KABUL —Afghan forces massed near the besieged northern city of Kunduz on Tuesday, preparing for expected street-by-street battles against the Taliban a day after militants overran the city in a humiliating blow to Afghanistan’s government.
The counteroffensive started shortly before dawn as Afghan army reinforcements poured into the area after the U.S.-led coalition launched an airstrike to help clear the way.
The fight to reclaim Kunduz — Afghanistan’s sixth-largest city and a strategic gateway to central Asia — will serve as one of the Afghan military’s biggest tests in the 14-year war against the Taliban insurgency.
It also unfolds in a new and challenging backdrop: an urban setting where hundreds of thousands of civilians are holed up in their homes.
The counteroffensive started shortly before dawn as Afghan army reinforcements poured into the area and U.S. warplanes launched an airstrike to help clear the way.
A spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan said the American air attack sought to “eliminate a threat to the force.” Coalition officials did not specify the target nor whether the airstrikes will be followed up by others in a bid to regain control of the city.
Safiullah Ahmadi, a Kunduz official who is helping to oversee the government response, said in an interview that Afghan forces have already managed to retake control of the Kunduz police station, which the Taliban seized along with other major government buildings on Monday.
Kunduz police reported they had also regained control of the city prison, where more than 600 prisoners escaped during the Taliban blitz.
But Ahmadi said Taliban fighters still control large swaths of the city, which requires “a big operation” to dislodge them. He said warplanes were in the area, but “we would like not to rely on air power in order to avoid civilians causalities.”
The U.S. military still has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, but it was unclear Monday whether any American personnel were stationed near the fighting in Kunduz, about 150 miles north of Kabul.
Ahmadi said commandos and special forces were ferried in on helicopters. The Afghan defense ministry also said that hundreds of troops were sent to Kunduz.
Defense officials predicted Afghan forces would be able to quickly expel the estimated 500 Taliban fighters who control the city.
“The resistance of the enemy is weak and the advances of our the security are fast,” the defense ministry said.
But many analysts say the Taliban advance demonstrates that Afghanistan still lacks basic command-and-control procedures for managing its 352,000-man military and police force.
Afghan police officers stationed in Kunduz, for example, are believed to have simply abandoned their posts. Questions were also mounting over why more army personnel had not been stationed in Kunduz, which the Taliban had already attacked twice before this summer.
Taliban fighters looted banks and office buildings on Tuesday, according to a local police official. Pictures were circulating on social media showing Taliban fighters riding around in Red Cross vehicles.
The Taliban’s success in seizing the city on Monday was a humiliating setback for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is now struggling to manage the biggest crisis of one-year-old presidency.
“This incident will embolden the Taliban and similar incidents can happen in neighboring provinces because this government is incompetent,” said Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, an Afghan senator for Helmand Province, where the Taliban already controls large swaths of territory. “This government should resign . . . We had warnings about the fall of Kunduz. No one listened.”
At a press conference from Kabul, Ghani defended the military response to the crisis, saying the Taliban had managed to infiltrate the city as civilians over the weekend. They hid in houses, but suddenly burst out early Monday and quickly overwhelmed security officials who struggled to differentiate between militants and residents, Ghani said.
“The problem here is that a traitor enemy had turned the local population into a shield,” Ghani said. “The government of Afghanistan is a responsible government and can’t and won’t bomb its people, its countrymen, inside a city.”
In a sign of the strain facing the Afghan government, the country’s second-ranking leader, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, announced he was immediately leaving the United Nations General Assembly in New York early to return to Kabul.
In Washington, the fall of Kunduz is also raising new questions about President Obama’s pledge that he will withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next 16 months.
Pentagon leaders have indicated they may ask Obama to slow-down the planned drawdown of American forces.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, issued a statement comparing the fall of Kunduz to rise of Islamic State militants in Iraq.
“It is time that President Obama abandon this dangerous and arbitrary course and adopt a plan for U.S. troop presence based on conditions on the ground,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The fall of Kunduz was just one of several flash points on Tuesday as the military struggled to combat threats from both the Taliban as well militants aligned with the Islamic State.
In Nangahar Province in eastern Afghanistan, local officials reported that hundreds of Islamic State militants had attacked several outposts.
Afghan security force repelled the attacks, but the assault marked the second time in two days that hundreds of Islamic fighters had massed in the area, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo News.
Meanwhile, there were also reports that Taliban fighters were also threatening numerous small cities in Baghlan Province, which borders Kunduz province. Kunduz city is the provincial capital.
Haroun Mir, founder of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies, predicted that Afghan forces would be able to quickly regain control of Kunduz.
Despite their rapid advance Monday, Mir said the Taliban is still not a fighting force that is equipped to defend ground for extended periods of time. The Taliban already appears to be ferrying looted ammunition, military vehicles and computers out of the city, local officials said
“They are loading up trucks with stolen goods to carry them to their stronghold, because they know they can’t stay in Kunduz city much longer,” said Sultan Arab, a local police commander.
Still, even if the Taliban quickly retreats from Kunduz, Mir said “the damage is already done.”
“Who is responsible for this — the governor, the police chief, military leaders — is still not clear,” Mir said. “But it’s clear what happened in Kunduz, can happen anywhere. It can even happen in a city such as Kabul.”
Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report. Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.