Both al Qaeda and an emerging Islamic State are making gains simultaneously in Afghanistan, providing the biggest test to date for an Afghan National Security Force handed the operational lead by the U.S.
The Institute for the Study of War in Washington reported on Tuesday that Taliban militants now control Kunduz province. They are members of the Islamic Jihad Union, which supports Taliban leader Mullah Mansour and al Qaeda.
“The fall of Kunduz to Taliban militants is a significant blow to the ability of ANSF forces to retain control throughout the country,” ISW said. “It is the first provincial capital to be seized by Taliban forces for any length of time, and the withdrawal of the ANSF from the city portends difficulty in retaking the city.”
In the city of Kunduz, the Taliban fanned out in full force Tuesday, closing roads, throwing up checkpoints and torching government buildings as residents huddled indoors, fearful of renewed fighting as Afghan forces deployed for a counteroffensive.
U.S. warplanes carried out an early-morning airstrike on Taliban positions, but government ground troops sent to try to retake the city, one of Afghanistan’s wealthiest and most strategic, were stalled by roadblocks and ambushes, unable to move closer than about a mile toward their target.
Meanwhile, Wilayat Khorasan, the Islamic State affiliate, showed on Sunday that it now has the men and weapons to mount a coordinated attack on Afghan forces in Nangarhar province.
The Islamic State, known also as ISIL and ISIS, is also showing that its headquarters in Syria can muster a new army miles away. The Islamic State can now both threaten the U.S.-backed government and fight the Taliban for ultimate control of Afghanistan.
“ISIS will likely continue to conduct attacks to reestablish its claim in Nangarhar in order to exploit Taliban weaknesses,” the ISW said. “ISIS also has greater reason to demonstrate its strength outside of Iraq and Syria because of the threat of Russian mobilization in Syria.”
At the Pentagon, Press Secretary Peter Cook voiced confidence in the Afghan forces and acknowledged there are some Americans in Kanduz on training missions.
“Obviously this is a setback for the Afghan security forces. But we’ve seen them respond in recent weeks and months to the challenges they faced, and they are doing the same thing in Kanduz right now,” Mr. Cook said. “Again, we have confidence in their ability to take on the Taliban in Kanduz. This was clearly a setback. I’m not sure it reflects any new assessment of the Taliban at this point.”
The fall of the city of 300,000 inhabitants — the first urban area taken by the Taliban since the U.S. invasion ousted their regime 14 years ago — is a major setback to President Ashraf Ghani, who has staked his presidency on bringing peace to Afghanistan and seeking to draw the Taliban to peace talks.
In a televised address, he vowed to take Kunduz back from the insurgents, urging the nation to trust Afghan troops to do the job.
“The enemy has sustained heavy casualties,” he said. “The enemy’s main objective was to create fear and terror.”
Acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai said the fighters had infiltrated the city during the recent Eid holiday, the biggest of the year, when millions of Afghans move around the country to spend time with family.
The Taliban fighters were reinforced by militants who came from neighboring Pakistan after being driven out by a military offensive, as well as from China and Central Asia, Mr. Stanekzai said.
The fierce, multipronged assault took the Afghan military and intelligence agencies off guard after what had appeared to be a stalemate throughout the summer between Taliban forces besieging the city and government troops defending it.
“None of the security forces or officials had any information about the attack; if they had, they would have warned the NGOs, the U.N. and the banks, but they didn’t,” said one Kunduz resident, a banker who escaped the city late Monday and spoke to The Associated Press in Kabul.
“Yesterday it was possible for people to get out of the city, but today it is too late because all roads are under the Taliban control,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
A NATO officer said more airstrikes were unlikely as “all the Taliban are inside the city, and so are all the people.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media on the issue.
His words suggested the fight to retake the city would involve painstaking street-by-street fighting as government forces try to avoid civilian casualties in retaking control.
Inside the city, residents were stunned by the audacity of the insurgents, who attacked Kunduz on a number of fronts before dawn on Monday, taking the government, intelligence agency and military by surprise.
The insurgents used mosque loudspeakers to try to reassure people they were safe. But residents, recalling the group’s brutality during its 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, were fearful of what was to come.
“Kunduz is a ghost city now — fear has locked people inside their homes,” said Folad Hamdad, a local freelance journalist who escaped late Monday to neighboring Takhar province.
He said Taliban gunmen were going door to door “searching for government officials, local police commanders, anyone they can think of. No one is safe.”
Kunduz and the surrounding province, also called Kunduz, have a total population of around 1 million. The region is one of the country’s chief breadbaskets and has rich mining assets. It lies on a strategic crossroads connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan, China and Central Asia.
The insurgents have had a heavy presence in the province since launching their annual summer offensive with an assault on the city in April. That marked the start of a campaign across the north, with attacks reported in recent days in neighboring Takhar province. Officials say the Taliban has allied with other insurgent groups to boost numbers and firepower. The region’s natural resources, as well as proximity to smuggling routes into Central Asia for drugs, minerals and weapons, make it an attractive prize for the insurgents.
Afghan security forces have been sorely tested by the fighting following the withdrawal late last year of international combat troops. Army and police have suffered huge casualties, and their resources have been spread thinly across the country as the Taliban have taken their fight to topple the Kabul government to every corner of Afghanistan.
The United Nations evacuated international staff from Kunduz about five hours after the attack began at 3 a.m. Monday. Other nongovernment organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross, also evacuated some international staff, and photographs from the city showed gunmen riding around in U.N. and ICRC vehicles.
The number of dead and wounded in the fighting was unclear as overwhelmed health workers struggled to treat the injured and verify how many had died.
“We fear that many more civilians may be harmed if fighting continues over the next few days,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, adding that the U.N. was “seeking to verify reports that at least 110 civilians were killed and injured.”
He urged all parties to the conflict to take “all measures to protect civilians from harm.”
Public Health Ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar said on his Twitter account that Kunduz hospitals had received “172 wounded patients and 16 dead bodies so far.”
• This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.