HERAT: The Taliban launched an offensive on Friday against a key city in western Afghanistan, officials said, the latest in a surge of attacks as the US pushes for a deal that would allow it to begin withdrawing troops.
The fighting started early in the morning when insurgents briefly seized an Afghan army recruitment centre in Farah city, the capital of Farah province.
Afghan forces, with US support, were able to push the fighters back a few hours later, Farah police spokesman Mohibullah Mohib said.
“Helicopters with the cooperation of (US) troops have launched air strikes and bombarded the Taliban positions in Farah city,” he said.
“The Taliban have been pushed back from the city but fighting is ongoing on the outskirts.” He said 10 Taliban fighters had been killed, along with one paramilitary Afghan police officer.
Farah province, a remote poppy-growing region that borders Iran, has been the scene of intense fighting in recent years, and there have long been fears that its capital is vulnerable.
In May last year, the Taliban made a major attempt to capture Farah city but were eventually driven back by Afghan and US forces.
US Army Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan, said on Friday that American assistance to Afghan forces was ongoing.
“We continue to support our ANDSF partners as they thwart the Taliban’s attack on Farah,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Afghan police and army.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi had earlier said a “massive operation” was underway.
The Taliban have been stepping up operations in recent days even as they negotiate with Washington for a deal that would see the US pull troops from Afghanistan in return for various security guarantees.
On Saturday, the group attempted to seize the provincial capital of Kunduz in the north and sporadic fighting continued on the outskirts all week.
And on Sunday, they launched an operation in the city of Pul-e Khumri, the capital of neighbouring Baghlan province.
The capital Kabul has also been rocked by back-to-back bombings this week that have claimed dozens of lives.
Farah provincial governor Mohammad Shoaib Sabet said 15 people were wounded, citing local hospitals, and said airstrikes had been carried out against the militant group. Small clashes continued in the city, he said.One Farah resident, Shams Noorzai, said the Taliban seized an army recruitment centre and set it on fire. All shops had closed, he said, and some people were trying to flee. The governor later said security forces had re-taken the recruitment centre.
Ghani postpones US trip
Afghanistan’s president has postponed a planned visit to Washington early next week where he was to discuss the US-Taliban talks on ending America’s longest war, a person familiar with the negotiations said on Friday.
The development emerged after the US envoy negotiating with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, abruptly returned to Qatar for unexpected talks with the insurgents on the deal that he had described as complete just days ago. The agreement “in principle” to begin a US troop withdrawal only needed President Donald Trump’s approval, Khalilzad said on Monday.
It was not immediately clear why President Ashraf Ghani’s visit was postponed.
Since Khalilzad’s announcement, two horrific Taliban car bombings in the Afghan capital, Kabul one of which killed a US service member and objections to the deal from the Afghan government and several former US ambassadors to Afghanistan have put pressure on Khalilzad as many wonder whether a deal will truly bring peace.
The Taliban have explained their surge in deadly attacks including on the capitals of northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces last weekend as necessary to give them a stronger negotiating position in talks with the US, a stance that has appalled Afghans and others as scores of civilians are killed.
The Afghan president has been shut out of the US-Taliban negotiations, and during Khalilzad’s visit to Kabul this week Ghani was shown the agreement but not allowed to keep it. The Taliban have rejected negotiations with the Afghan government, seeing it as a puppet of the US, though it has expressed willingness to meet with Afghan officials in their personal capacity.
Ghani’s government this week raised objections to the deal, echoing the former US ambassadors’ concerns that a full US troop withdrawal that moves too quickly and without requiring the Taliban to meet certain conditions, such as reducing violence, could lead to “total civil war” such as the one that engulfed the country in the 1990s after a rapid Soviet pullout and before the Taliban swept into power.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2019