• Governor’s aide killed in blast
• Kabul says air force ready to take on insurgents
• Taliban spokesman says most districts captured without a fight
KANDAHAR: The Afghan Taliban have captured Panjwai, a key district in their former bastion of Kandahar, after fierce night-time fighting with government forces, officials said, just two days after US and Nato troops vacated their main Bagram Air Base near Kabul from where they led anti-Taliban operations for two decades.
Panjwai district governor Hasti Mohammad said Afghan forces and the Taliban clashed during the night, resulting in government forces retreating from the area.
“The Taliban have captured the district police headquarters and governor’s office building,” he said.
Kandahar provincial council head Sayed Jan Khakriwal confirmed the fall of Panjwai, but accused government forces of “intentionally withdrawing”.
Assadullah, a commander of the border police in the area, said only the police force was fighting against the insurgents. “The army and the commandos who have better military equipment are not fighting at all,” he said.
The Taliban have pressed on with their campaign to capture territory across Afghanistan’s rural areas since early May when the US military began its final pullout of troops after striking a deal with the group.
The leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, hails from Panjwai. The province of Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban, who went on to rule Afghanistan in the 1990s until being overthrown by a US-led invasion in 2001.
Scores of families of Panjwai fled their homes after the Taliban captured the district. “The Taliban fired on our car as I was fleeing with my family. At least five bullets hit my car,” Giran, a resident of Panjwai said as he took refuge in Kandahar city.
“The Taliban are on top of the mountains and firing at any moving vehicles. The Taliban don’t want peace.”
Governor’s secretary killed
Later on Sunday, the secretary of Kandahar’s governor was killed when a bomb attached to his car went off near their office compound, the interior ministry said.
Fighting has raged across several provinces and the Taliban claim to have seized more than 100 of nearly 400 districts in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials dispute the claims but acknowledge that troops retreated from some districts.
“The withdrawal of US forces has emboldened the Taliban as we can see from the escalation of violence,” said Afghan political analyst Ramish Salimi.
“This year will be difficult for Afghanistan... especially since the Doha peace talks [between the Taliban and the US representatives] have not yielded a positive result.” Talks between the Taliban and Afghan government that began later in September 2020 have been deadlocked for months.
‘Air force to take on Taliban’
However, Interior Minister Abdul Satar Mirzakwal said the Afghan air force was ready to take on the Taliban. “We will defend against them with all our power... we are getting ready for offensives soon,” he told Tolo News.
“The cities are our red lines,” indicating that security forces will fiercely guard the country’s urban centres.
The Taliban’s march through northern Afghanistan gained momentum overnight with the capture of several districts from fleeing Afghan forces, several hundred of whom fled across the border into Tajikistan, officials said on Sunday.
Over 300 Afghan military personnel crossed from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province on Saturday evening as Taliban fighters advanced toward the border, Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Guided by the principles of humanism and good neighborliness, the Tajik authorities allowed the retreating Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to cross into Tajikistan, said the statement.
The gains in northeastern Badakhshan province in recent days mostly came to the insurgent movement without a fight, said Mohibul Rahman, a provincial council member. He blamed the Taliban successes on the poor morale of troops who were mostly outnumbered and without resupplies.
Unfortunately, the majority of the districts were left to Taliban without any fight, he said. In the past three days, 10 districts fell to Taliban, eight without a fight, he explained.
Hundreds of Afghan army, police and intelligence troops surrendered their military outposts and fled to the Badakhshan provincial capital of Faizabad, according to him. Even as a security meeting was under way early Sunday to plot the strengthening of the perimeter around Faizabad, some senior provincial officials were leaving for Kabul, he said.
In late June, the Afghan government resurrected militias with a reputation of brutal violence to support the beleaguered Afghan forces but Rahman said many of the militias in the Badakhshan districts put up only a half-hearted fight.
The areas under Taliban control in the north are increasingly strategic, running along Afghanistan’s border with Central Asian states.
The interior ministry earlier stated the defeats were temporary though it did not clear how the forces would regain control.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the fall of the districts and said most were captured without a fight. The Taliban in previous surrenders showed a video of Afghan soldiers taking transportation money and returning to their homes.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2021