Taliban captures major urban center in Afghanistan

For the first time since the 2001 Afghan war began, the Taliban have overrun a major city, easily brushing aside the Afghan security forces and sending them running.  Hundreds of Taliban fighters launched a multi-pronged attack on Kunduz that eventually led to the capture of the central city.

On Tuesday, the U.S. hit back with a series of air strikes, and the Afghan army prepared to move in and try to take the city of 300,000 back.

The city fell Monday, after hundreds of Taliban gunmen launched a coordinated, multi-pronged attack at several points around the city. After a day of fierce fighting, they managed to overrun government buildings and hoisted their flag in the city square. The fast-moving assault took the military and intelligence authorities by surprise.

U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, the spokesman for the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, said the early Tuesday morning airstrike was conducted "in order to eliminate a threat to the force" — though there were no foreign troops left inside the city. He did not elaborate if more airstrikes would follow.

Afghanistan rushed military reinforcements to the region and began an operation to retake the city, according to a Defense Ministry statement. A newly-built police headquarters and the prison in Kunduz were already freed from the Taliban and taken back, the statement said.

That claim could not independently be verified as the city was off limits to media. Residents, reached over the phone by The Associated Press, said sporadic gunfire could still be heard around the city on Tuesday morning. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.

During the Taliban assault on the city on Monday, the insurgents had freed around 600 inmates — including 144 members of the Taliban — from Kunduz prison, officials said.

In Kabul, the National Security Council was to meet later Tuesday over the fall of Kunduz, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss government plans.

The International Red Cross said it had evacuated two of its three international staff from Kunduz, flying them to the nearby city of Mazar-I-Sharif. The U.N. office in Kunduz was also evacuated.

The city's fall comes as Ghani marks one year office. The president, who has staked his presidency on pledges of bringing peace to Afghanistan and who seeks to draw the Taliban to peace talks, was to address the nation later Tuesday.

It doesn't sound like much of a counterattack if residents are hearing only "sporadic" gunfire.  While you would expect the Afghan army to limit civilian casualties, the prouncements from the government sound an awful lot like the promises made by the Iraqi government to retake Mosul and Ramadi. 

Kunduz is a key strategic region in Afghanistan, and the loss of the country's richest city is a blow to the government's prestige:

The Kunduz defeat is an embarrassing setback for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who's had a troubled first year in office. He took power after a lengthy political standoff with his main rival that paralyzed government. Problems have continued since then, including the inability to find a nominee for the key role of defense minister whom lawmakers will approve.

"The country's deep and broad political divisions and wounds, exacerbated by the presidential election, have not begun to heal," the Brookings report said.

The Taliban resurgence and the increasingly apparent shortcomings of the Afghan security forces are likely to do further damage to [President] Ghani's leadership credentials.

"The army by its retreat yesterday, and the police by their retreat as well, have really shown that there are question marks over the government's ability to impose its writ in Kunduz, at least in the short term," Robertson said.

And so, our brilliant strategy to leave Afghanistan before the job was done continues to bear rotten fruit.  The Taliban has been taking over entire provinces since our departure and the government is unable to defend even its most strategic locations.  Poorly equipped and poorly led, the Afghan army wilts at the first sign of combat, making it likely that nothing can stop the Taliban from regaining control of the country.