Fear and Misery in an Afghan City Where Taliban Stalk the Streets

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — The Afghan means of battle in 2021 comes right down to this: a watermelon vendor on a sweltering metropolis avenue, a authorities Humvee at the entrance line simply 30 toes away, and Taliban fighters lurking unseen on the different aspect of the highway.

When the capturing begins, the vendor makes himself scarce, leaving his melons on the desk and hoping for the greatest. When it stops, promoting resumes, to clients now all too uncommon.

“I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to sell the melons,” stated the vendor, Abdel Alim, talking to New York Times journalists whereas he stored an eye on a lane inside Kunduz metropolis from which he stated Taliban had emerged. “Most people have left,” he stated. “There is fighting all the time.”

Abdul Aleem, proper, runs a watermelon stand in Kunduz. On Monday, three younger residents have been killed close to his stand by crossfire between the Taliban and Afghan forces.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Taliban are urgent in on all sides of Kunduz, a provincial capital of roughly 374,000 in Afghanistan’s north, and a number of different provincial capitals as properly, as the Afghan authorities’s battle with the Taliban enters a brand new and harmful part. For weeks, the insurgents have captured weak districts throughout the nation’s north, generally with out even firing a shot. And on Wednesday, the Taliban stated they’d captured an vital border crossing with Pakistan, at Spin Boldak — the fourth crossing they’ve seized in lower than a month.

It is all a part of a broader technique to tighten the noose round the Afghan capital, Kabul. The insurgents are stitching up the Afghan countryside, slicing off the highway community, and squeezing the more and more enfeebled central authorities.

In late June, the Taliban entered Kunduz metropolis, testing their limits towards troopers and police — the ones who haven’t given up — in the provincial capital’s streets. The Times journalists went there final week to evaluate the heavy toll the combating is taking over an important metropolis.

Civilians in the crossfire are paying the value. Dozens have been killed and injured; as much as 70 a day are dropped at the hospital, stated Mohammed Naim Mangal, the director of Kunduz Regional Hospital. Just on Monday night time, two younger residents have been killed in the cross hearth close to Mr. Alim’s watermelon stand.

The jagged entrance line of fight is commonly only a block or two away from wherever you occur to be, down quiet streets lined with dusty sycamore bushes and low mud brick dwellings baking in the warmth. The Taliban are inside the metropolis and exterior of it, preserving bedraggled troopers and police awake all night time. The sound of their mortar hearth mingles with the name to prayer as the solar goes down.

Sgt. Abdul Malik, left, and different Afghan commandos by their armored personnel provider in Kunduz.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As of mid-July, the Taliban are inside 4 out of 9 of this metropolis’s 9 municipal districts, battling for management with the authorities forces.

Much of the combating occurs at night time when the fierce warmth diminishes. During the day, the metropolis heart bustles with distributors, however there are few consumers. There is threat right here for vendor and purchaser. Closest to the entrance strains, the outlets are shuttered, metallic canopies drawn tightly down, glass home windows blasted out.

“It’s permanent war,” stated Mustafa Turkmen, a carpet vendor. “No one can come here, and no one can leave. Every night when I wake up, I hear gunfire.” He involves his store nonetheless.

Barely holding the line inside the metropolis are the authorities’s particular forces, higher educated and more durable than the common troops. These commandos have taken over an deserted cotton oil manufacturing facility, as soon as the image of this area’s stillborn prosperity. Their commander, Lt. Col. Masound Nijrabi, expressed scorn for the common forces who fail to carry the territory he and his males are compelled to claw again from the encroaching Taliban every day.

Lt. Col. Masoud Nijrabi, second from proper, together with his commandos at the cotton manufacturing facility that’s now their base in Kunduz.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“It’s not our job to keep these areas,” he stated, fingering prayer beads. “The Taliban are coming closer. They are forcing people to leave their homes.” His males appeared drained. Too a lot combating.

Inside his workplace final week, the provincial governor wept. “The pressure is tremendous,” stated Gov. Najibullah Omarkhil, dabbing his eyes with a tissue. “There is no doubt, everyone’s life is in danger,” he stated. “It’s a big weight on my shoulders. And it could get worse.”

