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Taliban forces gain in Afghanistan; US deploys 100 extra troops

Afghan security forces prepared for a battle with insurgents on the outskirts of Kunduz Sunday.
Afghan security forces prepared for a battle with insurgents on the outskirts of Kunduz Sunday.Nasir Wakif/REUTERS

KABUL — Taliban insurgents intensified attacks Monday near the northern city of Kunduz, and a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan said about 100 American troops were deployed to a southern city at risk of falling to the militant group.

The military spokesman, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, said the soldiers had arrived in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, to provide training and support to Afghan forces.

In the third day of intensified attacks near Kunduz, Taliban fighters cut off main roads to adjacent provinces and reportedly blew up a bridge that links Afghanistan to neighboring Tajikistan.

The sustained assault deepened fears that Kunduz could fall again into insurgent hands, as it did for two weeks last September and October in one of the worst setbacks for government forces in the 15-year war.

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Senior Afghan military officials, as well as the civilian defense minister, have rushed to Kunduz to take charge of the fighting. Government forces have waged see-saw battles with insurgents since Saturday, and the Taliban has gained control of two districts near the provincial capital as well as another area in adjacent Takhar province.

The latest fighting comes days after a major Taliban push into Baghlan province just south of Kunduz and several weeks after Taliban forces began closing in on Lashkar Gah in southern Helmand province. Lashkar Gah is another strategic city the insurgents have long sought to seize, forcing both Afghan and US reinforcements to rush to the region.

Speaking to reporters in Kunduz on Monday, the deputy army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Murad Ali Murad, vowed not to allow the Taliban to retake Kunduz.

In Kabul, Cleveland told journalists Monday that US officials are ‘‘very confident that Kunduz will not fall. We will be there to assist.’’

Cleveland said the Taliban insurgents ‘‘are still clearly a threat’’ but that they have ‘‘still not been able to achieve their main strategic goal, to seize a major population center.’’

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He would not specify what role US forces are playing in Kunduz, but he said A-29 light attack aircraft have been deployed there, with US-trained Afghan pilots.

Afghan police officials said US attack helicopters were also brought into the fight Monday and were attacking positions in Ali Abad District, which connects Kunduz city to Baghlan.

Cleveland noted that although US forces are not authorized to participate in direct ground combat in Afghanistan, they can help Afghan forces ‘‘prevent strategic defeat’’ and, under recent orders from President Obama, can also provide ‘‘strategic effects,’’ such as allowing US warplanes to do ‘‘more deliberate targeting.’’

In Helmand, US warplanes and Special Forces troops have been deployed during the recent fighting, and the extra 100 troops are providing force protection in a police zone in Lashkar Gah.

While eager to help save Kunduz, US military officials are anxious to avoid the kind of errors that led to a fatal US airstrike on a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders there during last year’s battle in early October.

That inadvertent bombing, blamed on a mix of human error and missing equipment, killed at least 42 people including patients and medical staff.

Despite vows by both Afghan and US officials that Taliban fighters would not be permitted to repeat their humiliating takeover of Kunduz, provincial officials said the insurgents had launched a multipronged attack from three sides of the city.

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The officials described numerous fluid clashes, with Taliban and government forces gaining and losing ground. They also said electricity has been cut off in both Kunduz and Takhar provinces.