1 August 2015, NYT: Taliban Pick New Chief and 2 Hard-Line Deputies
31 July 2015, NYT: Death of Mullah Omar Exposes Divisions Within Taliban
30 July 2015, NYT: Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Died in 2013, Afghans Declare
23 July 2015, NYT: Afghan Security Forces Struggle Just to Maintain Stalemate
25 May 2015, NYT: Afghans Form Militias and Call on Warlords to Battle Taliban
23 October 2014, NYT: Taliban Are Rising Again in Afghanistan's North
SEPT. 28, 2015
Taliban Fighters Capture Kunduz City as Afghan Forces Retreat
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN and MUJIB MASHAL
KABUL, Afghanistan -- After months of besieging the northern Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, Taliban fighters took over the city on Monday just hours after advancing, officials said, as government security forces fully retreated to the city's outlying airport.
The Taliban's sudden victory, after what had appeared to be a stalemate through the summer,  gave the insurgents a military and political prize -- the capture of a major Afghan city -- that had eluded them since 2001. And it presented the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has been alarmed about insurgent advances in the surrounding province  for a year, with a demoralizing setback less than a year after the formal end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials vowed that a counterattack was coming, as commando forces were said to be flowing by air and road to Kunduz. But by nightfall, the city itself belonged to the Taliban. Their white flag was flying over several public areas of Kunduz, residents said.
Announcing their victory, the Taliban issued a statement saying that the group "has no intention" of looting or carrying out extrajudicial killings.
But witness accounts and videos posted to social media showed some scenes of chaos. The insurgents had set fire to police buildings, and witnesses reported that jewelry shops were being looted, though by whom was unclear.
The Taliban also appeared to have freed hundreds of inmates from the city's prison. One video showed a crowd gathered around the city's main traffic circle, responding to the chants of a Taliban fighter. "Death to America! Death to the slaves of America!" the fighter shouted into a megaphone, as the crowd responded: "Death to Mir Alam! Death to Nabi Gechi!" Both of those men are local militia commanders fighting on the side of the government.
The Taliban's largest victory in years came just over a week before the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, is expected to return to Washington to testify before Congress about the course of the war and what America's continued involvement should be. Some 10,000 American troops are in the country, many of them focused on training or advising the Afghan forces, and the White House has not yet decided whether to keep a force of that number here for another year or begin pulling them from the country in the coming months.
Hanging over that briefing will be the fall of a significant Afghan regional center that came about not so much because of an overwhelming offensive by the Taliban but because of a collapse under pressure by the country's Western-trained security forces.
For a year, local officials had been sounding the alarm about the insurgents' advance toward Kunduz, even as some Afghan and Western officials had sought to describe the Taliban's gains in Afghanistan as marginal and largely confined to rural areas, far from population centers.
One security official briefed on the situation in Kunduz estimated that the Taliban force in the city numbered 500, a small fraction of the thousands of government security forces and allied militiamen based in the city and in the surrounding areas.
A district governor who had retreated to the airport on Monday, Zalmai Farooqi, estimated that the government may have had as many as 7,000 troops in the area. "The problem wasn't lack of security forces," Mr. Farooqi said, "but there was no good leadership to command these men."
Now, the fall of Kunduz, which was one of the centers of the American troop surge  five years ago, stands as a direct challenge to assurances by American and Afghan officials that the Afghan security forces can hold the country's most important cities.
The city of Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz Province, is an important northern hub of just over 300,000 residents, according to one Afghan government population estimate from 2013, although there has been a large outflow of refugees  this past year and the population is probably lower now.
Despite the city's encirclement over the past few months, there appears to have been little effort by the NATO-trained Afghan security forces  to dislodge insurgents from the city's outskirts.
Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, the head of the Kunduz provincial council, said that no major government offensive or reinforcement of the city had been taken up recently, even though it was clear the Taliban had been massing at the city's gates for months. He said 70 percent of the province outside the city also remained under Taliban control.
