KABUL: Four days of ferocious fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban over a key provincial capital has claimed the lives of about 100 Afghan policemen and soldiers and at least 20 civilians, the defence minister said on Monday.
The staggering numbers provided by Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami were the first official casualty toll since the Taliban launched a massive assault on Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province, last Friday.
The multi-pronged assault overwhelmed the city’s defences and allowed insurgents to capture several parts of it. It was a major show of force by the Taliban, who infiltrated deep into this strategic city barely 120 kilometres from the capital, Kabul. The United States has sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces.
The fall of Ghazni, a city of 270,000 people, would mark an important victory for the Taliban. It would also cut off a key highway linking Kabul to the southern provinces, the Taliban’s traditional heartland.
Bahrami, the defence minister, spoke to reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Monday. He said the casualty figures are not yet definite and that the numbers might change. He didn’t offer a breakdown of the casualties but Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said nearly 70 policemen were among those killed.
Bahrami said about 1,000 additional troops have been sent to Ghazni and helped prevent the city from falling into Taliban hands. He also said 194 insurgents, including 12 leaders, were killed with Pakistani, Chechen and Arabs foreign fighters among the dead.
The Taliban have inflicted huge damages on the city, especially Ghazni’s historic parts and cultural heritage, Bahrami said, adding that he believes the next 24 hours would turn the tide in the battle.
Barmak, the interior minister, said top security and government officials, as well as the military chief of staff were now in Ghazni, leading the “clearing up operations” in different parts of the city.” The attack began on Friday, with insurgents infiltrating people’s homes and slipping out into the night to attack Afghan forces in Ghazni.
The Taliban also destroyed a telecommunications tower on Ghazni’s outskirts, cutting off all landline and cellphone links to the city and making it difficult to confirm details of the fighting.
Afghan authorities have insisted that the city would not fall to the Taliban and that Afghan forces remained in control of key government positions and other institutions there.
Col. Fared Mashal, the province’s police chief, said the majority of the insurgents fighting in Ghazni are foreigners, including Pakistanis and Chechens. “The Taliban have failed in reaching their goal,” Mashal added. Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians have fled from the city.
One of them, 60-year-old Ghulam Mustafa, made it to neighbouring Maidan Wardak province with 14 of his family members.
“The city became so dangerous,” he said. “Ghazni has become a ghost city.” Mustafa’s wife Razia said they had no food, water or and electricity for the past four days. “There were so many dead bodies under the bridges, at the side of roads and under the destroyed houses,” she said.
A 14-year-old girl, Fereshta, who only goes by one name, said when the Taliban entered Ghazni, it was the first time in her life that she saw the insurgents.
Over the past months, the Taliban have seized several districts across Afghanistan, staging near-daily attacks on Afghan security forces, but have been unable to capture and hold urban areas.
The United States and Nato formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but have since then repeatedly come to the aid of Afghan forces as they struggle to combat the resurgent Taliban.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2018