MAIMANA, Afghanistan (AFP) - Draped in a bandolier of shotgun cartridges, an Afghan cafe owner was forced to cobble together a militia of neighbourhood fruit vendors and vegetable hawkers when the Taleban threatened his city, demonstrating an alarming new push into urban areas.
Emboldened by their recent three-day occupation of Kunduz, the first Afghan city to fall to the Taleban since their ouster from power in 2001, insurgents have made brazen attempts to overrun several other provincial centres, from Ghazni in the south to Maimana in the north.
Seen previously as a rural militant movement capable only of hit-and-run attacks on cities, the Taleban's aggressive campaign to capture major urban areas reveals a highly potent insurgency that poses a crucial test for Afghanistan's overstretched Nato-backed forces.
On the night of Oct 4, less than a week after Kunduz fell, insurgents raided the capital of northern Faryab province bordering Turkmenistan.
Storming down the flanking shale-brown hills, they forced residents to snatch up meat cleavers and Kalashnikovs to defend the city alongside informal militias as security forces appeared to abandon their posts.
"Maimana city was like a house without doors that night," said cafe owner Haji Mohammad Ashraf, a 62-year-old community leader with a salt-and-pepper beard and a shotgun in his lap.
"People had no choice but to stand up and fight."
As insurgents breached the Maimana's outer defences, coming within 4km of the city, close-range battles erupted - "bullets were striking against bullets", a resident told AFP.
Pandemonium broke out as people scrambled to flee, fearing an outcome much worse than in Kunduz, where Taleban death squads were accused of rape, summary executions and torching and plundering buildings.
Those who stayed burned their government IDs, shredded polio vaccination documents and tore down pictures of unveiled women as residents hastened to erase anything that could invite the wrath of occupying Taleban cadres.
Ashraf mobilised his 12 sons and neighbouring shopkeepers, who traditionally keep small arms at home but have little or no combat experience.
"I told them: 'Let's defend our city, let's fight till the last drop of blood in our veins'."
Before he went to fight, Ashraf locked up his two wives, six daughters and other female relatives in a room, with a sobering warning that he would blow them up with grenade to protect their "honour" if the Taleban came.
"I told them: 'If we cannot protect you, we will kill you'."
- 'Major catastrophe' -
The Taleban were pushed back but the mobilisation of citizen militias raised troubling questions about the ability of Nato-trained Afghan forces as they struggle to rein in the expanding insurgency.
Maimana and Kunduz are part of a broader Taliban push, with the UN estimating that the group's reach is the widest since 2001 and more than half of the districts across Afghanistan at risk.
Last week Washington announced it would slow the withdrawal of US troops from the country, with President Barack Obama admitting that Afghan forces are not yet ready to stand alone against the resurgent militants.
"Citizen militias prevented a major catastrophe in Maimana," said Ashraf Sharifi, head of the political science department at Faryab University.
"The public confidence in government forces is very low and that in people's forces and militias is very high."
Maimana residents said the Taleban raid exposed the paralysis of the security leadership of the province, with many reported seeing deserted checkpoints, abandoned humvees and empty police stations.
Two militia commanders in outlying villages told AFP they fielded frantic calls from policemen seeking refuge in their homes.
"Many officers lost their spine that night," Maimana prison chief Mohammed Sardar Timory told AFP.
Security officials deny leaving their posts.
- 'Left to die' -
Arming civilians as a bulwark against the insurgents is a strategy fraught with risk in the already violence-wracked nation.
But, says Hafizullah Fetrat: "If the government lacks the ability to protect civilians, then people have the right to defend their property, their wives, their dignity.
"In the long term, however, weapons need to be registered and civilians need to be disarmed or adjusted in the ranks of security forces," the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Maimana told AFP.
After the Taleban retreat, Ashraf's eldest son, 25-year-old Rustom - who wields a Kalashnikov and handcuffs on the off-chance he might catch a militant alive - led a new security push in his neighbourhood.
With sandbags, lumps of moist earth and straw bales, he erected a sniper's nest just outside his father's cafe, turning the crowded working class neighbourhood into a quasi military garrison.
The next day, police officials levelled the pillbox-like structure with loopholes for guns, saying it was raising unnecessary alarm in the area and censuring him for not registering his weapon.
"Register with whom?" he said later, laughing mockingly. "With the government who left us to die that night?"