Taliban Take Second Afghan City in Two Days
KABUL, Afghanistan – Another provincial capital, the second in two days, nearly fell in Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, this one in the north of the country, where a Taliban offensive has surrounded several towns since international forces began to withdraw in May.
The capital, Sheberghan, in Jowzjan province, collapsed less than 24 hours after a provincial capital in southwestern Afghanistan was also taken over by the Taliban.
“The whole city collapsed,” said Abdul Qader Malia, vice-governor of Jowzjan. ” There is nothing left. As of Saturday afternoon, government troops still controlled the airport and army headquarters outside Sheberghan.
Much of the province, which borders Turkmenistan, is now under Taliban control.
The Taliban’s victories – and the defeats of the Afghan government – come despite continued US air support and are the result of an insurgent strategy that has strained and exhausted Afghan government forces.
Sheberghan’s fall comes after the Taliban have taken over – often without a strike – around 200 of Afghanistan’s 400 or so districts in recent months. They have driven deep into the north of the country despite the region’s reputation for being an anti-Taliban stronghold and relatively safe.
The insurgent offensive turned into brutal urban combat as Taliban fighters pushed through towns like Sheberghan and Kunduz to the north, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah to the south and Herat to the west, leaving tens of thousands of civilians caught in the middle of a desperate struggle for control. Hundreds of people have been killed or injured, and many more have been displaced.
Government forces in Sheberghan reportedly repelled the Taliban incursion on Friday, after insurgents entered the city and attempted to take control of government buildings, such as the police headquarters and prison. The number of civilian casualties is not clear.
“The situation is so scary in the city,” said Matin Raufi, a resident of Sheberghan. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.
The Taliban returned on Saturday, penetrating deep into the city despite desperate attempts by security forces to defend what was left to them.
“Government forces have withdrawn to the army brigade and the airport, the two places still under their control, to regroup and plan counterattacks against the Taliban,” said Mohammad Karim Jawzjani, MP for Jowzjan. .
Sheberghan is the hometown of Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, an infamous warlord and former Afghan vice president who has survived the last 40 years of war by making deals and switching sides. Marshal Dostum was long expected to rally the same Uzbek militias that fought in the country’s civil war in the 1990s and helped topple the Taliban after the invasion of the United States in 2001 to serve as a bulwark. against the recent rise of the group.
The fall of Sheberghan is proof that despite the resurgence of these same militia forces – defended by those of the Afghan government in addition to its troops – they are, at this stage, unreliable when it comes to countering the Taliban.
Marshal Dostum has returned to Afghanistan in recent days after weeks in Turkey – where he has a residence and close ties – to recover from health problems. The aging warlord has left many of his frontline tasks to his son, Yar Mohammad Dostum, who has appeared on social media leading the fight against the Taliban.
On Saturday, Marshal Dostum met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the capital Kabul, where Marshal Dostum assured government security forces of his continued support, according to a palace statement.
The warlord’s militias are just one part of a kaleidoscope of armed groups resuming importance as US forces aim to complete their withdrawal by the end of August and the Afghan government attempts to s ‘seize the territory. The return of the militias is a chilling throwback to the 1990s, when an ethnically-charged civil war helped spawn the Taliban after the same armed groups brutalized the civilian population.
The fall of Sheberghan means that the Taliban will now be able to move their forces there elsewhere, most likely to other besieged cities in the north. The same situation is playing out in southwestern Afghanistan, where insurgents seized Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province on Friday.
“Sheberghan and Zaranj can hardly be called cities, given their small size, and although these are propaganda victories, the Taliban are still struggling to take big cities like Herat and Kandahar,” Ibraheem Bahiss said, International Crisis Group consultant and independent research analyst. “In these places, they face significant resistance and claim victims. “
Zaranj, known for its weak governance, anarchy and illicit economy, will undoubtedly serve as a starting point for future Taliban operations in the west and south. This is particularly relevant for the capital of neighboring Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, which is dangerously close to collapse. The fierce fighting in recent days has reduced parts of the city to rubble and killed civilians.
This leaves the Afghan government with few options in either province: counterattack and try to reclaim lost territory, or move forces elsewhere to defend other besieged towns.
U.S. air support, which is supposed to last until the end of the month – or longer if the Pentagon receives permission to continue – is being launched from outside the country, meaning there is not enough air left. resources to help defend every Afghan city under attack.
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