On Thursday, the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s third largest city and a provincial capital in a region near Kabul. This was just weeks before the American military mission ended.
As part of their week-long offensive, the Taliban have seized 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. This is the largest prize they have ever won. The Great Mosque, which dates back to 500 BC, was seized by the Taliban fighters. Witnesses reported hearing gunfire from one government building, while the rest fell silent under insurgent control.
Ghazni’s capture, however, closes a vital highway that links the Afghan capital to the country’s southern regions. These provinces are also under attack as part of an insurgent push 20 years after the U.S. and NATO troops swept into the country and overthrew the Taliban government.
Although Kabul is not directly at risk, losses and battles elsewhere have further strengthened the grip of a resurgent Taliban. They now control over two-thirds the country and continue to exert pressure on government forces in many other provincial capitals.
Thousands of people have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public amputations, stonings and executions. Although diplomats met throughout the day, peace talks in Qatar remain deadlocked.
According to the latest U.S. intelligence assessment, Kabul could be under insurgent pressure in 30 days. If current trends continue, the Taliban could take complete control of the country in a matter of months. If the Taliban continue their momentum, the Afghan government could be forced to withdraw to defend Kabul and a few other cities.
This attack represents a shocking collapse of Afghan forces. It also raises questions about the $830 billion U.S. Defense Department spent on fighting, training troops and reconstruction efforts.
The government and Afghan security forces have not responded to journalists’ repeated questions over the fighting days. Instead, they issued video communiques that downplayed the Taliban advance.
Herat was under militant attack for over two weeks. One wave of attacks was stopped by Ismail Khan’s forces. On Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through city’s defense lines and claimed they had taken control.
Semin Barekzai, an Afghan lawmaker, also acknowledged the fall of the city and said that some officials had escaped. Witnesses claimed to have seen Taliban fighters who were once held at Herat’s prison, now free to move on the streets.
Khan was previously described as being under attack by his forces at a government structure. It wasn’t immediately obvious what happened to Khan.
Thursday was an earlier day when the militants flew their white flags with an Islamic proclamation to faith above Ghazni, a city located just 130 km (80 miles) south of Kabul.
A group of fighters packed onto a seized Humvee, and drove down a main street, the golden dome of a mosque visible behind them. They shouted: “God is great!” Later, the insurgents, clutching their rifles, gathered at a roundabout to hear an impromptu speech from a commander. One militant was carrying a rocket-propelled bomber launcher.
Amanullah Kamrani, a Ghazni provincial councilor, claimed that the Taliban and the provincial governor made a deal to allow them to flee after they surrendered. Taliban photos and video purportedly show the governor’s convoy passing freely by insurgents as part the deal.
Mirwais Stanekzai, a spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry, later stated that the governor and his deputy had been detained over this alleged deal. They could not immediately be reached for comment.
Stanekzai also admitted in a video message that Ghanzi’s parts had fallen. However, he maintained that security forces from the government “do exist” within the city.
Ghazni, which is located along the Kabul–Kandahar Highway, could hinder resupply and movement of government forces as well as squeeze capital from the south.
Already, the Taliban’s weeklong blitz has seen the militants seize nine other provincial capitals around the country. Many are also in the northeast corner of the country, pressing Kabul in that direction.
Southern Afghanistan is the Taliban’s heartland. Heavy fighting continued in Lashkar Gah where the Taliban and surrounding government forces sought to seize control of Helmand province’s capital.
A suicide car bombing targeted the capital’s regional police chief on Wednesday. The Taliban had already taken over the building by Thursday. Some police officers surrendered to the Taliban while others fled to the governor’s office nearby, which is still being held by government forces.
Officials said that the Taliban invaded a Kandahar prison and released inmates Wednesday night. Bahir Ahmadi, Kandahar’s provincial governor, acknowledged Thursday that the Taliban had entered Kandahar capital. However, he said Afghan forces were fighting back.
Niazi criticised ongoing airstrikes in the area, claiming that civilians had likely been injured and killed.
She said that the Taliban used civilian homes to protect themselves and that the government, which didn’t pay any attention to civilians at all, conducted airstrikes.
The U.S. Air Force may be conducting strikes in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Afghan air force is weak and disorganized. According to The Cavell Group, an Australian security firm, aviation tracking data indicated that U.S. Air Force B52 bombers, F-15 fighter planes, drones, and other aircraft were involved with the fighting throughout the country.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Nicole Ferrara, spokeswoman for Central Command, stated that American forces had conducted “multiple airstrikes to defend our Afghan partners in the recent days.” She declined to give any further details or discuss Afghan complaints about civilian casualties.
A senior Afghan official spoke on Thursday night under anonymity to discuss the developments. He said that the Taliban had also taken western Badghis province, but not the provincial army corps or the intelligence department. Insurgents claimed to have captured the provincial governor’s seat, the police headquarters, and all other government offices.
Diplomats met in Doha (Qatar) on Thursday to discuss whether or not they will ever join long-stalled peace negotiations aimed at moving Afghanistan towards an administration that includes members from the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban could either be brought to power by force or split into factions, as it did in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal.
The High Council for National Reconciliation of the government called for peace negotiations to resume. It stated that it had submitted a plan for Qatar to resolve its differences, but did not elaborate.