Fear and misery in an Afghan city where Taliban stalk the streets

By Adam Nossiter and Najim Rahim

The Afghan way of war in 2021 comes down to this: a watermelon vendor on a sweltering city street, a government Humvee at the front line just 30 feet away and Taliban fighters lurking unseen on the other side of the road.

When the shooting starts, the vendor makes himself scarce, leaving his melons on the table and hoping for the best. When it stops, selling resumes, to customers now all too rare.

“I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to sell the melons,” said the vendor, Abdel Alim, speaking to New York Times journalists while he kept an eye on a lane within Kunduz city from which he said Taliban had emerged. “Most people have left. There is fighting all the time.”

The Taliban are pressing in on all sides of Kunduz, a provincial capital of roughly 374,000 in Afghanistan’s north, and several other provincial capitals as well, as the Afghan government’s war with the Taliban enters a new and dangerous phase. For weeks, the insurgents have captured vulnerable districts across the country’s north, sometimes without even firing a shot. And Wednesday, the Taliban said they had captured an important border crossing with Pakistan, at Spin Boldak — the fourth crossing they have seized in less than a month.

It is all part of a broader strategy to tighten the noose around the Afghan capital, Kabul. The insurgents are sewing up the Afghan countryside, cutting off the road network, and squeezing the increasingly enfeebled central government.

In late June, the Taliban entered Kunduz city, testing their limits against soldiers and police — the ones who have not given up — in the provincial capital’s streets. Times journalists went there last week to assess the heavy toll the fighting is taking on a crucial city.

Civilians in the crossfire are paying the price. Dozens have been killed and injured; up to 70 a day are brought to the hospital, said Mohammed Naim Mangal, director of Kunduz Regional Hospital. On Monday night, two young residents were killed in the crossfire near Alim’s watermelon stand.

The jagged front line of combat is often just a block or two away from wherever you happen to be, down quiet streets lined with dusty sycamore trees and low mud brick dwellings baking in the heat. The Taliban are inside the city and outside of it, keeping bedraggled soldiers and police awake all night. The sound of their mortar fire mingles with the call to prayer as the sun goes down.

As of mid-July, the Taliban are inside four out of this city’s nine municipal districts, battling for control with the government forces.

Much of the fighting happens at night when the fierce heat diminishes. During the day, the city center bustles with vendors, but there are few shoppers. There is risk here for seller and buyer. Closest to the front lines, the shops are shuttered, metal canopies drawn tightly down, glass windows blasted out.

“It’s permanent war, “said Mustafa Turkmen, a carpet seller. “No one can come here, and no one can leave. Every night when I wake up, I hear gunfire.”

He comes to his shop nonetheless.

Barely holding the line inside the city are the government’s special forces, better trained and tougher than the regular troops. These commandos have taken over an abandoned cotton oil factory, once the symbol of this region’s stillborn prosperity. Their commander, Lt. Col. Masound Nijrabi, expressed scorn for the regular forces who fail to hold the territory he and his men are forced to claw back from the encroaching Taliban each day.

“It’s not our job to keep these areas,” he said, fingering prayer beads. “The Taliban are coming closer. They are forcing people to leave their homes.” His men looked tired. Too much fighting.

The districts surrounding Kunduz have all been captured by the Taliban. The roads leading out of town are under their control. For the moment, though, the local airport is still functioning, though not for commercial traffic. A government helicopter was damaged there during fighting Sunday night.

More than 35,000 residents in and around Kunduz have been forced out of their homes, according to the United Nations. Many of the displaced are living miserably, outside, exposed to the extreme heat — 115 degrees during the day — hungry, with no privacy, the only shelter ragged sheets strung up on wooden poles.

With the capture of mostly undefended rural districts sewn up, the Taliban have begun to push boldly in, firing from abandoned houses at the edges into the municipal police stations or lightly manned military positions within the cities. The residents of these now-empty houses have either fled or been pushed out by the Taliban.

Elsewhere in the country, several other provincial capitals are under siege. Last week, the Taliban forced their way past the perimeter of Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar, in the south. On Tuesday, fighting continued in four of the city’s police districts. Dozens of wounded civilians in Kandahar have been brought to the hospitals. Thousands have fled.

In neighboring Helmand province, the capital, Lashkar Gah, is on the verge of collapse, say members of the provincial council. At least three other cities are under attack or surrounded.

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