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Taliban Seize A Major City, A Sign Of The Group's Resurgence


The U.S. military has ended its ground combat role in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban have not. And yesterday, the Taliban captured Kunduz. That's a major city in the north of Afghanistan, and it marks the first time the Taliban have held a major city since losing control of that country back in 2001. New York Times journalist Mujib Mashal is covering this story from Kabul.

Welcome to the program.

MUJIB MASHAL: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: I have to just say this is an incredible throwback. The city was captured from the Taliban 14 years ago. What happened?

MASHAL: It really is quite remarkable, actually. And we're still figuring - trying to figure out whether this shows the strength of the Taliban or the weakness of the government because this wasn't a dramatic capture. It was a slow collapse actually because for a couple years now the Taliban had surrounded the city. They had controlled large parts of the districts surrounding the city. And then in April and in June, they launched massive assault on the city. And the Taliban made it clear that Kunduz would be a big target this year in their fighting season as they try to gain territory in the north. So the warning signs have been there for the longest time.

INSKEEP: Did the government simply fail to respond?

MASHAL: I think a lot of analysts and a lot of folks in Kunduz are saying that, that the government failed to respond. Four, five months ago, they came very close to capturing the city. They took some of the suburbs of the city. And the government barely defended it, and it relied on militias - on very controversial militias to defend the city. So if they came so close to a major city for the first time in 14 years - a few months ago - why didn't the government send reinforcements? Why didn't the government launch clearance operations to push back the Taliban from the surrounding districts that were choking the city? That's where the questions are.

INSKEEP: Is there any way to know if perhaps the population of that city, or some large part of the population, sympathized with the Taliban side?

MASHAL: I think that's hard to tell. There were definitely abuses committed by the pro-government militias in the city, and the people have had grievances against the government for promoting those militias. But that doesn't mean the people would sympathize with people who committed tremendous atrocities 10 years ago, 15 years ago in that city. So the people still remember fresh the face of the Taliban. But I think the government didn't help itself in not providing the kind of services that people wanted - not only the government. We're talking about the American-led coalition promoting and further sort of empowering controversial, abusive local warlords there.

INSKEEP: Have U.S. officials been conscious of the fact that this could be a major embarrassment in recent months, and did they try to marshal very many resources to stop it?

MASHAL: I think so. I think everybody was aware because the main narrative in this war, especially in the past couple years, has been that, yes, violence is spreading in the countryside, but the Taliban are not a force to threaten or to take over a major urban site. That's been the narrative over the past couple years, both on the Afghan government side and also on the U.S. coalition side. Well, yesterday, the Taliban managed to puncture that narrative. I think they were all conscious and aware of how much of an embarrassment the fall of a major city would be. But the question remains why that fall wasn't prevented despite clear warning signs for months and months.

INSKEEP: Mujib Mashal of The New York Times, thanks very much.

MASHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.