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Taliban seizes six Afghan provincial capitals in relentless blitz


The Taliban has overrun six provincial capitals in Afghanistan in less than a week, sweeping across the war-torn country in a relentless blitz that has led neoconservatives to howl in outrage at President Joe Biden‘s troop withdrawal.

Aibak, capital of Samangan province in the north, was overrun by the Taliban on Monday, according to its deputy governor and a spokesman for the Islamist insurgent group.

It follows the collapse of provincial capitals Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taleqan, Zaranj and Shibirghan as American and NATO forces finalize their pullout from the country by Biden’s August 31 deadline.

The militants have ramped up their push across much of Afghanistan, turning their guns on provincial capitals after taking large swaths of land in the mostly rural countryside. 

At the same time, they have been waging an assassination campaign targeting senior government officials in the capital, Kabul, as well as Afghan military pilots, spurring desertions that have decimated the government’s air support capabilities.

A Taliban spokesman warned the United States on Sunday against intervening following U.S. airstrikes to support beleaguered Afghan government forces. 

Foreign policy hawks including Rep. Liz Cheney and former Trump administration National Security Advisor John Bolton responded by slamming Biden’s withdrawal of ground forces and demanding a continuation of two decades of US fighting in Afghanistan.

The Taliban now controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory and is fighting for control of dozens of other provinces, including the cities of Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar 

Smoke rises from damaged shops in Kunduz on Sunday after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces. Taliban fighters took control the provincial capital and five others

Smoke rises from damaged shops in Kunduz on Sunday after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces. Taliban fighters took control the provincial capital and five others

‘What’s happening in Afghanistan is catastrophic. US forces on the ground were working [with] Afghan forces to prevent terrorists from establishing safe havens from which they can attack us again,’ said Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, in a tweet.

‘Withdrawing US forces is allowing terrorists & their allies to take over the country,’ she added. 

The Taliban is not designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department and is primarily interested in local territorial control, but infamously provided a safe haven for Al-Qaeda leaders to plot the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Bolton, a leading advocate of US military intervention around the world, similarly decried the developments in Afghanistan, blaming his former boss Donald Trump as well as Biden.

‘In Afghanistan, the Taliban has seized three more provincial capitals. Right now — is literally Biden’s last chance to reverse his and Trump’s erroneous withdrawal policy. When the Taliban wins, it compromises the security of all Americans,’ tweeted Bolton.

The Taliban offensive comes despite condemnations by the international community and warnings from the United Nations that a military victory and takeover by the Taliban would not be recognized. 

The Taliban have also not heeded appeals to return to the negotiating table and continue long-stalled peace talks with the Afghan government.

Afghan security officials stand guard outside the house of acting Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi, after an overnight explosion and attack, in Kabul on August 4

Afghan security officials stand guard outside the house of acting Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi, after an overnight explosion and attack, in Kabul on August 4

Private militia loyal to Ismail Khan, the former Mujahideen commander, patrols after security forces took back control of parts of Herat from the Taliban last week

Private militia loyal to Ismail Khan, the former Mujahideen commander, patrols after security forces took back control of parts of Herat from the Taliban last week

According to Mohammad Noor Rahmani, the council chief of northern Sar-e Pul province, the Taliban overran the provincial capital on Monday after over a week of resistance by the Afghan security forces, after which the city of Sar-e Pul collapsed. 

The government forces have now completely withdrawn from the province, he said.

Several pro-government local militia commanders also surrendered to the Taliban without a fight, allowing the insurgents to gain control of the entire province, Rahmani added.

Sar-e Pul joined other provincial capitals now fully under Taliban control: Zaranj, the capital of southwestern Nimroz province, the city of Shibirghan, the capital of northern Zawzjan province, and Taleqan, the capital of another northern province with the same name. 

Taliban fighters also overran the northern city of Kunduz on Sunday, and Afghan commandoes launched a counter-attack on Monday to try to retake the provincial capital in the north. 

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

In the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of Taliban activity with a large Pashtun population from which the group draws its strength, security officials reported a loud explosion in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, on Monday morning.

The insurgents have taken dozens of districts and border crossings in recent months and put pressure on several provincial capitals, including Herat and Kandahar in the south, as foreign troops withdraw.

‘US forces have conducted several airstrikes in defence of our Afghan partners in recent days,’ Maj. Nicole Ferrara, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson, told CNN on Sunday, without specifying where those strikes were made.

Desperate families fleeing Kunduz say Taliban blitz unfolded ‘like a horror movie’ 

In Kunduz, many desperate families, some with young children and pregnant women, abandoned their homes, hoping to reach the relative safety of Kabul, 196 miles to the south – a drive that would normally take around ten hours.

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

‘It is like a horror movie,’ he added.

Police had abandoned their check-posts on the roads around the city.

Internally displaced Afghans from Kunduz province, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and the government, take refuge in a public park in Kabul Monday

Internally displaced Afghans from Kunduz province, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and the government, take refuge in a public park in Kabul Monday

Smoke rises from damaged shops after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan on Sunday

Smoke rises from damaged shops after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan on Sunday

Taliban fighters Sunday took control of much of the capital of Kunduz province, including the governor's office and police headquarters, a provincial council member said

Taliban fighters Sunday took control of much of the capital of Kunduz province, including the governor’s office and police headquarters, a provincial council member said

Ghulam Rasool, an engineer, was trying to hire a bus to get his family to the capital as sound of gunfire reverberated through the streets of his hometown.

‘We may just be forced to walk till Kabul, but we are not sure if we could be killed on the way … ground clashes were not just stopping even for 10 minutes,’ Rasool told Reuters.

‘It’s best we leave this city till it’s decided whether the Afghan government or the Taliban will now govern it.’