"The central government is neglecting Kunduz and its people," Mr. Ayoubi said. "The local officials are incompetent, which is a major reason for the presence of the Taliban."
Mr. Alam, one of the main militia commanders involved in the city's defense, said he was retreating to his stronghold north of the city. Mr. Alam, who is believed to have hundreds and perhaps thousands of men in his network, said the government had called on neighboring provinces to each send 350 men as reinforcements, but few appeared to have done so.
"Those provinces had their own security problems," Mr. Alam said by phone. "How could they send their reserved units to Kunduz? I don't see any reinforcement coming to retake Kunduz City back."
By Monday night, however, other officials reported that convoys of reinforcements had begun to gather at the Kunduz airport, south of the city, where a large force of Afghan commandos had landed as well.
Still in question was what the American military might do to help in the effort. American officials reached for comment Monday night would not discuss what kind of response was being considered.
But even as American warplanes have heavily bombed Taliban positions in southern Helmand Province in recent months, it remained to be seen whether General Campbell would order airstrikes -- and risk civilian casualties -- around one of Afghanistan's larger cities.
It is possible that a counterattack by Afghan commandos to seize the city would bring American forces into proximity with the fighting. American Special Forces remain attached with commando units as advisers and often appear on the battlefield to direct air support.
The collapse of a major city could not have come at a worse time for President Ghani, or at a better one for the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. 
Mr. Ghani, who completes one year in office on Tuesday, has found himself under significant public pressure, as his national unity government has remained stagnant on almost every front.
For Mullah Mansour, however, the capture of a major city, which eluded the Taliban's late leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, will help cement his legitimacy  as the insurgency's leader. He has struggled with dissent in the ranks  ever since Mullah Omar's death  was confirmed in late July -- along with revelations that he had actually died two years before  and that Mullah Mansour had been running the movement in his name.
That Mr. Mansour's forces -- led locally by the Taliban shadow governor for Kunduz Province, Mullah Abdul Salam -- managed to overrun a major city far from the insurgent strongholds near the Pakistani border will be a point well noticed by his challengers within the movement.
The fall of Kunduz, a major gateway to northern neighboring countries like Tajikistan, is likely to have repercussions for the spread of the insurgency and the morale of the Afghan security forces, the political analyst Haroun Mir said. Most notably, the Taliban have managed to puncture the main narrative of the Afghan government: that although violence may have spread in the countryside, the insurgency lacked the strength to threaten cities.
Similar collapses of major cities in the 1990s, when the Taliban made their first appearance, proved catastrophic to the incumbent government at the time, shattering the morale of its security forces.
"The Taliban don't need to try to hold on to the city with heavy casualties, and the way they have acted -- loot banks, burn buildings -- shows they don't plan to hold it, either," Mr. Mir said. "They don't have the manpower in the north to hold a city as big as Kunduz. But they have achieved what they wanted, which is to strike a major blow to the government."
The fighting in Kunduz began at dawn on Monday, with bands of Taliban fighters advancing from three directions, said Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial police. In some places, the insurgents fought police forces, but in other neighborhoods, their advance was mostly unopposed.
By early morning the Taliban had already raised their white flag in parts of the city and had reached the central hospital in the Seh Darak neighborhood.
A doctor in the hospital said by telephone that after searching room to room for wounded members of the Afghan security forces, the insurgents posed for photos,  apparently as proof that they had been there, and left.
Abdullah Khan, who works as a mechanic, said the militants had faced little resistance in his neighborhood.
"It was around 7 a.m. when six or seven Taliban fighters raised their flag in the main roundabout and people started fleeing," Mr. Khan said.
Throughout the day, pictures circulated on social media of gunmen standing in the street carrying white flags. Using mosque loudspeakers, Taliban fighters claimed they would capture the city, one security official briefed on the events in Kunduz said.
While Taliban checkpoints blocked most roads out of the city, some families were fleeing the city by a side road that appeared to be open.
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.
By The New York Times