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Taliban takes over dozen Afghan provincial capitals in lightning offensive

The militant group has made rapid advances across southern Afghanistan overnight as US and other foreign forces near a complete withdrawal.

Taliban militants stand guard on August 13, 2021 along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city, after govt forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being attacked. (AFP)

The Taliban has tightened its grip on Afghanistan, wresting control of its second and third-biggest cities while taking a slew of other provincial capitals in under a day, as the insurgents press a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling the capital, Kabul.

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The seizure of Kandahar and Herat early on Friday marked the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban group that has taken some 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long blitz. The group took another three capitals the same day and more are expected to fall within hours.

While Kabul isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who are estimated to now hold over two-thirds of the country and continue to press their offensive.

With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the US 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.

Australia was working urgently with the US to evacuate the last Afghans who helped Australian troops and diplomats.

Recent falls

The insurgents had taken Logar province, at the gates of Kabul, with a government official saying insurgents had captured the police headquarters and city jail in the capital, Pul-e-Alam.

The city is some 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Kabul.

“Now the Taliban are 100 percent in control. There is no fighting at the moment. Most of the officials fled to Kabul,” lawmaker Saeed Qaribullah Sadat said.

The city of Lashkar Gah, the centre of Helmand province in the south which has strategic importance for Afghanistan also fell to the militants.

Helmand Deputy Mirveyis Hadim said that the Taliban launched their attacks to seize the city of Lashkar Gah about 20 days ago.

“The security forces had to withdraw from the city centre last night. Currently, the city of Lashkar Gah fell to the Taliban. Security forces took shelter in Shurabek Airport,” he said.

Two lawmakers from Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province say local officials have surrendered the provincial capital of Tarin Kot to the rapidly advancing Taliban.

Bismillah Jan Mohammad and Qudratullah Rahimi confirmed the surrender on Friday. Mohammad says the governor is en route to the airport to depart for Kabul.

Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council chief in Zabul province, said the local capital Qalat also fell to the Taliban and that officials are in a nearby army camp preparing to leave.

Baghdis provincial council chief Abdul Aziz Bek said that the Taliban increased their attacks on the city of Qala-e-Naw, the centre of Baghdis, early on Thursday and captured the province.

The insurgents hold the entire province except for one military camp.

Ghor provincial deputy Fatima Kohistani said militants had increased their pressure on the city of Firuz Koh, also known as Chaghcharan on Thursday evening.

Kohistani stated that the city centre passed under the control of the Taliban this morning, and that the security forces withdrew from the city centre without engaging in combat.

Displacement

Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public executions.

Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats are still meeting.

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 be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban maintain momentum.

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 after toppling the Taliban months after the September 11 attacks.

The advancing Taliban ride on American-made Humvees and carry M-16s pilfered from Afghan forces.

Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists over the days of fighting, instead issuing video communiques that downplay the Taliban advance.

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