Afghan War

Taliban take Kandahar, Herat in major offensive | English News | GulNews

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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.

Ghazni taken

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

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Not waiting for phone call from Biden, says PM Imran | English News | GulNews

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Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a wide-ranging talk with foreign journalists at his residence on Wednesday night, said he was not really “waiting” for a phone call from US President Joe Biden.

“I keep hearing that President Biden hasn’t called me. It’s his business. It’s not like I am waiting for any phone call,” he said in response to a question from a Reuters journalist.

The prime minister’s comments come days after National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf stated that Pakistan has other options if Biden continues to ignore the country’s leadership.

“The president of the United States hasn’t spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make-or-break in some cases, in some ways, in Afghanistan — we struggle to understand the signal, right?” Yusuf had told The Financial Times in an interview.

“We’ve been told every time that … [the phone call] will happen, it’s technical reasons or whatever. But frankly, people don’t believe it,” he had said. “If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options,” he had added, refusing to elaborate.

During the interaction with the foreign media, the prime minister talked about the current situation in Afghanistan, its impact on Pakistan, and the withdrawal of US troops from the war-torn country.

“The hasty way in which the Americans left, if they wanted a political settlement then common sense dictates that [you negotiate] from a position of strength,” he said, adding that the US was now blaming Pakistan when they no longer had any leverage.

“I think the Americans have decided that India is a strategic partner. Maybe that’s why Pakistan is being treated differently. Pakistan is just considered to be useful only in the context of settling this mess.”

The premier added that Pakistan’s closeness to China was another reason for the change in the US’ attitude.

Fallout in Pakistan

The prime minister stressed throughout the interaction that Pakistan stood to lose the most from a deterioration in the Afghan situation.

“You ask me whether we are worried? We are [definitely] worried because the direct impact of descending into a prolonged civil war […] the country that will be most affected after Afghanistan will be Pakistan.”

He explained that the Taliban were a Pakhtun-majority group and hence there would be spillover effects in Pakistan’s Pakhtun majority areas.

“It happened in 2003/2004 that our Pakhtun areas reacted to what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan lost 70,000 people in that because we supported the Americans.

“So there is a likelihood that we will again have problems in our Pakhtun areas,” the premier explained. He added that close to three million people had also been internally displaced from the tribal areas.

Prime Minister Imran Khan pointed out that Pakistan already housed 3 million registered Afghan refugees with more unaccounted for. “Our economy is just recovering [so] we don’t want another inflow of refugees,” he said.

Any civil war in Afghanistan would also derail Pakistan’s plans for connectivity with Central Asia and geo-economic agenda, throwing them “out the window”, the premier highlighted.

He said a “nightmare scenario” for Pakistan would be a protracted civil war in case the Taliban tried to form an exclusive Afghan government through a military takeover.

The premier explained that Afghanistan was an ethnically diverse population so if the Taliban tried to take over and one ethnic group tried to impose itself over the others, it would lead to “constant unrest and that isn’t what Pakistan wants”.

He reiterated Pakistan would be affected by that unrest.

“We have a larger Pakhtun population here in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and they’re probably the most xenophobic people on earth. They fight each other normally but when it’s an outside [force], they all get together.”

Pakistan’s entry in the US-led war on terror in 2001 led to a “civil war in the tribal areas”, the prime minister said, explaining that as a result, the militant organisations formed to wage Jihad against the Soviet Union turned against Pakistan.

“Hence it’s in Pakistan’s interest that there is a political settlement and all factions come [together to form] a government that represents everyone.”

‘Strategic depth’

Responding to a question on the extent of Pakistani influence over the Taliban, the premier said that even back in 2001, when Pakistan had recognised the Taliban government and was “most influential”, the group had still refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.

“So even then Pakistan’s influence was not all-encompassing.”

He said that anyone who thought Afghanistan could be controlled from outside “doesn’t understand the character of the Afghan people”, adding that the people could not be made “puppets”.

“If I was a Pakistani policymaker in the 90s, I would not have encouraged this idea of strategic depth which was Pakistan’s policy at the time.

“It is very understandable because India, seven times the size of Pakistan, was a hostile eastern neighbour and the Pakistani security setup was always worried about facing hostilities on two fronts so there was always an attempt to have a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan,” he said.

Prime Minister Imran Khan emphasised that attempting to influence the Afghan government would not work since the Afghan population would not accept it and any perception of being controlled from outside would lead to a loss of credibility.

“Pakistan should work with any government that is selected by the people of Afghanistan.”

Hence, the PTI government’s policy was to engage with all Afghan factions, hold no favourites and have a readiness to work whichever government comes into power.

Attitude of Afghan govt

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he had tried to persuade the senior Taliban leadership during their visit to Pakistan earlier this year to come to a political settlement but they had refused to talk to President Ashraf Ghani.

He said he had suggested an interim government in 2019 before the Afghanistan presidential election but “the Afghan government was very critical about this remark […] Once President Ghani got elected and the Taliban were excluded, it was always going to be a problem from then onwards since he insisted they talk to him while they didn’t recognise him or the elections”.

“Now the Afghan government is extremely critical about Pakistan [and] they think we have some magical powers that we will make the Taliban do whatever we want [them] to do,” the premier said, adding that the Afghan government didn’t realise that Pakistan’s leverage was “minuscule and diminished” since the American withdrawal.

He said it became extremely difficult to persuade the Taliban once the US gave a date for withdrawal and the Afghan government was now blaming Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan.

