Afghan lawmakers called on President Ashraf Ghani to resign on Wednesday over his government’s “shameful” handling of the battle for Kunduz, the northern city which has fallen to Taliban insurgents in their biggest victory so far in 14 years of war.
The Islamist militants seized control of Kunduz after an audacious assault on the city on Monday, and the promised counter-offensive from Afghan forces has yet to materialize.
Instead, thousands of exhausted Afghan police and soldiers are holed up at the city’s airport waiting for reinforcements from other parts of the country.
“It is shameful how they (the government) have dealt with the situation in Kunduz,” said Iqbal Safi, a member of parliament from Kapisa province, during a televised session of parliament.
“Ghani and Abdullah must step down,” he added, referring to Ghani’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Kunduz was the last city to fall when the Taliban fell in 2001, and, in the biggest blow to Ghani since he came to power a year ago, it has become the first major city to be retaken by the insurgency since then.
Other lawmakers echoed Safi’s demands in a chaotic session, with parliamentarians shouting and calling for a gathering of elders to begin the process of impeachment.
Ghani’s first year in office has been clouded by political infighting and escalating violence around the country, with the United Nations recording almost 5,000 civilian casualties in the first half of the year.
Sayed Zafar Hashemi, Ghani’s deputy spokesman, said it was parliamentarians’ right to protest.
“For the president, the first priorities are the safety of the citizens in Kunduz and clearing the area of terrorists.”
He said Afghan troops were making progress, and Ghani had ordered an investigation into how Kunduz fell so quickly.
TROOPS GROWING WEARY
Around 5,000 Afghan troops were gathered at Kunduz airport on Wednesday after fighting there raged late into the night, an Afghan security official said, and Taliban fighters were driven back with the help a second U.S. air strike.
However, the morale of Afghan troops was flagging after two days of continuous fighting, a district official said.
“We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight,” said Mohammad Zahir Niazi, chief of Chardara, a district in Kunduz.
“We are only defending.”
Hundreds of Afghan security forces sent to reinforce them were stuck in neighboring Baghlan province as Taliban fighters blocked roads with large stones and sandbags, a senior Afghan security official said.
A Taliban commander acknowledged his fighters had failed to hold the airport, but said the group’s forces were still in control of the city.
“We actually wanted to capture the airport and organised a big attack last night,” said a Taliban commander close to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban’s new leader.
“We could not seize the airport but captured some of its surroundings,” he said.
In the city, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the police chief in Kunduz, said Afghan security forces had regained control of the police headquarters in Kunduz on Tuesday night.
“Hundreds of Taliban are killed and their dead bodies are on streets … right now a heavy fight is going on inside the city,” Hussaini told Reuters by telephone.
HELP FROM ABOVE
Afghan security forces have struggled to hold off a multi-pronged insurgency since the bulk of foreign troops withdrew at the end of last year.
Some German troops have been deployed to the Kunduz area to help advise Afghan security forces during the battle, a senior foreign diplomat said on Tuesday.
Germany’s defense minister had signaled on Tuesday that she was open to delaying the withdrawal of German soldiers from Afghanistan beyond next year.
The U.S. military has carried out two air strikes on Kunduz since fighting began on Monday.
A U.S military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one of the air strikes was carried out in an effort to protect coalition forces after Taliban fighters stole a tank and were heading towards the airfield.
Even if ultimately unsuccessful, the battle for Kunduz appears to have re-energized insurgents who only months ago were deeply divided over who should lead the movement following confirmation of the death of its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Taliban has since said one reason for the assault on Kunduz was to prove the group was united after the appointment of Mansour in July angered many key figures in the insurgency.
(Additional reporting by Jessica Donati and Kay Johnson in KABUL, Jibran Ahmed in PESHAWAR and Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Michael Perry and Paul Tait)
SOURCE: MIRWAIS HAROONI AND HAMID SHALIZI