hide their shameful defeat, started to open fire on everyone, not caring if they were killing the Taliban or innocent civilians,” Mansoor said, adding that Afghan officials’ claims of killing 200 militants in the retaking of Kunduz were a “white lie.”
The Taliban rejected a report by Amnesty late Thursday that included allegations of rape, killings and targeting of women’s rights activists by the insurgents in Kunduz.
At the end of Friday’s interview, Mansoor warned of more Taliban operations like Kunduz.
“We are hoping to hit this government harder every time and win back our land from these tyrants,” he said.