Taliban forces stormed the Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday; after several days of fighting, Afghan forces claimed to have retaken the city. But fighting continued, and on Saturday, a U.S.-led airstrike appears to have struck and badly damaged a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing doctors, staff members and patients.
The week of violence has put the city back in the headlines. But the region's struggles aren't new.
Over the past 12 years, the U.S. and NATO spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Kunduz province alone building up infrastructure, all in an effort to keep insurgents out. After U.S. combat forces left the country last year, Afghan national security forces were expected to take over the fight against insurgent groups still posing a threat.
But now that stability is threatened.
This week on For The Record: The fight to keep Kunduz. We hear from two people who were there 12 years ago and worked to stabilize the city, and who were then optimistic about the city's future.
Matin Sarfraz, now a government worker based in Kabul
Fourteen years ago this week, U.S. forces launched air strikes in Afghanistan. Afghans like Matin Sarfraz, who was 16 at the time, grew hopeful that the Taliban would soon be defeated.
"My father was telling us that, 'Hey guys, you'll have schools, you'll have work, you will have a better future,' " he says. "The international community came to Afghanistan. We'll have a proper government you know? We'll have no fighting."
Sarfraz's family had good reason to be optimistic: After the Taliban fell, international aid started flowing in.
The U.S.-led NATO mission set up a network of bases around the country called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs. The Americans set up the PRT in Kunduz in 2003 and the Germans took over shortly thereafter. The teams, made up of international forces, civilian aid workers and development experts, created a lot of jobs for the young Afghan generation.
Philipp Ackermann, civilian head of the German PRT, 2006-2007
Ackermann says the northern region was relatively stable when he arrived to lead the PRT.
"We were very much in the civilian mode when we came and tried to really set up ... better working institutions, [a] better working education system," he says.
They built schools, government buildings, water and sanitation systems and health clinics. They even set up a radio station, where Sarfraz secured a job as a freelance reporter. It was a point of pride for both him and his family.
"Everyone was so happy to work with the internationals," Sarfraz says.
While the east and the south of Afghanistan were active war zones, the north and Kunduz were relatively safe. The Taliban felt far away — until it wasn't.
A Turning Point
Ackermann says when the PRT needed supplies, the staff went to the local bazaars. In May of 2007, three German soldiers were killed in an attack at a Kunduz bazaar after going in to buy a fridge.
"That was by far the saddest moment in my career in Kunduz," he says of the attack. "That changed, of course, our regime to a certain extent. We were much more worried and concerned, and it changed a bit the mood of the population."
A Lesson Learned: Security Vs. Development
As extremists made their way to the province from other parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ackermann started to realize infrastructure alone couldn't keep Kunduz safe.
"We felt that when we improved on the development side, the security side would improve, and the other way around," he says. But in reality, the opposite was true. "If security is there, you can improve on the development, but you can't try to get security through development projects. That was a lesson we learned in spring 2007."
After the attack in the Kunduz bazaar, German forces didn't go out into the local communities as often. NGOs began pulling back, and international development projects were harder to get off the ground. Ackermann's tour of duty was up a few months after the attack.
But Sarfraz didn't have the choice to leave. Instead, he did everything he could to make a better life for his family, despite the changes in Kunduz. He studied hard, getting a master's degree and eventually a job with the Afghan government in Kabul.
'A Shocking Development'
But Kunduz is still Sarfraz's home; his wife and kids still live there and he goes back often. In fact, he was in the province early Monday when Taliban forces made their advance.
"At 3 o'clock in the morning, I heard a very loud explosion, then a gunfire, so I woke up and my kids woke up and they were crying," he says. "Then another explosion happened and another happened."
The next day his family hunkered down in their house while the fighting continued. Sarfraz finally made it back to Kabul for work, but his wife and children are still in Kunduz — and he's afraid for them.
Both Sarfraz and Ackermann believed that Kunduz was exceptional — that this place, high up in the northern mountains of Afghanistan, would somehow remain insulated from the violence in other parts of the country.
"It's a shocking development," Ackermann says, "because it's the first time that the Taliban really conquer a bigger city in Afghanistan, albeit only for two days, but it's really a new scale. I am pretty sure that the Taliban are not in a position really to hold centers like this for a long time, but we have to acknowledge that they are very present and they have a very good strategy, apparently, and that's frustrating."
It is hard for Sarfraz to process what's happened to his city — all the work over the past decade to build a stable Kunduz could be destroyed by the Taliban in just a few days.
"I can't imagine if my city is back to that time when Taliban was in power in that city," he says.
Sarfraz is desperately trying to find a way back to Kunduz to make sure his family is safe.
Three Takeaways, From NPR's Rachel Martin
* We asked Phillip Ackerman how he thinks about the work that he and so many other Germans and Americans, civilians and military, did in Kunduz over the past 12 years. The schools, the clinics; if those projects don't last, if Kunduz is made unstable by Taliban insurgents, does it mean his work was in vain?
