Taliban tighten control around Kabul as US rushes to evacuate

The Afghan Taliban strengthened their territorial dominance around Kabul on Saturday, when refugees from the relentless insurgent offensive flooded the capital and US Marines returned to oversee emergency evacuations.

With the country’s second and third largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, falling to the Taliban, Kabul has become the latest besieged position for government forces that have offered little or no resistance elsewhere.

Insurgent fighters are now camped just 50 kilometers from the capital, leaving the United States and other countries scrambling to transport their citizens out of Kabul before a dreaded all-out assault.

“Clearly from his actions, it seems as if [the Taliban] we are trying to isolate Kabul, “Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing.

Heavy fighting was also reported around Mazar-i-Sharif, an isolated stronghold in the north where warlord and former Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum had assembled his virulently anti-Taliban militia.

The only other cities of importance not yet taken were Jalalabad, Gardez and Khost, all southern cities, dominated by Pashtuns, which are unlikely to offer much resistance now.

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Staff from the US embassy in Kabul were ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material, as units from a planned redeployment of 3,000 US troops began arriving to secure the airport and supervise evacuations.

Kirby said that the “elements” of a battalion were now in Kabul, the vanguard of three battalions of the Marine Corps and the Army that the United States was sending to the city at the end of the weekend to help more Americans and their colleagues. Afghans to get out quickly.

A host of European countries, including Britain, Germany, Denmark and Spain, announced on Friday the withdrawal of staff from their respective embassies.

Fear and anguish in Kabul

For Kabul residents and the tens of thousands who have sought refuge there in recent weeks, the overwhelming atmosphere was one of confusion and fear for what lies ahead.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” one resident, Khairddin Logari, told AFP.

Muzhda, 35, a single woman who came to the capital with her two sisters after fleeing from nearby Parwan, said she was terrified for the future.

“I am crying day and night,” he told AFP. “I have rejected marriage proposals in the past. […] If the Taliban come and force me to marry, I will kill myself. “

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply disturbed” by reports of mistreatment of women in areas taken over by the Taliban, who imposed an ultra-austere form of Islam in Afghanistan during their 1996 rule. -2001.

“It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being taken away,” Guterres said.

US polls show ‘strong support’ for withdrawal

The scale and speed of the Taliban’s advance has shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that invested billions in the country after toppling the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.

Soldiers, units, and even entire divisions of Afghan troops have surrendered ahead of US President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for a full US withdrawal, handing insurgents even more military vehicles and equipment to fuel their lightning advance. .

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Despite frenzied evacuation efforts, the Biden administration continues to insist that a total takeover of power by the Taliban is not inevitable.

“Kabul is not currently in an environment of imminent threat,” Kirby said Friday.

The Pentagon spokesman reiterated the Biden administration’s claim that the Afghan security forces have tangible advantages over the insurgents, including a viable air force and superior numbers, suggesting that the Afghan forces lack the motivation to fight what appears to be be the decisive impulse of the Taliban.

But the announcement that 3,000 US soldiers would go to Kabul to remove US diplomats and embassy staff likely further worsened Afghan morale, Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, told the AP.

“The message that was sent to the Afghans is: ‘The city of Kabul is going to fall so fast that we cannot organize an orderly withdrawal from the embassy,'” Biddle said. This suggests to Afghans that Americans see little future for government and that “this place could be a toast in a few hours.”

Taliban accelerated offensive

The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north on Thursday and, a few hours later, the capture of Kandahar, the spiritual heart of the group in the south.

Kandahar resident Abdul Nafi told AFP that the city was calm after government forces abandoned it for the sanctuary of overseas military installations, where they were negotiating the terms of surrender.

“I went out this morning, I saw white flags of the Taliban in most of the squares of the city,” he said. “I thought it might be the first day of Eid.”

Pro-Taliban social media accounts have bragged about the huge war spoils captured by insurgents, posting photos of armored vehicles, heavy weapons and even a drone seized by their fighters on abandoned military bases.

In Herat, the Taliban captured strongman Ismail Khan, who helped lead the defense of the provincial capital along with his militiamen.

Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Loghar province, was the last city to fall on Friday, putting the Taliban within close range of Kabul.

Despite the critical situation in Afghanistan, internal political calculations keep Biden from changing direction, suggested the head of the Guardian’s Washington bureau, David Smith: “The conclusion, which the White House is certainly betting on, is that opinion polls show strong support for this. withdrawal policy ”, he told FRANCE 24.

Helicopters flew back and forth between Kabul airport and the sprawling US diplomatic complex.In the heavily fortified Green Zone, 46 years after the (in) famous moment when helicopters evacuated Americans from Saigon, signaling the end of the Vietnam War.

( Jowharwith AFP and AP)

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