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    US airstrikes target key Taliban positions in Afghanistan

    KABUL — In a clear sign of concern over the Taliban’s momentum in northeast Afghanistan, the US military conducted two airstrikes of Taliban positions in a remote corner of the country Friday afternoon as Taliban fighters, driving captured Rangers and Humvees, quickly took over a pair of district centers.

    Ordinarily, a Taliban offensive in isolated Badakhshan province might cause few reverberations in the capital, Kabul, and would most likely not set off a US military response.

    But this week, the Taliban captured Kunduz, a city of 300,000 people, in its largest victory in more than a decade.

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    Clearly emboldened, the Taliban have carried out smaller-scale offensives in a number of provinces across the north, including in Badakhshan, a sparsely populated expanse of rival warlords and isolated villages.

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    Since Thursday, a Taliban force has captured two district centers in quick succession, provoking widespread concern in the provincial capital, Faizabad, that the Taliban were headed their way.

    Beyond that, residents and officials in Baharak, the latest district center to fall, said more than 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces who had gathered Friday had retreated as the Taliban attacked and seized the area.

    At 5:45 p.m., the US military conducted airstrikes on both the district of Baharak and its neighboring district, a spokeswoman said.

    Residents of Baharak interviewed by phone said that the Taliban’s shadow governor in Badakhshan had been killed in one of the strikes, but that could not be confirmed.

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    In two other northern provinces, Takhar and Baghlan, the insurgents also made substantial gains in recent days. Those losses raise the question of whether the Afghan security forces, already struggling to respond to the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz at the beginning of the week, would be able to contain emboldened insurgent forces across northeast Afghanistan.

    As recently as last week, the Taliban and the Afghan security forces appeared to be locked in a stalemate at the conclusion of a bloody fighting season that had led to a heavy death toll for Afghan soldiers and police officers.

    But the Taliban broke the stalemate early Monday with the capture of Kunduz. Most of the city’s defenders quickly retreated or disappeared in a defeat that the Afghan government has since struggled to explain.

    In a sign of declining confidence in the government, several powerful political leaders and military commanders, some veterans of the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, met in Kabul on Friday to discuss how to respond to Kunduz’s fall and the Taliban’s advances across the northeast.

    The extent of Taliban gains across the north became more apparent in the days after the fall of Kunduz, as government reinforcements struggled to break through Taliban ambushes along crucial roads, sapping the Afghan military’s ability to mount a large-scale counterattack.

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    By Friday the Taliban still held parts of the city, including its central square, residents said.