Kunduz, Afghanistan – If residents here were unclear of how close the Taliban fighters were to this provincial capital, the thud of rockets in the neighbouring Chardara district left no room for doubt.
Locals are worried as the Afghan army has been carrying out an offensive against the armed group in the past several weeks to stop their advance.
“Yesterday,” said a young mother living in Kunduz city, “it was even closer.”
The worrying security situation comes as the June presidential election runoff to decide the successor to President Hamid Karzai seems to be deadlocked with one of two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, first questioning the electoral process and then the vote audit.
I'm tired. We're all tired. Now imagine how these soldiers feel. They can last in that kind of intense fighting for a year, two years max, and then they have to quit.
As the country’s political crisis lingers and the US-led NATO forces begin to pull out, coordinated assaults by the Taliban – consisting of hundreds, sometimes even thousands of fighters – targeting strategic areas across the country have been the hallmark of this year’s summer offensive.
However, northern Kunduz province, strategic for its location – linking the capital, Kabul, to the north – has not been spared.
The operation in Chardara district, bordering the provincial capital to the south, had one aim: to push the Taliban back.
“The Taliban are five kilometers away from the provincial city centre and one kilometre from district centre,” said an Afghan intelligence officer who asked not to be named.
“The operation in Chardara was just to try and save the city and the district centre from falling to the Taliban – to push them back and then try to open a base so that neither the district nor Kunduz city can be taken.”
However, the official continued, getting the whole district back is impossible. “We would need a lot more support.”
Lack of support is just one among several contributing factors to the current deterioration in security across the country.
The withdrawal of foreign troops, a weak government growing weaker by the day as the contested presidential election drags on, regional instability, as well as the release of Taliban detainees who have returned to the fighting are also key factors emboldening the Taliban.
What makes Kunduz more volatile is the province’s 5,000 armed fighters, also known as Arbakai, who now dominate the security scene.
“The number of militia has increased rapidly,” Abdul Qadir Husainkhil, the provincial chief, told Al Jazeera. “This is our main problem.”
The armed men, 2,000 of whom are active and the other 3,000 reserves, are increasing in number day-by-day. The reserves are armed whenever the Afghan officials need their help.
Roads that were once considered relatively safe to drive are now littered with men carrying weapons such as AK-47s.
In previous years, a portion of the pro-government armed groups were trained and supported by the US Special Forces and then hired into the Afghan Local Police (ALP) programme – yet the sheer number of fighters far outweighed the slots available for the police programme.
Even those never integrated into the formal system were paid a salary and supplied with weapons by the US and government officials, according to commanders who spoke with Al Jazeera over the past several years.
Critics who strongly opposed using the auxiliary force to keep the Taliban at bay – President Karzai the most vocal among them – feared the current situation unfolding today.
The armed groups, who operate in a culture of impunity, are growing increasingly volatile, creating more problems for civilians.
|In Kunduz some 5,000 armed fighters, also known as Arbakai, now dominate the security scene [Bethany Matta/Al Jazeera]|
“It’s worse compared to the past. Now, the militia are the same as the Taliban,” Hayatullah Amiri, the Director of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) for the northeast, told Al Jazeera.
Earlier this month, villagers from Kanam, close to Kunduz city, paved the way for the Taliban to kill one of the province’s most notorious militia commanders, Qadirak, who has made international headlines over the past several years for killings, theft, taxing villagers and an array of human rights abuses.
“After he cut the water supply to the village, civilians wanted him dead,” said Hayatullah Amiry, Khan Abad district governor. “So, they created a way to kill him by inviting the Taliban in.”
Qadirak’s one-hundred or so fighters either fled the area to serve under another commander or were killed by the Taliban when the fighters took control of the area.
With American air support gone – banned by presidential decree to avoid further civilian casualites – Afghan forces’ ability to fight off large numbers of Taliban fighters has diminished greatly. Afghan forces across the country are being killed in alarming numbers.
“Around 20-25 men a day – from combined forces,” said the ministry of defence [MoD] official who asked not to be named. “The fighting is extremely tough, so we are having a hard time retaining soldiers.”
“I’m tired. We’re all tired. Now imagine how these soldiers feel. They can last in that kind of intense fighting for a year, two years max, and then they have to quit,” the official told Al Jazeera.
Across Kunduz province, 45 Afghan outposts out of hundreds have also been destroyed or taken by the Taliban.
Mawlawi Salam, a well-connected, powerful Taliban commander arrested in Pakistan and then released on the recommendation of the High Peace Council one year ago is said to be back on the battlefield. He is believed to be behind many of the attacks, according to Kunduz police chief, Ghulam Mustafa Mohseni.
Meanwhile, civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire.
Over the past five months, 27 civilians have been killed and 84 injured in the fighting in Kunduz according to the Human Rights Commission’s Amiri.
“The Taliban make holes in the wall of people’s houses in order to put their guns in it to shoot out. When we fire at the Taliban, houses are completely destroyed. The people’s livestock is killed,” said the intelligence officer.
“Today, as civilians were leaving their house and coming to our side, a bomb went off. Two women and a child were killed.”
Follow Bethany Matta on Twitter: @BethanyMatta