Taliban extends rout of provincial capitals as Afghanistan replaces army chief

Militant group seizes control of country’s third biggest city and claims to have captured Kandahar

Starting as a teenager, Romal Noori risked his life aiding the US war effort in Afghanistan. Now he is facing a dangerous new reality as the Taliban regain power. Video: The New York Times

 

The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Herat, after a day of fierce fighting, as the Islamist militancy continued its rout of provincial capitals while US troops withdraw.

Afghanistan’s second-biggest city, Kandahar, also appeared on the verge of falling to the Taliban on Thursday. “It does look like ... ANDSF forces are withdrawing from Kandahar,” a US official told the Financial Times, using the initials of the Afghan regular forces.

The Taliban claimed it had, in fact, taken control of Kandahar, but this had yet to be confirmed on Thursday night.

With the fall of Herat, the biggest city captured by the Islamists so far, the militant group has now taken control in 11 provincial capitals, including the city of Ghazni, which is strategically located on the highway from western Afghanistan to Kabul.

The group also seized control of Kunduz airport in the north of the country, and fighting raged around the town of Mazar-i-Sharif, a former bastion of anti-Taliban resistance.

The military successes have pushed the Taliban closer to its goal of encircling Kabul and forcing the surrender of President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Afghanistan replaced Gen Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, who was appointed army chief in June, with Gen Hibatullah Alizai on Wednesday. But many analysts were sceptical that leadership changes in the armed forces would bolster Afghan troops, a number of whom appear to have faded away in the face of the insurgents’ onslaught.

“It’s really late in the day for something like this to make a difference,” said a senior Pakistani official.

‘Atrocious situation’

Afghans fleeing the heavy fighting as well as punishments meted out by the Taliban have sparked UN warnings of an imminent humanitarian crisis. The UN estimated in late July that 270,000 people had been displaced this year by the conflict.

Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, warned that “the already atrocious situation for so many Afghans will become so much worse” if hostilities do not cease.

Critics have blamed the US decision to withdraw from Bagram air base and pull out its troops for the Taliban’s rapid gains.

But diplomats said the group had been gaining ground on Afghan security forces even when the national army enjoyed the full logistic support of US troops and air cover.

“Are we surprised that a force that was just about keeping up with the Taliban starts to crumble? Obviously not,” said a western diplomat.

The US has been pressing Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban to broker a peace deal. But Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has deteriorated.

Last week, Imran Khan’s security adviser said Joe Biden had not bothered to phone Pakistan’s prime minister.

On Wednesday, Mr Khan said the US considered his country useful only “in the context of somehow settling this mess which has been left behind after 20 years of trying to find a military solution when there was not one”.

Covert support

Pakistan has long played an ambiguous role in Afghanistan. Washington and the Afghan government believe Islamabad has covertly supported the Taliban, even while publicly claiming its support for a US-backed peace process.

Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s information minister, told reporters: “The people of Afghanistan and the United States must ask their governments exactly what use came from over $1 trillion that the US spent on the Afghan war. Why is the Afghan army coming apart like leaves?”

Mr Biden said this week he did not regret his decision to withdraw US troops and that Afghans should unite to fight the Taliban, who are moving to reinstate strict Islamic law in areas they have captured. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021