Taliban Capture Two Major Cities, Strengthening Insurgent Control in Afghanistan

Taliban insurgents tightened their grip on Afghanistan on Friday, seizing control of the second and third largest cities as Western embassies prepared to send troops to help evacuate personnel from the capital Kabul.

The capture of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of fighting is a devastating setback for the government, as the Taliban’s advances turn into defeat.

“The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,” provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi said by phone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the Iranian border.

“The families have either left or are hiding in their homes.”

A government official said that Kandahar, the economic center of the south, was under the control of the Taliban.

The defeats have fueled concerns that the US-backed government could fall to the insurgents in a few weeks when international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.

“The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Thomson Phiri of the UN World Food Program told a briefing, adding that the agency was concerned about a “rising tide of hunger.”

The fighting has also raised fears of a refugee crisis and a setback in human rights progress. Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, 250,000 of them since May, a UN official said.

Under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, women could not work, girls could not attend school, and women had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture outside their homes. In early July, Taliban fighters ordered nine women to stop working in a bank.

Of the major cities in Afghanistan, the government still controls Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the border with Pakistan in the east, in addition to Kabul.

Sheltering in parks

With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send an additional 3,000 troops in 48 hours to help evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Britain said it would deploy around 600 soldiers to help its citizens leave. Canada is also sending forces to help evacuate its embassy. Denmark and Norway said they will temporarily close their embassies in Kabul, while Germany is reducing its embassy staff to the “absolute minimum.” The Dutch government said on Friday that it may have to close its embassy in Kabul and was working quickly to bring back some of its local Afghan staff in light of the collapse of the security situation. Aid groups said they were pulling their people out as well.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told a press conference that parliament ruled on Friday that the country could “host up to 130 Afghans who have worked in the service of Finland, the EU and NATO together with their families.” due to the rapid weakening of the security situation. “.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold an emergency response meeting on Friday to discuss Afghanistan, a spokesman said.

US intelligence assessments this week concluded that the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and take control in 90.

Television footage showed families camping in a Kabul park with little or no shelter, escaping violence in other parts of the country.

The United Nations has said that a Taliban offensive reaching Kabul would have a “catastrophic impact on the civilian population.” But there is little hope that an end to the fighting will be negotiated, as the insurgents apparently seek a military victory.

The Taliban also captured the cities of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officials said. Firuz Koh, capital of the central province of Ghor, was surrendered without a fight, authorities said.

The militants, fighting to defeat the government and impose their strict version of the Islamic regime, have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since Aug. 6.

After taking Herat, the insurgents detained veteran commander Mohammad Ismail Khan, an official said, adding that they had promised not to harm him or other captured officials.

A Taliban spokesperson confirmed that Khan, who had been in command of the anti-Taliban fighters, was in their custody.

Biden’s decision

The speed of the offensive, as US-led foreign forces prepare to complete their withdrawal later this month, has sparked recriminations over President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops, 20 years after they toppled the US troops. Taliban after September 11, 2001., attacks on the United States.

Biden said this week that he did not regret his decision, noting that Washington has spent more than $ 1 trillion on America’s longest war and lost thousands of troops.

The loss of Kandahar is a severe blow to the government. It is the heartland of the Taliban, ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in 1994 amid the chaos of the civil war to raze most of the rest of the country over the next two years.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him that the United States remained “committed” to the security of Afghanistan.

But at home, criticism of Biden’s policy has been mounting.

Republican leader in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell, said the exit strategy was sending the United States “into an even worse aftermath of the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” and urged Biden to pledge to provide more support. to the Afghan forces.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Afghanistan was turning into a failed state and a civil war in which groups like Al Qaeda would prosper and likely pose a threat to the West again.

( Jowharwith REUTERS, AP, AFP)

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