Taliban seizes ground across Afghanistan ahead of US troop withdrawal

US and UK warn citizens to leave as Islamist militants capture at least two provincial capitals

The High Commissioner for human rights has raised concerns about reports of violation and civilian casualties in Afghanistan that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Video: Reuters

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The Taliban continues to gain territory in its violent campaign for control of Afghanistan, stoking strong criticism of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw US troops at the end of this month.

The Islamist militants captured at least two provincial capitals over the weekend, with heavy fighting reported in several other cities. The US and UK on Saturday warned their citizens to leave.

Despite the escalating violence, the US is on course to pull out its remaining forces ahead of a self-imposed deadline at the end of this month. US president Joe Biden ordered the drawdown of troops to bring America’s longest-running war to a close, upholding a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban.

The Taliban on Friday seized its first local capital, Zaranj in the southwestern Nimroz province, without any strong resistance. Afghan officials and armed forces there fled into neighbouring Iran. The group then took Sheberghan, the capital of northern Jowzjan province, on Saturday.

Heavy fighting has taken place in Kunduz and Sar-e-Pol, with Reuters reporting that the insurgents had captured the two northern provincial capitals on Sunday.

Kabul also appears to be under threat. The Islamist group on Friday assassinated Dawa Khan Menapal, head of the government’s media centre, in the capital. It also claimed responsibility for a deadly attack last week that targeted the defence minister, who was not present.

The US embassy in Kabul said on Saturday that US citizens should leave Afghanistan “immediately”. “The order for American citizens to leave is an indication of the deteriorating security situation,” a US defence official said.

Civil war

The Biden administration has been making a last-ditch effort to secure a negotiated political settlement that would give the Taliban a role in government rather than pursue its advantage on the battlefield, but to little effect.

“These Taliban actions to forcibly impose its rule are unacceptable and contradict its claim to support a negotiated settlement in the Doha peace process,” the US said.

Analysts have warned the escalating violence could result in a long civil war, the country’s break-up or the Taliban overrunning Kabul, reversing gains for women, girls and civil rights.

Rory Stewart, the former British international development secretary who spent several years in Afghanistan, is among critics who blame the Taliban’s resurgence on Mr Biden’s “reckless decision” to withdraw troops so suddenly.

“Essentially over the past two months we’ve pulled the rug out from underneath the Afghan people and it’s a terrible, terrible tragedy and shame,” he told BBC Newsnight.

The Taliban, an ultraconservative militancy that wants to rule an Islamist emirate, came to power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. It was deposed by a US-led invasion in response to the 9/11 attacks, which were conducted by al-Qaeda, a jihadi group that had established ties to the Taliban.

US forces have carried out air strikes in a bid to deter the Taliban and boost the morale of national security forces, but the US defence official told the Financial Times the strikes amounted to only “a handful” each day.

War crimes

Despite Taliban gains and reports of bombings and atrocities in the past week, which the UN has said could constitute war crimes, the White House has indicated the Biden administration is not reconsidering withdrawal.

“The president made clear: after 20 years at war, it’s time for American troops to come home,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, after the Taliban took its first provincial capital on Friday.

“We knew from the beginning – and the president would be the first to say this – that there are difficult choices a commander-in-chief needs to make on behalf of the American people.”

National forces have so far repelled Taliban attacks on Herat, another provincial capital, but Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, are among large cities under sustained attack.

On Friday, Deborah Lyons, the UN special representative for Afghanistan, said at least 104 civilians had been killed and 403 wounded in Lashkar Gah since late July. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021