He and several other residents, and a security official, said Afghan commandoes had launched an operation to clear the insurgents from the city.

Taliban fighters had holed up in government buildings in the city center, and had occupied positions commanding roads into to two defense bases on the outskirts, according to local government officials.

The Taliban set their sights on the biggest city in northern Afghanistan Monday after seizing five provincial capitals in a weekend blitz that appeared to overwhelm government forces.

A Taliban spokesman said its fighters were moving in on Mazar-i-Sharif, a linchpin of the government’s control of the region, after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan in the east.

An Afghan security official patrol on Saturday after they took back control of parts of Herat city following intense battle with Taliban militants

An Afghan security official patrol on Saturday after they took back control of parts of Herat city following intense battle with Taliban militants

Heavy fighting continued in Kandahar, Lashkargah, and Herat cities as the Taliban continued pressing on with their surge in Afghanistan and breaking through government lines

Heavy fighting continued in Kandahar, Lashkargah, and Herat cities as the Taliban continued pressing on with their surge in Afghanistan and breaking through government lines

Smoke rises from the city of Lashkar Gah after airstrikes against Taliban in Helmand province southern of Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday

Smoke rises from the city of Lashkar Gah after airstrikes against Taliban in Helmand province southern of Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday

Private militia loyal to Ismail Khan, the former Mujahideen commander, patrol after security forces took back control of parts of Herat following intense battle with Taliban last week

Private militia loyal to Ismail Khan, the former Mujahideen commander, patrol after security forces took back control of parts of Herat following intense battle with Taliban last week

The spokesman said they had entered the city, but officials — and residents contacted by phone — said the Taliban were exaggerating, with fighting 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 for the city, 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.

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. 

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.

Afghan military pilots quit after being targeted for assassination, leaving government troops without vital air support 

Meanwhile it was revealed that pilots are deserting Afghan forces after being targeted for assassinations, leaving government troops largely without air support that will be key to winning the battle against the Taliban. 

Eight pilots have been killed in recent weeks, with Hamidullah Azimi – a Black Hawk pilot – the latest to die after being blown up near the capital Kabul on Saturday.

Azimi was killed by a sticky bomb attached to his car which detonated, wounding five civilians who were nearby. 

Speaking anonymously to The Times, one pilot said he knows of 19 colleagues who have deserted the air force in recent weeks because the government could not guarantee their safety.

Hamidullah Azimi

Hamidullah Azimi

Hamidullah Azimi, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the Afghan army, was killed on Saturday when a bomb attached to his car exploded near the capital Kabul

Azimi's assassination (scene, pictured) along with the murder of seven other pilots has caused a collapse of morale that has seen 19 colleague desert their posts in recent weeks

Azimi’s assassination (scene, pictured) along with the murder of seven other pilots has caused a collapse of morale that has seen 19 colleague desert their posts in recent weeks

‘I have been flying for ten years. From the day I put on my uniform I swore to defend my country until the last drop of blood … but seeing my friends assassinated … I do not feel safe,’ he said.

‘I have to change the car I use every single day, borrowing my friends’ cars to drive to work. I can’t spend time outside my home. I can’t go shopping, not even get a haircut, to protect my identity and reduce the risk.

‘I am considering leaving my job. If the government can guarantee my family’s safety I will stay on base and fight forever.’

The Taliban has also been targeting media personalities with Toofan Omar, a radio station host and activist supporting independent media, shot dead in Kabul today.

Meanwhile Nematullah Hemat, a journalist working in Helmand province, was kidnapped on Monday by the Taliban, local officials said.

The apparent attack on Mazar-i-Sharif – which has been dismissed by government officials as ‘propaganda’ comes after the Taliban captured a major Afghan army base at Hazrat Sultan, halfway between Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Videos posted on pro-Islamist social media channels showed Taliban units at the base, which was reportedly captured without a shot being fired.

Some 50 vehicles, including armoured trucks, were left behind and have fallen into Taliban hands. 

Atta Mohammad Noor, the strongman leader of Mazar’s, vowed on Monday to fight for the city – saying there would be ‘resistance until the last drop of my blood’.

‘I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair,’ he tweeted.

The Afghan air force had been hit particularly hard by US and NATO withdrawal, as an army of contractors who had maintained aircraft and helicopters used by government forces quit the country with them.

Around a third of the military’s planes known to be out of action due to damage or a lack of spare parts, with morale among pilots running low due to non-stop sorties and supply missions they are forced to fly.

Morale then took a further beating due to the assassinations, with pilots seemingly unprotected even in the country’s heavily-defended capital. 

Afghans survey the damage caused by fighting between the Taliban and government forces in Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province which has now fallen to the Islamists

Afghans survey the damage caused by fighting between the Taliban and government forces in Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province which has now fallen to the Islamists

Smoke rises from the remains of shops that were destroyed in fighting between Taliban and government forces in the city of Kunduz

Smoke rises from the remains of shops that were destroyed in fighting between Taliban and government forces in the city of Kunduz

The Afghan army’s air force represents possibly its single-largest advantage over the Taliban, which has ranks filled with experienced and battle-hardened fighters but can field no aircraft.

But that advantage is fast evaporating – with the US forced to fly bombers and drones in from Oman to try and tip battles in the government’s favour.

Those sorties have managed to halt Taliban assaults such as the one underway in Lashkar Gah, which looked ready to fall last week before US bombs started dropping.

But Taliban commanders are quietly confident that the the US with eventually withdraw its air support.

‘These airstrikes … will not last much longer,’ one commander told The Times.

The US began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in April this year after Biden re-committed himself to an earlier Trump pledge to end America’s ‘forever war’.

Initially due to be complete by the symbolic date of September 11, sources on the ground say the withdrawal is already all-but over. 



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