The Taliban have taken control of three more provincial capitals in Afghanistan as Joe Biden reaffirmed his decision to pull US troops out of the country even though the militant group are making sweeping territorial gains.
The Islamist insurgent group has captured nine, or more than a quarter, of the country's provincial capitals, including Puli Khumri, a strategically important city on the route to Kabul from the traditionally anti-Taliban north.
The Taliban also took control of Faizabad, in the mountainous northeast, a well-fortified city that had remained out of the group’s reach when it ruled the country in the 1990s.
The Taliban has taken control of more than half of Afghanistan’s about 400 mostly rural districts and a number of economically important border crossings.
The group has turned its attention to larger cities such as Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, the main bastion of resistance in the north. Diplomats and analysts said Taliban strategy was to encircle Kabul and pen Afghan forces in the capital in a bid to press President Ashraf Ghani’s government to surrender.
The rapid advance has stunned experts but Mr Biden reiterated his intention to pull the remaining US troops out of the country by the end of this month, arguing that it was up to the Afghans to defend themselves.
“Look, we spent over $1 trillion over 20 years, we trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces,” Mr Biden said on Tuesday. “Afghan leaders have to come together . . . They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
The US has closed its largest base and is conducting limited air strikes from outside the country but analysts said the efforts had done little to slow the Taliban offensive.
The US president has faced fierce criticism in the region, with some arguing that the hasty withdrawal has given the Taliban the upper hand and demoralised Afghanistan’s armed forces.
Other countries, including the UK and India, have also scaled back their presence in the country. New Delhi on Tuesday withdrew its personnel from its consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif and told its citizens to leave the country. Analysts said the decisions were a sign of their limited confidence in the Ghani government’s ability to withstand the Taliban assault.
German officials on Wednesday said they were suspending migrant deportations back to Afghanistan until the end of October “due to current developments in the security situation”. The decision to freeze deportations came at the request of the Afghan government, according to Heiko Maas, foreign minister, who called the move “right and necessary”.
Khalid Payenda, Afghanistan’s acting finance minister, resigned on Wednesday and left the country.
The Taliban’s gains have prompted a flood of domestic refugees, as residents flee fighting and the brutality meted out by the Islamists. The Taliban has reportedly executed rivals and abolished freedoms for women in areas where they have taken control.
The Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan was ousted by a US-led invasion following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 by al-Qaeda. The insurgents want to establish an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan.
The prospect of a protracted civil war or total Taliban takeover has raised concerns in Europe of a potential refugee crisis. "We do not want to have a descent into chaos," said a senior EU official.
The official said hopes were fading for a negotiated solution to the conflict. “The withdrawal of US, European and other military forces was foreseen,” the official said. “There has been the hope that this would be at the same time as a political agreement was reached at the negotiating table. This is not the case yet.”
But other diplomats said the unconditional nature of the US withdrawal, based on an agreement that the Taliban signed in 2020 under Donald Trump’s administration, gave the group little incentive to compromise.
“The way the US has conducted this withdrawal, they had not thought through ‘how do you hand over properly?’” said another western diplomat. “The Afghan security forces and Afghan morale were massively hit.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021