He paused and told me, 'That's a very personal question.' He pivoted quickly and talked about the need for an ongoing international presence in Afghanistan, but it was clear that he is having trouble reconciling all the money spent and lives lost with the reality in Kunduz right now.
* I happened to have been in Afghanistan in 2004 when Doctors Without Borders (MSF) made the announcement that the organization was pulling out after five of their staff were killed by insurgents. MSF had been working in Afghanistan for 24 years and prided itself on continuing to work in the country through years of civil war and violence. The 2004 attack changed things for the organization, and its leaders didn't think they could afford to put their staff at risk.
It took five years for MSF to return to Afghanistan. The bombing this weekend of the MSF clinic in Kunduz killed 12 staff members — three times the number of staff killed in that 2004 attack. It's unclear whether this tragedy will again push MSF out of Afghanistan.
* The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ended in 2014. U.S. flags were lowered; there was a ceremony. But on Saturday, the Pentagon released the names of six airmen killed Friday when a C130 military plane crashed in Afghanistan. The Secretary of Defense is now calling for an investigation into the bombing of the MSF clinic that killed 19 people.
The official combat mission may be over but the war in Afghanistan is not.
Click on the audio link above to hear the full conversation.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And this is For the Record. U.S. combat forces left Afghanistan in 2014. Afghan National Security Forces were supposed to take over the fight against insurgent groups. But this past week, U.S. aircraft, again, dropped bombs on an Afghan city, trying to push Taliban militants out. It started Monday when Taliban forces stormed the city of Kunduz in the north. Here's White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSH EARNEST: We're going to continue to monitor the efforts by the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to retake Kunduz. And that will factor into a longer-term assessment of the conditions on the ground.
MARTIN: After a couple of days of fighting, Afghan forces claimed they had regained control of Kunduz, but the fighting wasn't over. And early Saturday morning, the U.S. conducted a series of airstrikes in Kunduz. They hit a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, killing more than a dozen staff members and patients. Over the past 12 years, the U.S. and NATO have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Kunduz province alone, building clinics, schools and roads, all in an effort to keep insurgents out. Now the Taliban is threatening that stability. For the Record today, the fight to keep Kunduz. We begin this hour with NPR's Tom Bowman who has the latest on the situation in Kunduz.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The organization Doctors Without Borders said at least 19 were killed, including staff, patients and three children. Dozens more were wounded. Hospital staff made desperate calls to American and Afghan military officials but said the bombing lasted for a half-hour. The main building was repeatedly and very precisely hit said Tim Shenk, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders. For months, said the organization, it had reported the location of its hospital to both sides in the fight, as it does in every conflict. The U.S. military in Kabul said in a statement it conducted an airstrike, quote, "in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility."
The statement said Taliban fighters were firing on American soldiers or aiding Afghan forces trying to retake Kunduz, seized by the Taliban in a surprise raid earlier this week. An American official said it's likely the U.S. responded to the attack with an AC-130 gunship, which flies long loops above a target and is armed with several large guns, including a 105 millimeter Howitzer. Doctors Without Borders said there were no Taliban fighters firing from the hospital grounds. Patients from the clinic, meanwhile, have been moved to other hospitals. The top commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, vowed a full investigation and said, my thoughts and prayers with those affected.
MARTIN: NPR's Tom Bowman on the military operations in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. Now, we're going to step back in time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE W. BUSH: Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
MARTIN: It was 14 years ago this week U.S. forces first launched airstrikes in Afghanistan. The Taliban would soon be defeated and Afghans like Matin Sarfraz, were hopeful.
MATIN SARFRAZ: My father was telling us that, hey, guys, you have school, you have work, you'll have a better future. Now, international - the community came to Afghanistan. We'll have a proper government, you know? We'll have no fighting.
MARTIN: Matin Sarfraz was 16 years old at the beginning of the U.S. war. He had grown up in Kunduz province. After the Taliban fell, international aid started flowing in. The cornerstone of the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan was all about winning hearts and minds. And to do that, they set up a network of bases around the country called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs. These teams were made up of international forces but also civilian aid workers and development experts.
SARFRAZ: They created a lot of jobs for young Afghan generation. The guys who could speak English, they got a job with them. They supported a lot of construction companies. They were giving them a project.
MARTIN: The Americans set up the PRT in Kunduz in 2003. The Germans took it over shortly thereafter. Philipp Ackermann was the German civilian in charge of the PRT from August 2006 to summer of 2007. He said the political situation was pretty good when he got there.
PHILLIPP ACKERMANN: We had, then, a rather stable northern region, where mostly people were focusing on trying to improve things that were improvable, like agriculture but also schooling. And we were very much in the civilian mode when we came and tried to really set up a better working institutions, better working education system.
