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US-backed Afghan forces fighting to retake Kunduz from Taliban

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Associated Press

(Read caption) A Taliban supporter removed leaders' pictures in the main square of Kunduz, Afghanistan on Tuesday, one day after the Taliban attacked the city and overwhelmed Afghan forces.

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Afghan forces backed by United States air support launched a counter-offensive Tuesday to recapture the northern city of Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents overran it. 

Kunduz is the first major city the Taliban have captured in 14 years. The fast-moving assault – one of the group’s biggest since being ousted from power in 2001 – took Afghan military and intelligence authorities by surprise. By the end of Monday, Taliban fighters had hoisted their flag in the city square and freed hundreds of prisoners from a local jail.

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The fall of the provincial capital “dealt a major blow to Afghanistan's NATO-trained security forces and spotlighted the insurgency's potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds,” reports Agence France-Presse. The brazen assault was also a reminder of how fragile Afghanistan remains after more than a decade of US and NATO counterinsurgency operations and tens of billions of dollar in foreign aid. 

Afghan forces tried to fight their way Kunduz in an operation launched Tuesday morning. But their progress has been slow, delayed by ambushes and roadside bombs, reports The New York Times.

While the Defense Ministry reports that troops have managed to clear the police headquarters and city prison, most of Kunduz, a city of some 300,000 residents, remains under Taliban control. Many analysts predict a difficult fight ahead.

“The Taliban are strolling around freely like this is their home,” Ghulam Rabbani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, told The Times. “They took a lot of weapons from the intelligence agency’s office, weapons that were stocked for arming pro-government militias. We fear that there was cash and vehicles also.”

US forces carried out an airstrike outside the city on Tuesday to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces, said Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan. He did not say if more airstrikes would follow, reports the Associated Press.

The assault on Kunduz is a major setback for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who marked his first year in power on Tuesday. He had pledged to bring peace to Afghanistan and to draw the Taliban into peace negotiations. But as The Washington Post reports:

The seizure of the city would give Taliban insurgents a critical base of operations beyond their traditional strongholds in Afghanistan’s south. Afghan government leaders and the U.S.-led coalition here view the battle for Kunduz as a key test of the Afghan security forces in their continuing fight with the Taliban.

The fall of the city is also a major blow to US-led military efforts in Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year that the country had received $62.5 billion from the US to help build its security forces.

Yet the Taliban is still potent. And though the country made considerable steps forward over the last decade, much of that money was wasted due to mismanagement, lack of oversight, and corruption.

Whether the US and Afghanistan learn from these mistakes will be critical to ongoing efforts to develop the war-torn country. And for the US, any lessons learned could prove vital for future foreign aid and development efforts – provided the negativities aren't airbrushed away.