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After Losing A City, Afghan Forces Fight To Push Back Taliban Advance


Afghan forces are fighting to retake the provincial capital of Kunduz. The Taliban controls most of the city. That's something that has not happened since U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban government in 2001. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan over the years, most recently embedded with Afghan forces this past spring. He's with us now in the studio. Welcome, Tom.


SHAPIRO: It was a huge event when Kunduz fell to Taliban forces. It had seemed until then that the Afghans were keeping them at bay. Now it seems that the government is fighting to regain control of the city. What is the latest?

BOWMAN: Well, the latest is Afghan president Ashraf Ghani says his troops are taking, building by building back, government buildings. They do hold the airport, and they say that roughly a hundred or so Taliban fighters have been killed. But also, dozens of civilians have been wounded, some of them killed. So it's still very much a pitched battle taking back Kunduz City.

SHAPIRO: And just the fact that this city fell to the Taliban in the first place, a provincial capital on a key supply line, seems like a really significant development.

BOWMAN: It is significant. Again, as you say, it's on a supply line into Tajikistan, into Northern - outside of Northern Afghanistan. Also, it's a big morale booster, a recruiting tool for the Taliban as well. Of course, their leader, Mohammed Omar - we found that he had died two years ago we found out this year. So they have new leadership. They want to make a big push. And this clearly is a big win for them.

SHAPIRO: Just today, there have been airstrikes in Kunduz. We know the U.S. is no longer involved in ground combat operations apart from a few focused counterterrorism missions. Is the U.S. playing a role in those airstrikes, and more broadly, what is American involvement in all of this?

BOWMAN: The U.S. has done airstrikes on - outside of Kunduz City on Taliban locations. And the thing, Ari, is that the Afghans really don't have much of an air force. They have some helicopters, some supply planes. They're building up their air force. But right now, they really on the Americans for any kind of airstrikes, and I heard that repeatedly when I was there in the spring. We need more American airstrikes. However, the Americans are only using them in extreme cases. This is only the second time this year the Americans have mounted airstrikes to help the Afghan forces. Earlier this year, they did it in Helmand Province. There was a lot of Taliban attacks out there.

SHAPIRO: Well, what does this major development - the Taliban takeover of Kunduz - say about the future of Afghanistan and about the future of the U.S. role there given that America plans to withdraw almost all of the troops by next year?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the Afghan troops have been pretty much holding their own around the country. Taliban have been sort of eating away at certain portions of the country - Kunduz City, of course. And also in the East along the the Pakistan border, they've lost some ground, and also to the southwest in Helmand Province, they've lost a bit of ground there as well. But overall, they've been holding their own, so this will be a big test to see if they can push the Taliban out and retake the city.

As far as the Americans are concerned, there are roughly 10,000 American troops there now. Most of them are trainers. And they're supposed to draw it down to a very small embassy presence by the end of next year. But this latest Taliban move and also the - frankly, the disintegration of Iraq may mean that you keep larger numbers of American troops there into next year and maybe even beyond.

SHAPIRO: Obviously Iraq and Afghanistan are different scenarios, but I think many people remember watching the Iraqi army simply crumble under the onslaught of ISIS. Is this a similar situation in Afghanistan, or do you sense that the Afghan military is more able to hold ground than the Iraqi military was? Obviously we're talking about the Taliban in Afghanistan and not ISIS, but how similar are these two scenarios?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, I think the Afghan forces are much tougher than the Iraqis outside of the Kurdish forces who are quite good fighters. But I think that, clearly, the Obama administration has looked at what happened in Iraq, and they may think twice about going down to a small embassy presence for U.S. military at the end of next year.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tom Bowman speaking to us about the fall of the city of Kunduz to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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