KABUL: The Taliban captured Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second and third-largest, besides a strategic provincial capital, on Thursday. The advance further squeezed the embattled government just weeks before the end of American military mission there.
The seizure of Kandahar and Herat marks the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long blitz.
The capture of the city of Ghazni, meanwhile, cut off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault 20 years after US and Nato troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government.
Late on Thursday night, an Afghan official said the Taliban hade also taken much of western Badghis province, but not the provincial army corps and the intelligence department. A Taliban tweet claimed the insurgents had captured the seat of the provincial governor, the police headquarters and all other government offices.
While Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who are estimated to now hold over two-thirds of the country and are continuing to pressure government forces in several other provincial capitals.
Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public amputation, stoning and executions. The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months.
The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban keep up their momentum.
The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces and renews questions about where the over $830 billion spent by the US Defence Department on fighting, training those troops, and reconstruction efforts went, especially as Taliban fighters ride on American-made Humvees and pickup trucks with M-16s slung across their shoulders.
Afghan forces and the government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists over the days of fighting, instead issuing video communiques that downplay the Taliban advance.
In Herat, Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city which dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great and seized government buildings. Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents control.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines and later said they were in control.
Afghan lawmaker Semin Barekzai also acknowledged the city’s fall, saying that some officials there had escaped. Witnesses described seeing Taliban fighters once-detained at Heart’s prison now freely moving on the streets.
It wasn’t immediately clear what happened to Ismail Khan, who earlier had been described as under attack with his forces at a government building.
In Kandahar, the Taliban seized the governor’s office and other buildings. The governor and other officials fled the onslaught, catching a flight to Kabul. They declined to be named publicly as the defeat has yet to be acknowledged by the government.
The Taliban had earlier attacked a prison in Kandahar and freed inmates inside, officials said.
Earlier on Thursday, the militants raised their white flags over the city of Ghazni, just 130 kilometres southwest of Kabul.
Fighters crowded onto one seized Humvee and drove down a main road, with the golden dome of a mosque near the governor’s office visible behind them, yelling: God is great! The insurgents, cradling their rifles, later gathered at one roundabout for an impromptu speech by a commander. One militant carried a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani alleged that the provincial governor and police chief made a deal with the Taliban to flee after surrendering. Taliban video and photos purported to show the governor’s convoy freely passing by insurgents as part of the deal.
Afghan interior ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai later said the governor and his deputies had been arrested over that alleged deal.
Stanekzai also acknowledged in a video message that parts of Ghanzi had fallen, though he insisted government security forces do exist in the city.
The loss of Ghazni, which sits along the Kabul-Kandahar highway, could complicate resupply and movement for government forces, as well as squeeze the capital from the south.
Already, the Taliban’s weeklong blitz has seen the militants seize nine other provincial capitals around the country. Many are in the country’s northeast corner, pressuring Kabul from that direction as well.
In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban heartland, heavy fighting continued in Lashkar Gah, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto the capital of Helmand province.
On Wednesday, a suicide car bombing marked the latest wave of violence to target the capitals regional police headquarters. By Thursday, the Taliban had taken the building, with some police officers surrendering to the militants and others retreating to the nearby governor’s office that is still held by government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand.
Niazi criticised ongoing air strikes targeting the area, saying civilians likely had been wounded and killed.
The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves, and the government, without paying any attention to civilians, carried out airstrikes, she said.
With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the US air force is believed to be carrying out strikes. Aviation tracking data suggested B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.
US Air Force Maj. Nicole Ferrara, a Central Command spokeswoman, acknowledged that American forces have conducted several air strikes in defense of our Afghan partners in recent days. However, she declined to offer any details on the attacks or to discuss the Afghan complaints of civilian casualties.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2021