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Fighting in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz continues as Taliban forces once again try to make inroads toward the eponymous provincial capital. The Taliban have already established a strong presence in three of the northern province's seven districts; ongoing battles are currently being fought in the districts of Ali Abad, Chahar Dara, and Imam Sahib.
Kunduz itself has suffered from insecurity — including a similar Taliban offensive that saw more than 1,500 armed opposition fighters launch attacks across four of the province's districts last summer — since 2007. However, with attacks and operations in several northern provinces, including Badakhshan, Sar-e Pol, and Baghlan, there is a fear that the region, which was once seen as relatively safer than much of the rest of the country, may become a hotbed of violence.
Last month, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, speaker for the National Assembly, said it would be only a matter of days before the North of Afghanistan would begin to resemble North Waziristan, the troubled area along the border with Pakistan. North Waziristan has largely been seen as a volatile stronghold of groups that oppose both the Kabul and the Islamabad governments.
Though fighting has now reached its second full week, a recent BBC report quoting the provincial governor has raised fears that the Taliban and forces claiming to be allied with Daesh, or IS, in Afghanistan are now fighting alongside one another.
According to the BBC, Mohammed Omar Safi, provincial governor, said Daesh-allied forces are "supporting the Taliban, training the Taliban, trying to build the capacity of the Taliban for a bigger fight."
If true, the battle for the North would mark the first instance of Daesh-Taliban collaboration in Afghanistan.
Previously, senior government officials said that if a peace were declared with the Taliban, they would join the government in the fight against the Iraq and Syria-based group.
The presence of Daesh in the country has been a hotly contested topic.
Speaking before a joint session of the US Congress in March, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Daesh forces had established themselves in the South and West of the country and have been actively trying "to test for vulnerabilities" in the Central Asian nation.
Others, however, see little connection between the fighters who have raised black flags and the forces of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Last month Noorolhaq Olomi, interior minister, said those in Afghanistan claiming to belong to Daesh were merely manifestations of growing splits among the Taliban rather than a new faction tied to fighters in the Middle East.
"The up-and-down black and white flags of Daesh and Taliban shows that Taliban are dismantling and Daesh will not raise in Afghanistan," Olomi said in reference to claims that in some southern districts the white flag of the Taliban was being replaced with the black flag of Daesh.
The battles in Kunduz come at a time when the national unity government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, has been unable to secure a clear nominee to head the nation's defense ministry. The position has been in the hands of a caretaker for more than seven months now.
In the months since the withdrawal of most Western troops from the country, there have been repeated questions of whether the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be able to insure the security of the country on their own as the 13,000 remaining foreign forces take on a more advisory role.
Approaching this year's spring offensive without a new minister of defense in place was seen by many as yet another challenge for the ANSF, for whom this year will prove an important test.
Last week, the Taliban released a video on their website purporting to show the group's fighters in Imam Sahib. The video also contains footage of what they say are 10 of the 55 members of the ANSF they claimed to have captured so far.
In statements, government officials said the fighting, which began just as the Taliban began their annual spring offensive, entitled Azem, or Resolute, late last month, has led to the displacement of between 3,000 and 10,000 families. However, local leaders say that number could be as high as 15,000.
With little domestic or foreign aid to assist those seeking refuge in the relative safety of the capital, most IDPs are living in overcrowded conditions, with few options other than to set up tents or sleep outside in a city known for its brutal heat.
Local officials and residents have repeatedly stated that foreign fighters have joined with the hundreds of Afghan Taliban who were deployed to the province on April 24. Among the foreigners reported to be fighting alongside the Taliban are Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Chechens.
Most notably, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has long been allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, has stepped up its presence in the province in recent months.
In statements to the media, Safi, the provincial governor, insists that government forces are gaining ground in the battle against the Taliban. Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Safi said 190 Taliban fighters had been killed in the last 13 days of fighting. Another 23, said Safi, laid down their arms. "Several foreign nationals" were among those killed, he added.
In a statement to the Taliban, Safi echoed a long-stated government call for the group's fighters to end their fight and return to daily life. Foreign fighters, however, said Safi, would not be granted pardon. The 23 Taliban defectors were said to be led by a man named Sheikh Zahid, who was present at the governor's press conference yesterday.
Despite the reported heavy losses suffered by the Taliban, Safi said so far only 20 security personnel have been killed.
The ground battles have not been without a high civilian toll, however. Safi reported 200 cases of civilian injuries as a result of the fighting.
Kunduz, which served as the Taliban's last stronghold prior to the US invasion of 2001, holds a special significance to the group. Last summer, a white Taliban flag was hoisted over a former German army base during a brief takeover of the facility.