was plunged deeper into crisis a day after the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz
, as the insurgents on Tuesday kept assaulting the reeling Afghan security forces and the government struggled to mount a credible response.
Not only did a promised government counteroffensive on Kunduz not make headway during heavy fighting on Tuesday, but the day ended with yet another aggressive Taliban advance, with insurgents surrounding the airport to which hundreds of Afghan forces and at least as many civilians had retreated, thinking it would be safe.
After more than a day of relative silence as the situation worsened around Kunduz, the American military showed the first signs of increased involvement in what the Pentagon called “a setback,” conducting at least two airstrikes, and reportedly more as attacks continued at the airport late Tuesday.
Beyond the Taliban’s gains in Kunduz, there was evidence that the insurgents were also pushing a broader offensive in northern Afghanistan, officials said. One particular point of concern was Takhar Province, just east of Kunduz, where the insurgents were said to be heavily assaulting military checkpoints and government facilities in several districts over the past two days.
Questions about how thousands of army, police and militia defenders could continue to fare so poorly against a Taliban force that most local and military officials put in the hundreds hung over President Ashraf Ghani’s government and its American allies.
In the hours after Kunduz’s fall, Afghan officials said an overwhelming Afghan Army force was on its way to retake the city. But by the end of the day on Tuesday, only a few hundred had materialized at the airport — a small fraction of the number who had fled the city the day before. Many more traveling by road were said to have been slowed by ambushes and roadside bombs, in another sign of growing Taliban control in Kunduz Province and nearby areas.
As the situation worsened on Tuesday, the Pentagon press secretary, Peter Cook, said in a news conference of the Kunduz fighting, “Obviously, this is a setback.” In addition to the airstrikes, he said, a number of coalition forces were with Afghan forces as advisers.
In a later statement, Mr. Cook said the Afghan military had “amassed a sizable force to retake city, numbering in the thousands.” He continued, “We are confident they will defeat the Taliban and restore the city to Afghan control.”
In Kunduz, the city’s limited medical facilities were overwhelmed with the flow of wounded, although the number of dead from the two days of fighting remained unclear. The main trauma center, run by Doctors Without Borders, had received 171 wounded, including 46 children, many of them in critical condition with gunshot wounds.
“We have 130 patients spread throughout the wards, in the corridors and even in offices,” said Guilhem Molinie, the representative in Afghanistan for the doctors’ group. “With the hospital reaching its limit and fighting continuing, we are worried about being able to cope with any new influx of wounded.”
The Taliban continued to consolidate their hold on the provincial capital, an important northern hub that has been the site of many bitter battles in the past two generations and that was the last major Taliban-held city to fall to the American-backed Northern Alliance offensive in 2001.
By the end of Monday, the insurgents had already set up checkpoints throughout the city, and they had issued edicts against looting. During the day on Tuesday, Taliban fighters roamed the city freely with chants blaring from their vehicles’ loudspeakers, according to residents reached by telephone. One man accused of being a thief, his mouth covered with material that bore illegible writing, was marched by Taliban fighters to the main city square, a resident said. He was forced to repent and was freed after elders intervened and the man promised not to steal again.
In a victory statement, the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, promised that his forces would not commit the sort of atrocities for which the Taliban are known. “The citizens of Kunduz city should be aware that the Islamic Emirate has no intention of transgressing against their personal property, carrying out extrajudicial killings, looting or breaching the inviolability of homes,” he said in the statement.
But the looting of institutions and businesses continued, including of the United Nations regional branch, the Afghan intelligence agency’s provincial office, two radio stations and a number of car dealerships. Even broken-down cars were being towed out of dealerships, residents said. A vault at the central bank’s Kunduz branch was blown up early Tuesday, residents said.
“The Taliban are strolling around freely like this is their home,” said Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, who like many Kunduz officials had retreated to the airport but was in touch with residents. “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.”
In a televised news conference, Mr. Ghani sought to assure the Afghan public that his forces would win back Kunduz, which was a city of about 300,000 people before it began emptying out during the recent months of Taliban encirclement.
Despite reports that a rout was continuing around Kunduz, the president insisted that it was more a matter of restraint by his security forces than of failure.
“The problem is that the treacherous enemy is using civilians as human shield,” Mr. Ghani said during his news conference, accompanied by his war cabinet. “The government of Afghanistan is an accountable government and cannot bombard inside the cities, and it will not.”
Some residents still in Kunduz described being terrified at what was to come — either from Taliban rule or from the urban warfare that was likely to intensify.
“There is a state of dread and distress in the city, although the Taliban has come to the mosques and the streets to call on people and tell them that they are safe,” Rahmatullah, a prominent Kunduz teacher who goes by just one name, said in a telephone interview.
By 10 p.m. on Tuesday, residents said American or Afghan aircraft could be heard overhead, although there were conflicting reports about whether they were dropping ordnance on Taliban positions outside the airport. Military officials said the Taliban could be heard on their military radios shouting “B-52s!” — long the Taliban cry to take cover from American air power.
The Kunduz police spokesman, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, said some American Special Forces soldiers had arrived at the airport Tuesday evening — although whether they were there to call in airstrikes or to otherwise join Afghan commandos in an attack on the city was not clear.
Government officials, including Mr. Hussaini, also claimed that the Taliban’s governor for Kunduz, Mullah Abdul Salam, had been killed in fighting near the airport late Tuesday. There were no details or other confirmation of the reports, however.