• Group now controls 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces
• President Ghani says consultations under way to try to end the war
KABUL: The Taliban captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan on Saturday in a major setback for the government, as the insurgents were approaching the capital less than three weeks before the US hopes to complete its troop withdrawal.
The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the centre and east.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from the Balkh province where the city is located, said the national army surrendered first, which prompted pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of a Taliban onslaught launched earlier on Saturday.
Ebrahimzada said Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former warlords who command thousands of fighters, had fled the province and their whereabouts were unknown.
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. They now control about 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving the government with a smattering of provinces in the centre and east, as well as Kabul.
On Saturday, the Taliban captured all of Logar province, just south of Kabul, and detained local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province. She said the Taliban had reached the Char Asyab district, just 11 kilometres south of the capital.
Later, the insurgents took over Mihterlam, the capital of Laghman province, northeast of Kabul, without a fight, according to Zefon Safi, a lawmaker from the province.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had flown to Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defences, meeting several militia commanders, including Dostum and Noor.
On Saturday, Ghani delivered a televised speech, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains. He vowed not to give up the achievements of the 20 years since the US toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
The US has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the insurgents appear to have little interest in making concessions as they rack up victories on the battlefield.
“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” Ghani said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.
Hours later, his forces suffered one of the biggest setbacks since the Taliban offensive began.
The insurgents also captured the capital of Paktika, bordering Pakistan, according to Khalid Asad, a lawmaker from the province. He said fighting broke out in Sharana early on Saturday but ended after local elders intervened to negotiate a pullout.
The small province of Kunar, also bordering Pakistan, fell without a fight, according to Neamatullah Karyab, a lawmaker from the area.
Sayed Hussan Gardezi, a lawmaker from the neighbouring Paktia province, said the Taliban seized most of its local capital, Gardez, but that battles with government forces were still under way. The Taliban said they controlled the city.
The Taliban also took control of Maimana, the capital of northern Faryab province, said Fawzia Raoufi, a lawmaker from the province.
The withdrawal of foreign troops and the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s own forces despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years has raised fears the Taliban could return to power or that the country could be shattered by factional fighting, as it was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
It has also prompted many American and Afghan veterans of the conflict to question whether two decades of blood and treasure was worth it.
Afghans have been streaming into Kabul’s international airport in recent days, desperate to fly out, even as more American troops have arrived to help partially evacuate the US Embassy.
The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived on Friday. The rest are expected by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its Aug 31 withdrawal deadline.
The US Air Force has carried out several air strikes to aid its Afghan allies on the ground but they appear to have done little to stem the Taliban’s advance. A B-52 bomber and other warplanes traversed the country’s airspace on Saturday, flight-tracking data showed.
The Taliban, meanwhile, released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in Kandahar, which fell to the insurgents earlier this week, renaming it the Voice of Sharia.
In the video, an unnamed insurgent said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the holy Quran. It appears the station will no longer play music.
It was not clear if the Taliban had purged the previous employees or allowed them to return to work.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of August, pledging to end America’s longest war. His predecessor, President Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.
Biden’s announcement set the latest Taliban offensive in motion. The Taliban, who have long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2021