Since the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, the southern and predominantly ethnic Pashtun insurgency has faced fierce resistance from militia groups in the north known as the Northern Alliance. Even when the insurgency seized control of Kabul in 1996, the Northern Alliance deprived the group of a complete takeover for the course of their five-year rule.
But over the past decade, the Taliban have courted fighters from Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to lay the groundwork for their current military campaign. They found scores of eager recruits among people who were unhappy with the presence of foreign forces and who despised Northern Alliance leaders for corruption and for cooperating with the American “occupation.”
With the capture of 11 cities in seven days, and more than half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts since May, that recruitment strategy appears to have paid off. N\
“The north is strategic for the Taliban, because they believe if they can capture these non-Pashtun areas, then they can easily take control of the south and the capital, Kabul,” said Ramish Salemi, a political analyst in Kabul.
As the insurgents captured those cities — releasing hundreds of inmates from prisons, hoisting their flag over town squares and sending victorious fighters surging through their streets — they have set off mass panic. Thousands of residents have fled their homes, fearing life under Taliban rule or a return of brutal urban combat if government security forces try to retake the cities.
Sayed Mohammad Alizada, 40, a resident of Kunduz, spent more than a month waking up to the unrelenting sound of mortars and gunfire in the distance. Then one night early last month, as the front lines crept deeper into his neighbourhood, a mortar landed outside his home. Finally, he fled on Sunday, hours after the Taliban seized the city.
“I thought if they kept firing mortars, I could lose my entire family, even myself,” said Alizada, who was injured by crossfire during the battle. “It was the most intense fighting we’ve ever seen.”
Sitting across from an open door in his living room, he had felt the sharp pain of shrapnel tearing through his left shoulder. Within minutes, he and his family crammed into his rickshaw and sped toward the hospital as clashes between government troops and Taliban fighters broke out blocks away.
By the time he left Kunduz on Sunday, the city he knew was almost unrecognisable: The buildings were bullet-riddled. The roads were pock-marked with craters from mortar fire. Outside his house, a mulberry tree had been split in two by a mortar.
His was one of the more than 6,000 families who have been displaced from Kunduz since the Taliban seized the city, according to Mohammad Yousef Khadam, head of emergency situations for Kunduz’s refugees and repatriations department.
Many families have fled to Kabul, where a fenced-in basketball court in a park downtown has been transformed into a place of refuge. Displaced people huddled together under makeshift lodging consisting of little more than large olive-green bed sheets stretched across four wooden poles.
As people arrived Sunday night, they searched for any space they could find. Women and children slept side by side on a patchwork of red Afghan rugs. One woman cradling an infant begged for a doctor to visit the camp. She had slept in the biting cold in the park the night before, she said, and her daughter had become sick.
“If we would have stayed maybe we all would have died,” said Fariba, 35, who recently arrived at the camp and, like many Afghans, only goes by one name. At first, she thought the battle in Kunduz would turn in the government’s favour, but as shelling increased around her home in recent days, her family decided to flee.
Some men who fled Kunduz recounted how their neighbourhoods had been ravaged by mortar fire. Taliban fighters, the men said, would burst into homes, yelling, “Put your hands up!” Yet outside was no safer. There were running gunbattles on the streets, the men said, and stray bullets seemed to be flying everywhere.
Abdul Qadir Toryalay Momeen, 37, gestured to a throng of people around him.
“This number is going to grow,” he said.
Momeen, a butcher in Kunduz, fled the city on Sunday night after one of his sons was wounded by an errant artillery round and lost his hand. The 7-year-old boy is now being treated at the children’s hospital in Kabul after spending around 12 hours in a car as he bled.
This was the third time they had fled from their home, he said. The first was when the Taliban briefly captured Kunduz in 2015 and then again a year later, when the Taliban took it again. Both previous times, Afghan forces had pushed the insurgents back with help from US drone strikes.
This time, he says, he fears his family will never return to their home.
The Afghan government must decide whether to reconstitute its forces around the territory it holds — including Kabul, which could soon come under attack — or try to retake their fallen cities.
US air strikes in support of the Afghan forces have been muted and prominently concentrated away from the north. On Friday, as Afghan troops reeled from their defeats across the country, it was clear that the United States was not coming to their rescue.
The New York Times