KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN – Afghan security forces “repelled” a coordinated Taliban assault on the northern city of Kunduz on Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani said, even as the insurgents claimed to have captured important city buildings.
The multipronged Taliban offensive on Kunduz, which has come under frequent attack since 2015, occurred as U.S. and insurgent negotiators continue to seek an agreement in Doha that would see thousands of American troops leave Afghanistan in return for security guarantees.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators are “at the threshold of an agreement” to end 18 years of conflict between them, Washington’s top negotiator said Sunday as he concluded their latest talks.
The foes have been meeting in Doha to conclude a deal under which the Taliban would give security guarantees in return for sharp reductions to the 13,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan.
“We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honorable and sustainable peace,” tweeted Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad added that he would travel to Kabul later Sunday “for consultations” following the end of the eighth and final day of the latest round of talks.
U.S. troops were first sent to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks carried out by al-Qaida, which was sheltered by the former Taliban regime.
Washington now wants to end its military involvement — the longest in its history — and has been talking to the Taliban since at least 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously said he hoped a deal would be finalized before September ahead of Afghan polls this month and next year’s U.S. presidential vote.
The agreement will center on the U.S. withdrawing troops in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a jihadi safe haven.
Negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and an eventual cease-fire, will also be key pillars of any deal.
The apparent final phase of talks follows an excruciating few months for Afghans.
The war-torn nation’s people have watched on largely voiceless as U.S. negotiators cut a deal with the Taliban while largely sidelining the government.
In Kunduz, officials said the fighting started around 1 a.m. when Taliban militants advanced on the city from several directions.
Gunfire could be heard across Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province near the Tajik border. As the day wore on both sides claimed that units from the other’s forces were surrendering.
By Saturday evening, the Afghan government said it had gained the upper hand.
The Taliban “wanted to create an atmosphere of fear in the city … but their attack was repelled by our brave security forces,” Ghani said in a statement.
But shortly after that announcement, reports emerged of a suicide attacker targeting the local police chief as he spoke to reporters.
Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said 10 people were killed and the police chief was wounded. It was not immediately clear what had happened and whether any journalists were among the dead.
A few hours earlier, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that several important structures were captured in the attack.
“The Taliban attacked Kunduz city from several directions this morning. We are in the city now capturing government buildings one after the other,” he told reporters.
U.S. aircraft supported the Afghan air force in joint airstrikes, a U.S. official told AFP, while American trainers gave advice to Afghan ground troops.
Rahimi said “hundreds of Taliban terrorists had been killed,” but there was no way to immediately verify the claim.
An AFP journalist in Kunduz said small-arms and heavy-weapons fire could be heard in four areas of the city — but by mid-morning the reports ceased as most area cellphone coverage was cut.
On Thursday, a U.S. commando was killed in the southern province of Zabul, marking at least the 15th American combat death in Afghanistan this year.
U.S. Gen. Scott Miller, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, visited Kunduz as Saturday’s fighting was ongoing.
The Taliban attack shows they “don’t believe in the peace opportunity provided by the U.S. and the government of Afghanistan,” Ghani spokesman Sediq Sediqqi wrote on Twitter.
“On the one hand they are talking with the U.S., on the other hand they are attacking people’s houses and villages. We will not leave their attack unanswered.”
In late September 2015, the Taliban attacked Kunduz, overwhelming local forces and briefly seizing the city. It was only through extensive U.S. air support that the Taliban were repelled.
The event garnered particular global attention after a U.S. gunship struck a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), killing dozens of patients and staffers.
The fall of Kunduz also underscored the vulnerability of Afghan security forces and played a role in stopping the pull-out of U.S. forces under president Barack Obama.
Since then the city has come under frequent Taliban attack, but the insurgents have been unable to repeat a full capture.