The speed of the Taliban offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the slivers of Afghanistan it still holds.
The Taliban has captured the strategic provincial capital of Ghazni near Kabul, the 10th the insurgents have taken in a weeklong sweep across Afghanistan just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.
Seizing Ghazni cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after US and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government.
As security forces retreated across the country, government sources told AFP on Thursday that Kabul has made an offer to the Taliban to share power in return for an end to fighting.
In Ghazni, lawmaker Mohammad Arif Rahmani, said the city had fallen to the insurgents on Thursday. Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani confirmed but added that the two bases outside of the city remain held by government forces.
Militants crowded onto one seized Humvee and drove down one main road in Ghazni, with the golden dome of a mosque near the governor’s office visible behind them, yelling: “God is great!”.
The insurgents, cradling their rifles, later gathered at one roundabout for an impromptu speech by a commander.
One militant carried a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Kamrani alleged that Ghazni’s provincial governor and police chief made a deal with the Taliban to flee after their surrender. Taliban video and photos purported to show the governor’s convoy passing by Taliban fighters unstopped as part of the deal.
Later Thursday, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said the governor and his deputies had been arrested over that alleged deal. The officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Taliban’s weeklong blitz and government response
While Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat, the loss of Ghazni tightens the grip of a resurgent Taliban estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation. Thousands of people displaced by the fighting have fled to Kabul and now live in open fields and parks.
President Ashraf Ghani is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country’s special forces, the militias of warlords and American airpower ahead of the US and NATO withdrawal at the end of the month.
However, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the slivers of the country it has left.
The latest US 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.
The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities.
As security forces retreated across the country, Kabul handed a proposal to Taliban negotiators in Qatar offering a power-sharing deal in return for an end to fighting, according to a member of the government’s team in Doha who asked reporters not to be named.
A second negotiator, Ghulam Farooq Majroh, said the Taliban had been given an offer about a “government of peace” without providing more specifics.
In Washington, defence officials appeared to be grappling with the spiralling situation but insisted that Afghan security forces were still holding their ground.
“What we’re seeing, a deteriorating security situation, we’ve been nothing but candid about that,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
“But there are places and there are times, including today, where Afghan forces in the field are putting up a fight.”
The conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when US-led forces began the final stage of a troop withdrawal due to end later this month following a 20-year occupation.
Fighting for Lashkar Gah
Earlier in the day, the militants captured a police headquarters in Helmand province as suspected US air strikes pounded the area.
Fighting raged in Lashkar Gah, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto the capital.
On Wednesday, a suicide car bombing marked the latest wave to target Helmand’s capital regional police headquarters.
By Thursday, the Taliban had taken the building, with some police officers surrendering to the militants and others retreating to the nearby governor’s office that’s still held by government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand.
Niazi said she believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded security force members, but she had no casualty breakdown.
Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it, she said.
The Taliban’s other advances have seen the militants free hundreds of its members over the last week, bolstering their ranks while seizing American-supplied weapons and vehicles.
Taliban use civilians as human shields
Niazi criticised ongoing air strikes 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 air strikes,” she said.
With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the US Air Force is believed to be carrying out some series of strikes to support Afghan forces.
Aviation tracking data suggested US Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting overnight across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.
It is unclear what casualties the US bombing campaign has caused. The US Air Force’s Central Command, based in Qatar, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.