At least seven Taliban reported killed in Panjshir fighting

Taliban take two more provincial capitals in relentless push

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Kabul, Afghanistan: The Taliban occupied two other provincial capitals in southern Afghanistan. They launched a lightning offensive and gradually surrounded the government of the capital Kabul.

The loss of the provincial capital of Helmand was after years of hard work and bloodshed by the United States, Britain, and NATO allied forces. In the last two years of war, hundreds of foreign troops were killed there.

In recent days, the insurgents have occupied more than a dozen provincial capitals and now control more than two-thirds of the country, just a few weeks before the United States plans to withdraw its last force.

Atawula Afghanistan, chairman of the Helmand Provincial Assembly, said that the Taliban occupied the provincial capital Rashkar Gah after fierce fighting and raised a white flag over government facilities. He said that the military bases of three countries other than Lashkar Gah are still under government control.

Atta Jan Haqbayan, chairman of the Zabul Provincial Assembly, said that the local capital fell into the hands of the Taliban and officials were preparing to leave in a nearby military camp.

The latest development comes just a few hours after the rebels occupied the country’s second and third largest cities with lightning strikes. The capture of Kandahar and Herat marked the Taliban’s biggest spoils to date.

Although Kabul has not been directly threatened, losses and fighting elsewhere have further strengthened the control of the re-emerging Taliban, who are estimated to now control more than two-thirds of the country and continue to attack.

With the rapid deterioration of the security situation, the United States plans to send 3,000 soldiers to help evacuate some personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In addition, the United Kingdom stated that it will deploy about 600 soldiers in the short term to support British nationals leaving the country, and Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy.

Fearing that the Taliban will once again impose a brutal and repressive government, almost abolish women’s rights and conduct public executions, thousands of Afghans have fled their homes.

Qatar’s peace talks remain stagnant, even though diplomats are still meeting because the United States, European and Asian countries have warned that any government established by force will be rejected.

“We demand an immediate cessation of attacks on the city, urge a political settlement, and warn that the government imposed by force will be a pariah country,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for negotiations.

Fazel Haq Ehsan, chairman of the Western Provincial Assembly of Ghor Province, said on Friday that the Taliban had entered the provincial capital Feroz Koh and fighting broke out in the city. At the same time, the Taliban claimed to have occupied Qala-e Naw, the capital of the western Badghis province. There is no official confirmation.

Muhammad Omar Sherzad, the governor of Southern Uruzgan Province, said that the tribal elders contacted him and sought to negotiate an evacuation, but the government forces are still fighting the Taliban near the provincial capital Tillinkot.

The Taliban are also operating in Logar province, south of Kabul, where they claim to occupy the police headquarters of the provincial capital Puli-e Alim and the nearby prison. The city is located approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Kabul.

The latest US military intelligence assessment indicates that Kabul may be under pressure from the rebellion within 30 days. If current trends remain unchanged, the Taliban may take complete control of the country within a few months. If the Taliban maintain their momentum, the Afghan government may be forced to retreat in the coming days to defend the capital and several other cities.

After the overthrow of the Taliban after the September 11 attacks, the United States spent nearly 20 years and $830 billion trying to establish a functioning country. This onslaught represented the astonishing collapse of the Afghan army. The advancing Taliban rode American-made Hummers and M-16s stolen from the Afghan army.

The Afghan security forces and government did not respond to the questions repeatedly raised by reporters. Instead, they released a video bulletin that played down the progress of the Taliban.

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, positioning themselves to rapidly seize key infrastructure and urban areas once President Joe Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal.

The difficulty of moving troops out to the provinces means the government is likely to focus all its efforts on defending the capital.

“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 defense of Kabul,” Roggio said. “Unless something dramatically changes, and I don’t see how that’s possible, these provinces will remain under Taliban control.”

In Herat, Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city — a structure that dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great — and seized government buildings. Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents’ control.

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 and later said they were in control.

Afghan lawmaker Semin Barekzai also acknowledged the city’s fall, saying that some officials there had escaped. It wasn’t immediately clear what happened to Khan, who earlier had been described as under attack with his forces at a government building.

In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, insurgents seized the governor’s office and other buildings, witnesses said. The governor and other officials fled the onslaught, catching a flight to Kabul, the witnesses added. They declined to be named publicly as the defeat has yet to be acknowledged by the government.

The Taliban had earlier attacked a prison in Kandahar and freed inmates inside, officials said.

Earlier Thursday, the militants raised their white flags imprinted with an Islamic proclamation of faith over the city of Ghazni, which sits on a crucial north-south highway just 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Kabul.

In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland, heavy fighting continued in Lashkar Gah, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto the capital of Helmand province.

Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand, criticized ongoing airstrikes targeting the area, saying civilians likely had been wounded and killed.

“The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves, and the government, without paying any attention to civilians, carried out airstrikes,” she said.

With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, aviation tracking data suggested U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.

U.S. Central Command has acknowledged carrying out several airstrikes in recent days, without providing details or commenting on the concerns over civilian casualties.

A United Nations agency warned that civilians in southern Afghanistan faced cut-off highways and mobile phone outages. It described aid groups as being unable to determine how many people had fled as intense fighting and airstrikes continued there.

In Kabul and surrounding central provinces that remain under government control, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said “the security situation remained unstable and unpredictable with elevated conflict and violence.”

Pakistan meanwhile opened its Chaman border crossing for people who had been stranded in recent weeks. Juma Khan, the Pakistan border town’s deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban.

Even as diplomats met in Doha, Qatar on Thursday, the success of the Taliban offensive called into question whether they would ever rejoin long-stalled peace talks with the government in Kabul. Instead, the group could come to power by force — or the country could splinter into factional fighting like it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. 

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