Gov. Najibullah Omarkhil in his workplace in Kunduz.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The close by entrance is an deserted fuel station the place two RPG-pocked authorities Humvees are parked. The ragged troopers there are totally caught up in the nocturnal battle. “We don’t sleep at night,” stated Sgt. Abdul Malik, 31. “There’s fighting every day.” As he spoke, his comrade stalked round the station in a T-shirt, carrying a U.S.-made M4 carbine.

“When it starts, it’s hell,” stated Hamidullah Hamidi, a grocery retailer proprietor down the avenue. He shuts down at four p.m., however can’t at all times keep away from the combating.

Hamidullah Hamidi in his store close to a entrance line in Kunduz.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The districts surrounding Kunduz have all been captured by the Taliban; the roads main out of city are below their management. For the second, although, the native airport remains to be functioning, although not for business visitors. A authorities helicopter was broken there throughout combating on Sunday night time.

More than 35,000 residents in and round Kunduz have been compelled out of their houses, based on the United Nations. Many of the displaced live miserably, exterior, uncovered to the excessive warmth — 115 levels throughout the day — hungry, with no privateness, the solely shelter ragged sheets strung up on picket poles.

“Every day, there are mortars. We had no choice,” stated Ali Mohammad, 57, a village elder from the suburb of Charkhab, tenting out with a whole lot of others — ladies, kids and the aged — on the grounds of the Bibi Amina college, considered one of six faculties allotted for these compelled to flee.

“Last night I was hungry. No one is helping us,” Mr. Mohammad stated.

Four kids, ages 1 to 9, clutched at the burqa of their mom, Zakira Akbar. “An animal couldn’t even live here,” stated Ms. Akbar, 30. “The government should help us as soon as possible.”

Families displaced by latest combating took refuge at the Bibi Amina college.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

With the seize of largely undefended rural districts sewn up, the Taliban have begun to push boldly in, firing from deserted homes at the edges into the municipal police stations or evenly manned army positions inside the cities. The residents of those now-empty homes have both fled or been pushed out by the Taliban.

Elsewhere in the nation, a number of different provincial capitals are below siege. Last week, the Taliban compelled their well beyond the perimeter of Afghanistan’s second-largest metropolis, Kandahar, in the south. Tuesday combating continued in 4 of the metropolis’s police districts. Dozens of wounded civilians in Kandahar have been dropped at the hospitals. Thousands have fled.

In neighboring Helmand Province, the capital, Lashkar Gah, is on the snapping point, say members of the provincial council. At least three different cities are below assault or surrounded.

Kunduz has a latest historical past of battle with the Taliban. It was briefly taken by the insurgents in 2015 and then once more in 2016. Both instances, the insurgents have been ultimately pushed again by the Afghan forces with assist from American airstrikes. It was right here that an American gunship mistakenly blasted a Doctors Without Borders hospital in 2015, killing 42 individuals.

An Afghan safety forces outpost on the fringe of Kunduz.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

This time, the Americans gained’t be coming. The battle for Kunduz has grow to be an intimate combat between Afghan opponents at shut vary.

“Every night they come to these houses and fire on us,” stated the chief of police of Kunduz’s Third Municipal District, Sayed Mansoor Hashimi, searching at now-vacant dwellings throughout his police station. “Slowly, slowly they are tightening the circle.”

The battle in Kunduz is intertwined with the material of the metropolis. Shopping journeys are deliberate between bursts of battle. Residents now not pay adequate consideration, stated Marzia Salam Yaftali, the medical director at Kunduz Regional Hospital. “They are wounded in the streets or in the bazaar,” she stated.

At the hospital, Ezzatullah, 14, lay in considered one of the wards, his legs wrapped in bandages: He misplaced each his toes when a mortar landed as he was enjoying exterior his home. Three members of his household, together with considered one of his dad and mom, have been killed.

Ezzatullah, 14, proper, and his brother at the Kunduz Regional Hospital. He misplaced each his toes to a mortar shell. Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“I can’t go to school now,” he stated. Asked what he noticed as his future, he replied firmly: “I want to be a man, to rebuild my country.”

The battle, and the enemy, are inescapable. “We have to live here. Where can we go?” requested Ezamuddin Safi, a telecommunications employee who needed to flee his house inside the metropolis in early July. He was passing the day inside a small downtown restaurant.

“My 3-year-old boy, he screams when he hears the firing. He’s tired,” stated Mr. Safi, 25. “Taliban are everywhere.”