KABUL, Afghanistan — In a clear sign of concern over the Taliban’s momentum in northeast Afghanistan, the American military conducted two airstrikes of Taliban positions in a remote corner of the country on 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 an American military response.
But this week, the Taliban captured Kunduz, a city of 300,000 people, in its largest victory in more than a decade.
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. 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 that more than 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces who had gathered on Friday morning had retreated as the Taliban attacked and seized the area. At 5:45 p.m., the American military conducted airstrikes on both the district of Baharak and its neighboring district, an American military 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 and such reports often turn out to be wrong.
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.
By Wednesday night, Afghan security forces had fought their way into Kunduz, but by Friday the Taliban still held parts of the city, including its central square, residents said. The fighting persisted in a number of neighborhoods, with reports of close-quarters fighting in which Taliban fighters were attacking Afghan troops in Humvees with rocket-propelled grenades and a machine gun mounted on a motorcycle. By Friday, residents reached by telephone reported a series of airstrikes’ bombarding the city.
An American military spokeswoman confirmed that there were three American airstrikes on the city’s outskirts over the course of the day.
Doctors Without Borders, which runs the main trauma hospital in the city, said it had treated 345 people, including 59 children, since Monday morning.
The number of dead remained unknown. Residents reported seeing bodies in the streets. At the Doctors Without Borders hospital, at least 37 people had died of their wounds by the time they were brought there.
The hospital was running short of supplies, including blood, because the road to Kunduz from Kabul had been blocked by insurgents at at least two points. Trucks carrying medical supplies left Kabul on Tuesday, but by Friday they still had not been able to reach Kunduz.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that emergency medical supplies were ready to be flown in from Kabul as soon as security at the Kunduz airport improved.
In eastern Afghanistan, on Friday morning shortly after midnight, an Air Force C-130J transport plane crashed, although the American military said it did not appear to be the result of Taliban fire. The dead included six crew members, who were American armed forces personnel; five civilian contractors working for the American-led military mission in Afghanistan; and three Afghans who were on the ground.
“With high confidence, it does not appear at this time that enemy fire was involved in the aircraft crash,” said Maj. Tony M. Wickman, an Air Force spokesman in Afghanistan.
The cause of the accident was under investigation. The crash occurred as the four-propeller transport aircraft, assigned to the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, was taking off from the American base in Jalalabad.
The fighting in Kunduz has led to an exodus of residents, not only from that city, but also from neighboring provinces, including Takhar and Baghlan, where the Taliban have taken territory over the past week.
By Friday afternoon, a state of anxiety had settled over many residents in the picturesque capital of northeastern Badakhshan, nestled in a valley.
“I am afraid of Taliban and their brutality,” one resident said as he described his plan to fly out of Faizabad with his family on the next plane. “I am a moderate Afghan whose daughter and two boys are studying in schools,” he explained.
He worried that even if local Taliban fighters left him alone, the influx of foreign fighters over the past year or two might kill him and marry off his daughter. He worried that other residents of the city might inform on him to any invading Taliban.
“In fact, I am even afraid of my neighbors who know that I am a teacher who supports democracy,” he said.