KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Two provincial capitals in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on Tuesday, this time in the west and north of the country, local officials said, marking the seventh and eighth to be invaded in less than a week .
The Taliban had encroached on the city of Farah, the capital of the province of the same name, for some time, with the western province having been the focal point of the group’s offensive operations in the west for years.
Gulbuddin, a police officer in the town of Farah who, like many Afghans, has a name, said government officials fled to an army headquarters several kilometers from the town and the prison principal had been raped by Taliban fighters. The streets, he said, were full of released detainees.
And in the north, the Taliban’s stranglehold on the provincial capital of Baghlan, Pul-i-Khumri, ultimately succeeded, forcing government forces to retreat. The city sits on the highway connecting the northern provinces to Kabul, meaning the insurgents need only turn south and move forward to start putting even more pressure on the country’s capital.
Mohammad Kamin Baghlani, a pro-government militia commander in Baghlan, said Pul-i-Khumri fell on Tuesday and his forces retreated south.
“All parts of the city have fallen,” he said. “We were under a lot of pressure and we weren’t able to resist anymore.
Masood Bakhtawar, the provincial governor of Farah, denied that the town had been captured by insurgents and said the fighting was continuing.
Bismullah Attash, a member of the provincial council of Baghlan province, said the town of Pul-i-Khumri fell after government forces resisted it for months.
The likely downfall of Farah and Pul-i-Khumri comes as Afghan security forces repelled attacks in other towns, notably in Herat province, where fighting has been reported outside the capital. The Taliban are entrenched in Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south and outside Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan, the remote northern province that was once considered an anti-Taliban stronghold.
It cannot be underestimated what these losses will inevitably do to the already declining morale of government security forces.
The seizure of now six provincial capitals in the northern provinces in five days has sent thousands of refugees south to seek refuge in Kabul, the country’s capital.
A fenced basketball court in a downtown park has been turned into a place of refuge. On Monday, the displaced people gathered under makeshift accommodation consisting of little more than sheets stretched over wooden poles.
Hasib Siddiqi, a resident of Farah town, said his neighbors had fled the town in recent days.
“We have been deceived by government assurances,” he said. “They said the city will not collapse and that they have brought helicopters and planes and they will defend the city.”
In recent weeks, the Afghan government has done little to articulate a plan to repel the Taliban military offensive, which has captured about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts since the US withdrawal began on May 1.
But a nascent strategy to slow the Taliban’s winning streak now exists, according to US and UN diplomats and officials. As they described, the plan aligns closely with long-standing U.S. recommendations that the Afghans should consolidate their remaining forces around critical roads and towns, as well as major border crossings, and abandon the Most of the dozens of districts already seized by the Taliban.
How this plan takes into account the capture of seven provincial capitals across the country remains unclear. As of Tuesday, the Afghan security forces had not yet carried out any serious operation to retake the seized capitals.
The only stopgap measure Afghan military leaders seemed to rely on in recent months – shifting better-trained commando forces from one vulnerable position to another to thwart the advancing insurgents – has been exhausted. There are simply not enough of these troops to stop the Taliban from taking the provincial capitals.
The seizure of Zaranj in Nimruz province on the Afghan-Iranian border on Friday highlighted this.
The 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army is responsible for security in Zaranj and Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand province, which had also been under siege for several days last week. Leaders of the 215th Corps ultimately focused on defending Lashkar Gah, leaving Zaranj open to the Taliban, who saw little resistance when they entered the city.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said the push to take provincial capitals was in response to an announcement earlier this month by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani of his war strategy that included defending the cities. Another Taliban official said the offensive against urban areas, which killed and injured thousands of civilians, was a response to US airstrikes.
But whatever the reason, it was already clear months ago that the Taliban, confident of victory in battle, had virtually moved away from peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
Although peace talks have stalled for several months, Afghan officials met with Taliban officials this week in Doha, Qatar, to try to revive negotiations.
Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, said the Taliban was ready to speed up peace talks, but continued to refuse to discuss any kind of political settlement. Instead, they continued to demand the release of Taliban prisoners, which the Afghan government had rejected.
Farah province lies on the main road that leads to the western town of Herat, where Taliban fighters have also besieged. The province also shares a border with Iran; the main border post was seized by the Taliban last month.
Taking Farah and other towns in the region would allow the group to route insurgent fighters to Herat or elsewhere to reinforce other positions, while limiting the ability of Afghan security forces to move to planes, which are rare. due to a lack of maintenance resources. and exhausted pilots.
The same can be said for Pul-i-Khumri. With the city under Taliban control, as well as the north-south highway running through it, the insurgents are dangerously close to completely isolating the north of the country.
Despite the Taliban’s rapid shift from attacks on rural areas to assaults on cities, US air support has been silenced. The United States provided air support to Afghan security forces in only two southern cities.
Barring intervention from the White House or the Pentagon, such support is expected to end by August 31, when US forces complete their withdrawal.
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim from Kabul, Afghanistan. Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul.