KANDAHAR: More than 22,000 Afghan families have fled from their homes to escape fighting in the former Taliban bastion of Kandahar, officials said on Sunday, as authorities arrested four suspected insurgents over the recent rocket attack on Kabul.

Since early May, violence has surged across several provinces including in Kandahar after the insurgents launched a sweeping offensive just days after the US-led foreign forces began their final withdrawal.

The Taliban’s deadly assault has seen the insurgents capture scores of districts, border crossings and encircle several provincial capitals.

“The fighting has displaced 22,000 families in the past one month in Kandahar,” Dost Mohammad Daryab, head of the provincial refugee department, said.

Four suspects arrested over rocket attack on Kabul

“They have all moved from the volatile districts of the city to safer areas.”

On Sunday, fighting continued on the outskirts of Kandahar city.

“The negligence of some security forces, especially the police, has made way for the Taliban to come that close,” Lalai Dastageeri, deputy governor of Kandahar province, said. “We are now trying to organise our security forces.” Local authorities had set up four camps for the displaced people who are estimated to be about 154,000.

Kandahar resident Hafiz Mohammad Akbar said his house had been taken over by the Taliban after he fled. “They forced us to leave... I am now living with my 20-member family in a compound with no toilet,” said Akbar.

Residents expressed concerns the fighting might intensify in days ahead. “If they really want to fight, they should go to a desert and fight, not destroy the city,” said Khan Mohammad, who moved to a camp with his family.

“Even if they win, they can’t rule a ghost town.” Kandahar, with its 650,000 inhabitants, is the second-largest city in Afghanistan after Kabul.

The southern province was the epicentre of the Taliban’s regime when they ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

Ousted from power in a US-led invasion in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, the Taliban have spearheaded an insurgency that continues to this day.

Their latest offensive launched in early May has seen the group take control of half of the country’s about 400 districts.

Earlier this week, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff General Mark Milley said the Taliban appeared to have “strategic momentum” on the battlefield.

But global rights group Human Rights Watch said there were reports the Taliban were committing atrocities against civilians in areas they had captured, including in the town of Spin Boldak they captured earlier this month.

The authorities announced they had arrested four men they said belonged to the Taliban, accusing them of carrying out the recent rocket attack on Kabul.

“A Taliban commander, Momin, along with his three men, have been arrested. They all belong to the Taliban group,” ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai told reporters in a video message.

At least three rockets landed near the palace on Tuesday as President Ashraf Ghani and his top officials performed outdoor prayers to mark the start of Eidul Azha.

The attack was, however, claimed by the militant Islamic State group.

Task for Afghan forces

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that the Afghan security forces’ first job is to make sure they could slow the Taliban’s momentum before attempting to retake territory, as Afghan forces plan to consolidate forces around strategically important parts of the country.

Reuters reported that Afghanistan’s military is overhauling its war strategy against the Taliban to concentrate forces around the most critical areas like Kabul and other cities, border crossings and vital infrastructure.

“They are consolidating their forces around the key population centres,” Austin told reporters during a visit to Alaska.

“In terms of whether or not it will stop the Taliban, I think the first thing to do is to make sure that they can slow the momentum,” Austin said, speaking as the US military is set to end its mission in Afghanistan on Aug 31, on orders from President Joe Biden.

Austin added that he believed the Afghans had the capability and the capacity to make progress, but “we’ll see what happens”.

Taliban insurgents are gaining control of more and more territory, which the Pentagon estimated on Wednesday now extends to over half of Afghanistan’s district centres. The Taliban are also putting pressure on the outskirts of half of the provincial capitals, trying to isolate them.

The Taliban’s swift territorial gains are rattling Afghans just as the United States withdraws from a war that succeeded in punishing Al Qaeda following its attacks on New York and Washington but failed to deliver anything close to peace for Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2021

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