Taliban insurgents have taken Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities as resistance from government forces crumbled, raising fears that an attack on the capital Kabul could be just days away.
A government official confirmed that Kandahar, the economic center of the south, was under Taliban control as international forces completed their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
Herat in the west also fell under the hardline Islamist group.
“The city looks like a frontline, a ghost town,” provincial councilor Ghulam Habib Hashimi said by telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 inhabitants near the border with Iran.
“Families have left or are hiding in their homes.”
A senior US defense official said there were concerns that the Taliban – ousted from power by US-led forces after the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 – could attack Kabul within days.
But Washington hoped Afghan security forces would offer more resistance as the insurgents get closer to the capital.
Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said he was proud of the country’s armed forces.
“It has been decided with conviction and determination that WE STAND AGAINST TALIBAN TERRORISTS AND DO EVERYTHING TO STRENGTHEN NATIONAL RESISTANCE BY ALL MEANS AND WAYS. PERIOD,” he tweeted after a national security meeting chaired by President Ashraf Ghani.
The fighting has sparked fears of a refugee crisis and a reversal of human rights gains since the ouster of the Taliban. About 400,000 civilians have been displaced from their homes since the beginning of the year, a UN official said, including 250,000 since May.
“The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian disaster,” Thomson Phiri of the UN’s World Food Program told a briefing.
The WFP was concerned about a “greater famine,” he said.
Under the Taliban rule, women were not allowed to work, girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to leave the house. In early July, Taliban fighters ordered nine women to stop working at a bank.
Of Afghanistan’s major cities, in addition to Kabul, the government still owns Mazar-i-Sharif to the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border to the east.
SHELTER IN PARKS
In response to the Taliban advance, the Pentagon said on Thursday it would send about 3,000 additional troops within 48 hours to help evacuate US embassy personnel.
Britain said it would deploy about 600 troops to help its citizens leave, while other embassies, including those in the Netherlands, Germany and Norway, and aid organizations said they would also take their people out.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss Afghanistan, a spokesman said.
NATO allies have also held talks on the Afghan situation.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted: “Our goal remains to support the Afghan government and security forces. We maintain our diplomatic presence in Kabul and the safety of our personnel is paramount.”
The United Nations has said a Taliban offensive in Kabul would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians”. But there is little hope of a negotiated end to the fighting, as the insurgents are apparently bent on military victory.
Families camped in a park in Kabul with little or no shelter, having escaped violence elsewhere in the country.
The Taliban also captured the towns of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officials said. Firuz Koh, the capital of the central province of Ghor, was handed over without a fight.
Fighting to defeat the government and enforce their strict version of Islamist rule, the militants have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since Aug. 6.
After the seizure of Herat, the insurgents detained veteran commander Ismail Khan, an official said. They had promised not to harm him and other imprisoned officials.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed that Khan, who led the fighters against the Taliban, was in their custody.
DECISION OF BIDEN
The speed of the offensive as US-led foreign forces prepare to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month has sparked recriminations over President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops.
Biden this week said 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 heavy blow to the government. It is the heart of the Taliban – ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in 1994 amid the chaos of the civil war.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ghani on Thursday, telling him the United States remains “invested” in Afghanistan’s security.
But at home, criticism of Biden’s policies is mounting.
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the exit strategy was steering the United States “towards an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975”, referring to North Vietnam’s victory in the war in Vietnam. He urged Biden to step up support for the Afghan armed forces.
(This story was not edited by NewsMadura staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)