Taliban seize Afghanistan’s second city as Nato allies meet

US and UK send troops to evacuate Kabul staff following capture of Kandahar

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar on Friday.  Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar on Friday. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

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The Taliban on Friday captured Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and began encircling Kabul, prompting Nato allies to convene a meeting in the wake of the US troop withdrawal.

The Islamist militia also captured Lashkar Gah in Helmand province after weeks of fierce fighting and now control at least 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. On Friday, four more cities had either fallen or were on the brink of being captured amid heavy fighting.

The Taliban have seized much of north, south and west Afghanistan and are approaching the capital Kabul in an effort to topple president Ashraf Ghani’s weakened government.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, on Friday said the members of the transatlantic alliance had met and were “deeply concerned about the high levels of violence caused by the Taliban’s offensive, including attacks on civilians, targeted killings, and reports of other serious human rights abuses”. Nato is committed to a “political solution to the conflict”, he added in a statement.

The US and UK said they would send troops to Kabul to evacuate embassy staff as fears mounted that the capital could come under imminent attack if a political settlement was not reached. The Taliban has shown little appetite for such a deal.

Back-up detachment

The Pentagon is sending 3,000 troops in the next two days and a back-up detachment of 3,500 soldiers to Kuwait in case the security situation deteriorates further. The UK will deploy a further 600 soldiers to speed up evacuations of some diplomatic personnel and Afghans who worked with British forces.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has warned Irish citizens it may not be able to assist in an evacuation and has urged anyone in the country to leave “as soon as possible by commercial means due to the worsening security situation”.

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There are “a small number” of Irish citizens in Afghanistan registered with the department for consular assistance but a spokeswoman would not confirm an exact figure on Friday night.

After storming across much of Afghanistan’s countryside in recent months, the Taliban have in the space of a week toppled a succession provincial capitals, altering the balance of power in the country.

After they recently captured Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah, only Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern stronghold of local anti-Taliban warlords, and Jalalabad, to the south of Kabul, are the last big towns resisting the Islamists outside the capital. The Taliban now control well over half of the country’s territory.

Even as the Islamist militants pressed their offensive, Taliban representatives were in Qatar for talks with a range of governments including the US, UK, Pakistan, China, India and several others.

In a statement issued late on Thursday, Doha said the participants in the talks had agreed on the need to “accelerate efforts to reach a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire as quickly as possible”.

‘Pariah state’

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan, demanded “an immediate end to attack against cities” and warned that “a government imposed by force will be a pariah state”.

However, analysts doubted that the Taliban leaders in Qatar had control over the insurgent group’s ground troops, many of whom were operating autonomously in their local regions.

“The question is to what extent are Mullah Baradar [the Taliban co-founder] and his crew in Doha are going to be able to shape the mind of hardened fighters who have never been in an aeroplane,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, a lecturer at the King’s College London’s department of war studies.

“It doesn’t seem to me that a motorcycle-riding Taliban leader with a Kalashnikov is very interested in what Baradar says.”

As a member of the UN Security Council, Ireland has called on the Taliban to end its campaign of violence and commit to a permanent ceasefire.

“We are gravely concerned at the speed and scale of the Taliban’s offensive and the impact of current levels of violence on the Afghan people,” the Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021