The Taliban occupy Kunduz, a metropolis in northern Afghanistan.

KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban captured the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, officials said. It is the first major city to be captured by the insurgents since the start of their large-scale military offensive in May.

Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name, is a significant military and political award. With 374,000 inhabitants, it is an important trading center near the border with Tajikistan.

“All security forces have fled to the airport and the situation is critical,” said Sayed Jawad Hussaini, deputy chief of police in a district in Kunduz.

According to security officials, clashes between government forces and Taliban fighters broke out in a small town south of the city, where the local army headquarters and the airport are located.

Security forces had withdrawn into the city that morning, officials said. It was unclear whether the already overwhelmed government troops would try to drive the Taliban out of the city.

In the previous two days, the Taliban had captured two other provincial capitals: Sheberghan, the capital of Jowzjan province, and Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province on the Afghan-Iranian border. When Kunduz collapsed on Sunday morning, the Taliban also took Sar-i-Pul, the capital of the northern province of the same name.

“Taliban walk the streets of the city. The residents are afraid, ”said Sayed Asadullah Danish, member of the Sar-i-Pul Provincial Council. Provincial officials have sought refuge in an army base on the outskirts where the clashes have continued, he added.

The Taliban’s streak of victories in the cities marks a major shift in the insurgent offensive that began in May with the withdrawal of US-led international troops. After sweeping the country’s rural areas, the insurgents’ military campaign has shifted to brutal urban fighting in recent weeks as they invaded cities like Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south and Herat in the west.

The Taliban’s strategy has exhausted the forces of the Afghan government and overwhelmed the local militias with which the government supplemented its own troops, reminiscent of the chaotic and ethnically divided civil war of the 1990s.

“We are so tired and the security forces are so tired,” said Mr. Hussaini, the police officer in Kunduz. “At the same time, we had no reinforcements and the Taliban did not target planes in time.”

The Taliban briefly captured Kunduz in 2015 and 2016, gaining control of a province for the first time since the American forces invaded in 2001. On both occasions, the Afghan armed forces pushed back the insurgents with the help of American air strikes. In 2015, an American attack helicopter mistakenly attacked a MSF hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 people.

On Sunday, after a night of fierce fighting, Taliban fighters flooded the streets of Kunduz and hoisted their flags over the main square, as a video recorded by a local resident showed. Two of the city’s main markets, where shopkeepers sell fabrics and shoes, caught fire and sent clouds of dark smoke across the city.

According to some estimates, since the US withdrawal began, the Taliban have captured more than half of the roughly 400 districts in Afghanistan. Their attacks on provincial capitals have violated the 2020 Taliban-United States peace agreement. Under this agreement, which triggered the American withdrawal from the country, the Taliban undertook not to attack provincial centers such as Kunduz.

An escalation in American air strikes against the Taliban in recent weeks was an attempt to ensure the group’s adherence to the agreement. These efforts appear to have failed, and the taliban-Afghan government peace talks are far from being a minor matter as insurgents across Afghanistan push for a military victory.

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