Taliban sweep across Afghanistan's south; take 4 more cities
Half of the country's 34 provincial capitals have fallen to insurgents in recent days
The Taliban completed their sweep of Afghanistan's south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling Kabul, just weeks before the U.S. is set to officially end its two-decade war.
The latest significant blow was the loss of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where American, British and allied NATO forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in the past 20 years. Hundreds of foreign troops were killed in the province, which is also a major opium hub.
The insurgents have taken half of the country's 34 provincial capitals in recent days, including its second- and third-largest cities, Herat and Kandahar. The Taliban now control more than two-thirds of the country just weeks before the U.S. plans to withdraw its last troops.
The Western-backed government in the capital, Kabul, still holds a smattering of provinces in the centre and east, as well as the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
While Kabul isn't directly under threat yet, the losses and advances elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban.
The latest U.S. military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months.
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In the south, the insurgents swept through the capitals of Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, in addition to Helmand.
Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said the Taliban captured Lashkar Gah following weeks of heavy fighting and raised their white flag over governmental buildings. He said three national army bases outside of Lashkar Gah remain under control of the government.
Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council chief in Zabul province, said the local capital of Qalat fell and that officials were in a nearby army camp preparing to leave.
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Bismillah Jan Mohammad and Qudratullah Rahimi, lawmakers from Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province, said local officials surrendered Tirin Kot to the Taliban. Mohammad said the governor was heading to the airport to depart for Kabul.
In the country's west, meanwhile, Fazil Haq Ehsan, head of the provincial council in Ghor province, said its capital, Feroz Koh, also fell to the insurgents.
Embassies going ahead with evacuations
With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Separately, Britain said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country, and Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. troops stationed at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport will be augmented by two Marine battalions and an army infantry battalion, all currently stationed in the Middle East. The advance team of the Marine contingent arrived in Kabul on Friday and most of the rest of the 3,000 are due by Sunday.
Denmark and Norway said on Friday they are temporarily closing their embassies and evacuating staff, while Germany is reducing its embassy staff to the "absolute minimum."
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There was no "military solution" to prevent the resurgence of the Taliban, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday after an emergency meeting on Afghanistan.
Johnson said the "vast bulk" of the remaining U.K. embassy staff in Kabul would return in the next few days.
Meanwhile, the British government was also stepping up efforts to relocate Afghans who had assisted British forces during their time in the country and who now face reprisals if they fall into militant hands.
Peace talks remain stalled
The UN refugee agency said nearly 250,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since the end of May amid fears the Taliban would again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women's rights and conducting public executions.
About 80 per cent of those displaced are women and children. In all, the agency said, some 400,000 civilians have been displaced since the beginning of the year, joining millions who have fled previous rounds of fighting in recent decades.
Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats are still meeting, as the U.S., European and Asian nations warned that any government established by force would be rejected.
"We demand an immediate end to attacks against cities, urge a political settlement, and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to the talks.
But the Taliban advance continued, as they pushed into the capital of Logar province, just 80 kilometres south of Kabul.
Hasibullah Stanikzai, the head of the Logar provincial council, said fighting was still underway inside Puli-e Alim, with government forces holding the police headquarters and other security facilities. The Taliban said they had captured the police headquarters and a nearby prison.
The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces after the United States spent nearly two decades and $830 billion trying to establish a functioning state.
U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, which al-Qaeda planned and executed while being sheltered by the Taliban government. The Taliban fighters now advancing across the country ride on American-made Humvees and carry M-16s pilfered from Afghan forces.
Fallen provinces likely to remain under Taliban control
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Afghan army has rotted from within due to corruption and mismanagement, leaving troops in the field poorly equipped and with little motivation to fight.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have spent a decade taking control of large swaths of the countryside.
That allowed them to rapidly seize key infrastructure and urban areas once U.S. President Joe Biden announced the timeline for the withdrawal of American troops.
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"Whatever forces are left or remaining that are in the Kabul area and the provinces around them, they're going to be used for the defence of Kabul," Roggio said.
"Unless something dramatically changes, and I don't see how that's possible, these provinces (that have fallen) will remain under Taliban control."
A day earlier, in Herat, Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city and seized government buildings.
Afghan legslator Semin Barekzai acknowledged the city's fall, saying some officials there had escaped.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city's defensive lines.
The insurgents circulated photos and a video showing Khan in their captivity as well as video footage that appeared to show two Afghan military Black Hawk helicopters — provided by the U.S. — that were captured in Herat. Later on Friday, they released photos showing two alleged looters being paraded through the streets with black makeup on their faces.