The new leader of the Afghan Taliban said on Friday that the capture of the northern city of Kunduz was a “symbolic victory” that showed the strength of the insurgency even though the Taliban pulled out of the city after three days.
Still, the three-day occupation of Kunduz was “a historic event,” which was “celebrated by the ordinary people of the city,” claimed Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Mansoor, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from an unknown location, was appointed the Taliban leader in August, after revelations that the group’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had died more than two years ago.
The Taliban captured Kunduz in a blitz on Monday and held it until Afghan government forces pushed them out of the city on Thursday.
The fall and three-day occupation of Kunduz an important city of 300,000 residents that lies on a strategic road to the border with Tajikistan was a huge boost for Mansoor whose leadership of the Taliban had been questioned from the start.
At the same time, it was a humbling defeat for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and raised questions over whether the U.S.-trained military was capable of defending the country now that most coalition forces have withdrawn.
“The victory is a symbolic victory for us, and moreover, it is also a historical event which will be remembered,” Mansoor said. “People who said we were a small force with an un-chosen leader can now see how wrong they were about the potential and strength my people have.”
The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since their 1996—2001 regime was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion. Kunduz was the first provincial capital and urban area they have taken since then.
Mr. Ghani has launched an investigation into how the Taliban, with only a few hundred gunmen, could have overwhelmed the city, which was defended by a few thousand government troops.
In Kunduz, residents said sporadic firefights continued on Friday as troops swept the city street-to-street to dislodge any militants still hiding in people’s homes.
Mansoor said the success of the movement in taking the city in a surprise attack had also allegedly countered Afghan government propaganda, “which said that the people of Afghanistan are against the Taliban and want to rid them from their country.”
Kunduz’s seizure has rattled many in Afghanistan, concerned that the Taliban’s expanding footprint across the country could mean they are gearing for a more intense war with Afghan troops. Before this year’s summer fighting season began, Afghanistan’s northern region was not known for a strong Taliban presence, unlike the country’s south and east.
The capture of the city has also seriously tarnished Mr. Ghani’s reputation, according to political analyst Haroun Mir.
“We now have the very bad but distinct impression that victory is with the Taliban. It wouldn’t have mattered how long they held the city even one hour would have been enough for them,” Mr. Mir said.
Initially, Mansoor’s appointment caused a huge and public rift in the Taliban, whose leadership is said to be based in neighbouring Pakistan, when Mullah Omar’s family objected to the appointment, though they later rallied behind Mansoor.
The takeover of Kunduz was allegedly run by one of Mansoor’s own appointees, Mullah Abdul Salam, and could help shore up his legitimacy in the leadership position.
Mansoor is also seeking to use the Kunduz operation to push a more populist image of the Taliban, remembered for their extremist interpretation of Islam and brutality under Mullah Omar.
Taliban militants who entered Kunduz had tactically avoided residential areas and civilian casualties, Mansoor told the AP.
“We were making sure to cause minimum civilian casualties but then the police forces and government security forces, to hide their shameful defeat, started to open fire on everyone, not caring if they were killing the Taliban or innocent civilians,” Mansoor said, adding that Afghan officials’ claims of killing 200 militants in the retaking of Kunduz were a “white lie.”
There were conflicting casualty tolls following the battle over Kunduz.
The spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, Wahidullah Mayar said in a tweet on his official account that 60 people had been killed and around 400 wounded in the fighting since Monday.
At the end of the interview, Mansoor warned of more Taliban operations like Kunduz.
“We are hoping to hit this government harder every time and win back our land from these tyrants,” he said.