MARTIN: And they did. They built schools, government buildings, water and sanitation systems, health clinics. They even set up a radio station, and Matin Sarfraz applied for a job there.
SARFRAZ: They were looking for a freelance reporter, somebody to write and record reports for the radio. And I worked for them for around three years covering that province.
MARTIN: It was a point of pride.
SARFRAZ: Everyone was so happy to work with the internationals. The families that they - their son was working with internationals, they were proud of him. Like, hey, my son is working with PRT. He's getting more experience. He's getting more knowledge And he's getting good money.
MARTIN: While other parts of Afghanistan, the east and the south, were active war zones, the north, and Kunduz in particular, was relatively safe. The Afghans in Kunduz benefited from all the international aid coming in. The Taliban felt far away - until it wasn't. Both Matin Sarfraz and Philipp Ackermann remember one particular day.
ACKERMANN: In May 2007, we had a huge attack in the bazaar in Kunduz where three German soldiers were killed. I had a policy. We have to buy local. So when we bought fridges or, you know, stuff for the PRT, we went to the bazaar in order to support local bazaar.
SARFRAZ: All the time, when they were coming down to the city, they were just walking. They're shaking hands with the shopkeepers. They were buying some stuff. They were playing with kids, and people were, like, so friendly with them, you know?
ACKERMANN: That was, by far, the saddest moment in my career in Kunduz when three of the German soldiers were killed when they bought a fridge in the bazaar. And that changed, of course, our regime to a certain extent. We were much more worried and concerned. And it changed, a bit, the mood of the population.
SARFRAZ: Many Afghans in Kunduz, they were like, OK, now the situation is going crazy because a suicide attacker wrecked the city and they targeted foreigners.
MARTIN: Extremists were making their way to the province from other parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Philipp Ackermann started to realize infrastructure alone could not keep Kunduz safe.
ACKERMANN: We felt that when we improved on the development side, the security side would improve and the other way around. And at the end, this didn't turn out to be true. It's all about security. Security is the main thing. If security's there you can improve on the development. But you can't try to get security through development projects. And that was a lesson we learned in spring 2007.
MARTIN: They attack in the Kunduz bazaar was a turning point. German forces didn't go out into the local communities as much, and when they did, they went in armored convoys. NGOs started pulling back. International development projects were harder to get off the ground. Philipp Ackermann's tour of duty was up a few months after that attack.
ACKERMANN: I left in, I think, 31 of July 2007, if I'm not mistaken.
MARTIN: But Matin Sarfraz didn't have that choice. Instead, he did everything he could to make a better life for his family despite the changes in Kunduz. He studied hard. He did well. He got a master's degree and eventually a job with the Afghan government in Kabul. But Kunduz is still home. His wife and kids still live there, and he goes back often. In fact, Sarfraz was in Kunduz early Monday morning when Taliban forces made their advance.
SARFRAZ: It was, like, at 3 o'clock in the morning. I heard a very loud explosion, then a gunfire. So I woke up and my kids woke up, and they were crying. It was a loud explosion. And then another explosion happened and another happened.
MARTIN: The next day, his family hunkered down in their house while the fighting continued. Sarfraz ventured out and headed towards the airport to see if any flights were leaving. They weren't, then he got a phone call from his family.
SARFRAZ: They told me that my uncle's wife got killed.
MARTIN: She'd been inside the family's compound, but the fighting was close, and she was killed by a stray bullet. Sarfraz finally made it back to Kabul where he works. But his wife and children are still in Kunduz.
SARFRAZ: My little daughter, she was talking to me like, hey, we are hearing a lot of sound of these jets in the sky and explosion, and she was like, you left us alone.
MARTIN: Both of these men, Matin Sarfraz and Philipp Ackermann, believed that Kunduz was exceptional, that this place, high up in the northern mountains of Afghanistan, this place would somehow remain insulated from the violence in other parts of the country. Here's Ackermann.
ACKERMANN: It's a shocking development because it's the first time that the Taliban really conquer a bigger city in Afghanistan, albeit only for two days, but it's really a new scale. I am pretty sure that the Taliban are not in a position, really, to hold centers like this for a long time. But we have to acknowledge that they are very present and they have a very good strategy, apparently. And that's frustrating.
SARFRAZ: I can't imagine my city back to that time when Taliban was in power in that city.
MARTIN: It's hard for Matin Sarfraz to reconcile what's happened to his city, that somehow all the work over the past decade to build a stable Kunduz could be destroyed by the Taliban in just a few days. He is now trying to find a way back to Kunduz to make sure his family is safe. Doctors Without Borders has posted a first-person account of the attack on the Kunduz clinic from one of their nurses. He writes, there are no words for how terrible it was. In the ICU, six patients were burning in their beds. The hospital has been my workplace and home for several months. Yes, it's just a building, but it is so much more than that. It is health care for Kunduz. Now it's gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.