“They somehow think Pakistan has supernatural powers [and that] we are a superpower plus which has such power that the 60,000 to 70,000 Taliban can take on 300,00 Afghan government troops with aircraft and modern weapons and somehow we have the power to make them (Taliban) win.”

The prime minister noted that the Afghan government’s posturing was aimed at bringing the US back into Afghanistan.

“They want the Americans to intervene again but they’ve been here for 20 years so what will they do now which they didn’t do in 20 years?” he questioned.

The prime minister reiterated that Pakistan had made it clear “our soil will not be used [for operations in Afghanistan] so that we again get embroiled in an Afghan civil war” and it did not want military bases in its territory.

“As far as I know after [August] 31, the Americans are going to stop all sorts of [operations], even air attacks in Afghanistan,” he said.

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EU vows help for Afghanistan’s neighbours on refugees | English News | GulNews

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The European Union said on Tuesday it was eyeing more support for Afghanistan’s neighbours as a senior official warned fighting could force half a million people to flee abroad.

“The first priority is to continue to provide the best possible support according to the means available to those countries that are the most affected,” a senior EU official said.

“So it’s important to continue strengthening direct support to those countries and the different types of organisations, non-governmental organisations or international organisations that are present in the field and providing assistance to displaced persons and refugees.”

The 27-nation bloc is nervously watching as the Taliban sweep across the conflict-wracked country as foreign troops depart.

Brussels fears the violence could lead to a repeat of the 2015 crisis that saw around a million migrants — many from Syria — arrive in the EU and sparked major political problems at home.

The United Nations says that so far this year there have been no “large-scale displacements” across Afghanistan’s borders despite the Taliban’s advance.

And the EU official said that the number of arrivals from Afghanistan since the start of January was around 4,000, 25 per cent lower than in 2020.

But another official from the bloc said the UN estimated that 500,000 people could be pushed to leave Afghanistan for Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan as the situation deteriorates.

The UN says that Iran and Pakistan already host “more than two million registered Afghan refugees in total” after decades of conflict in the country.

While the bloc hopes to stave off a massive influx of people, an official said that Brussels was working to help resettle Afghans who worked for the EU.

“We are in intense cooperation with all our member states, to make sure that our local agents and their dependents may either, if they wish, go to a European Union member state or go to another state in the region,” the official said.

The EU’s ambassador to Kabul currently remains in Afghanistan despite the deteriorating security situation and officials insist the bloc aims to maintain its diplomatic presence.

Officials said that nine member states also still have functioning embassies in the country.

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Taliban seize sixth provincial capital, press on with northern offensive after weekend blitz | English News | GulNews

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The Taliban seized a sixth Afghan provincial capital on Monday following a weekend blitz across the north that saw urban centres fall in quick succession and the government struggle to keep the militants at bay.

Insurgents entered Aibak without a fight after community elders pleaded with officials to spare the city from more violence following weeks of clashes on the outskirts, said Sefatullah Samangani, deputy governor of Samangan province.

“The governor accepted and withdrew all the forces from the city,” Samangani added, saying the Taliban were now in “full control”.

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the city had been taken.

The insurgents have overrun five provincial capitals across the north, sparking fears the government is rapidly losing control of the region.

They have also taken Zaranj, capital of Nimroz province, in the southwest.

Earlier Monday, the Taliban said they were moving in on Mazar-i-Sharif — the largest city in the north and a linchpin for the government’s control of the region — after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.

A spokesman said Taliban fighters had entered the city, but officials — and residents contacted by phone — said the group was exaggerating, with clashes confined to surrounding districts.

“The enemy is trying to distort public opinion and create anxiety for the civilian population by their propaganda,” said a statement from the provincial police force in Balkh, where Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital.

Mazar’s longtime strongman Atta Mohammad Noor vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be “resistance until the last drop of my blood”.

“I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair,” he tweeted.

The loss of the city, steeped in history and long an economic hub, would signal the collapse of Kabul’s control of the north and likely raise major questions about the future of the government.

In neighbouring Kunduz, the second-largest city in the north that fell to the Taliban on Sunday, residents said insurgents were all over the city, occupying government offices and institutions.

“The security situation is not good and we fled to save our lives,” Rahmatullah, a 28-year-old resident, told AFP.

“It is like a horror movie,” he added.

Another resident Abdul Qudoos said fears were growing that Kunduz would face food and water shortages.

Fighting in the south

As the Taliban pressed ahead in the north, fighting also raged in the south, where Afghan forces have been locked in heavy street-to-street fighting with the Taliban.

The insurgents have for weeks been trying to take Kandahar and Lashkar Gah — both with Pashtun majorities from where the Taliban draw their strength.

“We’re clearing houses, roads, and buildings that the Taliban occupy,” General Sami Sadat, commander of the Afghan army’s 215 Corps, told AFP from Lashkar Gah.

The ministry of defence said hundreds of Taliban fighters had been killed or injured in the last 24 hours.

Both sides routinely exaggerate death tolls that are virtually impossible to verify.

The claims come a day after Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul and Taloqan in the north fell within hours of each other.

Northern Afghanistan has long been considered an anti-Taliban stronghold that saw some of the stiffest resistance to militant rule in the 1990s.

The region remains home to several militias and is also a fertile recruiting ground for the country’s armed forces.

Fighting in Afghanistan’s long-running conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal set to be completed before the end of the month.

The withdrawal of foreign forces is due to finish at the end of this month ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The US-led invasion sparked by 9/11 toppled the first Taliban regime in 2001.

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