As Afghan Cities Fall to Taliban, Brutal New Chapter Unfolds
KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban seized three Afghan towns on Sunday, including the Kunduz shopping center, officials said, stepping up a large-scale offensive that claimed five provincial capitals in three days and showed how badly the government has little control over the country without the US military. power to protect it.
Never before in 20 years of war has the Taliban directly attacked more than one provincial capital at a time. Today, three fell on Sunday alone – Kunduz, Sar-i-Pul and Taliqan, all in the north – and even more populous towns are under siege, in a devastating setback for the Afghan government.
The fall of these cities comes just weeks before US forces set to complete a total withdrawal from Afghanistan, exposing a predicament for President Biden.
Since the start of the US withdrawal, the Taliban have captured more than half of the approximately 400 Afghan districts, according to some estimates. And their recent attacks on provincial capitals violated the 2020 peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States. Under the deal, which paved the way for the US withdrawal, the Taliban pledged not to attack provincial centers like Kunduz.
Administration officials said on Sunday that Biden had been briefed on events in Afghanistan but was not changing course on the final troop withdrawal.
The Taliban’s swift victories have heightened fears about the ability of Afghan security forces to defend territory that remains under government control. Since May, insurgents have swept through rural areas of the country, and in late June they began attacking major cities in Afghanistan for the first time in years.
Provincial capitals are often the last islands of government presence in provinces with a high density of Taliban fighters, and they are home to hundreds of thousands of Afghans recently displaced by the fighting. Adding to the unease of many Afghans, the Taliban has trumpeted their recent victories on social media in a concerted effort to promote a sense that their return to power is inevitable.
The Taliban’s winning streak has intensified both the strategic and psychological encirclement of Kabul, the country’s capital. While the Taliban have continued their campaign of assassinations against Afghan officials and civil society figures in the capital in recent days, they have yet to begin intense military operations around Kabul, perhaps waiting for more. measure the American and government reaction to their recent triumphs.
The simultaneous sieges on provincial hubs have exhausted Afghan security forces and strained military resources. Overwhelmed, Afghan forces have focused on defending key cities like Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west and Kunduz in the north in recent days, leaving others vulnerable to capture.
On Friday, the Taliban took advantage of this opening: in Zaranj, the provincial capital near the border with Iran, the insurgents encountered little resistance when entering the city. A day later, they captured another capital, Sheberghan, the northern stronghold of warlord Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose militia forces were overrun. On Sunday, Taliban forces stormed into three other provincial capitals, including Kunduz, a vital trade hub the group has long coveted as both a strategic and a symbolic prize.
The shift from the Taliban military offensive to capturing Afghan towns is the start of a bloody new chapter unfolding in Afghanistan, experts say.
“It is now a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not so distant past,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, in a statement. United Nations Security Special Session. Council Friday. “Attacking urban areas is willfully inflicting enormous damage and causing massive civilian casualties.”
By stepping up pressure on another front, the insurgents have also emphasized their ability to carry out targeted strikes inside Kabul:.
The siege of Kunduz, a town of 374,000 inhabitants, by the Taliban began in late June and they exhausted government soldiers and police units in clashes that raged 24 hours a day. escalated as the Taliban attacked exhausted government troops one last time.
Ahmad Shokur Ghaznawi, a resident of Kunduz, said he heard gunfire as security forces and Taliban fighters clashed in the alley just outside his house. As the fighting intensified, around 50 members of the Afghan security forces gathered in the alley. But the government soldiers seemed exhausted.
“They said they were hungry – they had no more bread,” Ghaznawi said.
As of Sunday morning, security forces had retreated to a town south of town and Taliban fighters took to the streets on motorcycles, police vehicles and in Humvees.
As the Taliban hoisted their flag in the main square of Kunduz and freed hundreds of inmates from the central prison, a sense of unease spread through the city: plumes of black smoke flew into the sky, after that two of the city’s main markets caught fire. Fearing that their stores would be looted, traders moved their wares to their homes.
“People just want to run away alive and leave all their belongings behind,” said Sulaiman Satarzada, 28, a businessman from Kunduz.
By the end of the day, the Taliban had also captured the northern city of Taliqan, the capital of Takhar province, and Sar-i-Pul, the capital of the northern province of the same name. With Sar-i-Pul province now mainly under their control, the insurgents positioned themselves to attack Mazar-i-Sharif, the economic center and capital of Balkh province, from two different directions: Sar-i-Pul and Jowjzan in the west. and Kunduz to the east.
As of Sunday evening, no central government official – including President Ashraf Ghani – commented on the capture of the five provincial capitals; the Afghan Defense Ministry simply said Afghan security forces were fighting across the country, killing dozens of Taliban fighters.
For nearly two decades, the United States and NATO have been engaged in the pursuit of nation-building by training, expanding and equipping the Afghan police, military and air force, spending dozens billions of dollars to build government security forces capable of protecting their own country.
But the Taliban offensive has revealed the fragility of these forces.
Thousands of soldiers have surrendered or deserted in recent months. The fate of the country is in the hands of the air forces and commandos who served as the country’s firefighters, sent to hot spots in the hope of turning the tide against the insurgent group. In reality, what were once considered elite forces have evolved into infantry who are among the only troops capable of defending territory under attack by the Taliban.
The United States, despite pledging to end military operations by August 31, has hired more planes and drones – now based outside the country – to help push back the Taliban by air strikes. The last-resort effort to support Afghan security forces has helped in some areas, including Kandahar, a southern mainstay and a former Taliban stronghold where fighting has intensified in recent weeks.
On Sunday evening, Afghan security forces launched a military operation to drive Taliban fighters out of Kunduz in an effort to retake the town, officials said. But battered by weeks of intense fighting, the chance of victory was anything but certain.
“We are so tired, and the security forces are so tired,” said Sayed Jawad Hussaini, deputy district police chief in Kunduz town. “At the same time, we had not received any reinforcements and the planes did not target the Taliban in time.
As the front lines slide deeper into cities, Afghan civilians are trapped amid these increasing levels of violence – including government airstrikes, bombings, and Taliban fighting from people’s homes – causing the number of civilian casualties to skyrocket.
In Kunduz, up to 70 civilians per day are brought to the Kunduz regional hospital, according to Mohammed Naim Mangal, director of the establishment. Between Saturday and Sunday alone, the hospital sorted out nearly 100 wounded.
But with intense fighting in the streets, many more injured were unable to reach medical centers. The hospital itself was hit by four mortar shells on Saturday.
On Sunday evening, as the city braced for more violence as government forces began an operation to retake the city, only two medics remained in the hospital. The rest of the staff fled.
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