Afghan civilians, warlords take up arms against Taleban in battle for key city

Afghan soldiers fight Taleban militants in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, on May 10, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (BLOOMBERG) - Civilians in Afghanistan have taken up arms to push back against the Taleban as the militants fight for control of a crucial northern city and make deeper territorial inroads with the US set to withdraw all troops by September.

The insurgents are battling to take control of strategic cities in the country's north, including its regional hub Mazar-e-Sharif, after capturing dozens of districts over the last two months.

Local warlords and civilians have joined Afghan troops to push back the advance.

"Thousands of Afghan forces and armed civilians are prepared to defend the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, its outskirts and the districts that have been lost," according to Mr Mohammad Farhad Azimi, the governor of Balkh province, whose provincial capital is Mazar-e-Sharif.

Afghan soldiers recaptured two districts in Balkh and the nearby Baghlan province during a fierce overnight battle that left 80 Taleban fighters dead, the country's defence ministry said on Tuesday (June 22) in a Whatsapp message.

The spiralling violence underscores the Taleban's intentions to grab power by force as the US exits its two-decade-old war in the country.

The push to control more territory comes even as the militants are negotiating with the government of President Ashraf Ghani to ostensibly reach a power-sharing agreement.

Since the US announcement to exit Afghanistan in mid-April, the militant group has grabbed control of more than 50 districts, according to the Long War Journal.

It now controls 118 of the country's 407 districts, with another 190 being fought over.

The US will pull out its remaining 2,500 troops by Sept 11 and American air support for Afghan forces will also end. Nato's 7,000 troops who train and advise Afghan forces will follow the US.

Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the country's reconciliation council, will be heading to the US on Friday to hold talks with President Joe Biden.

While the Taleban has been strengthened by the imminent US pullout, Afghan forces will continue to fight to defend the country, Mr Abdullah said last week, adding that peace talks and a cease-fire are the only resolutions to the fighting.

'Forceful takeover'

Washington's push for a peaceful settlement between the warring groups has so far been futile. There's been no breakthrough since talks between Mr Ghani's officials and the Taleban began in September last year in Doha, Qatar, where the militant group has a political office.

A power-sharing deal is "very unlikely" and the Taleban's recent territorial gains all point to a "forceful takeover", said Mr Madiha Afzal, an analyst with Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Earlier, the United Nations warned the group remains aligned with Al-Qaeda and is massing fighters to overthrow the government.

Violence has flared up across Afghanistan since the news of the US' departure. There's been a surge in unclaimed targeted killings of journalists, politicians and civil society leaders.

Civilian casualties increased by 29 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year, Ms Deborah Lyons, the UN's top envoy in Afghanistan, told the Security Council Tuesday.

"Actions on the battlefield have been far greater than progress at the negotiating table," she said.

As the militants press on deeper into the north there have been instances of Afghan soldiers either surrendering or withdrawing from the areas under siege, according to Mr Sayed Zahir Masroor, a member of parliament from Balkh province.

"The good thing is the people who have seen and experienced the Taleban's brutalities are ready to fight them."

Northern Afghanistan has a long history of fighting back against the largely Pashtun Taleban since the militants took over the country in 1996.

The Northern Alliance under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massood fought until his assassination in 2001.

Dozens of armed civilians have joined the army in battles heating up elsewhere in the country's north, including the cities of Taloqan and Pul-e-Khumri, both near Mazar-e-Sharif, Mr Masroor said.

While celebrating the recent gains, Taleban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, in a statement late on Monday called on its soldiers not to harm civilians.

But few are convinced by statements like that.

"We have joined the army to fight the Taleban stooges," Mr Zulfiqar Nazari, a warlord commanding almost a hundred local civilian fighters in Mazar-e-Sharif said in a telephone interview. "We'll fight until our death to defend our cities and other areas."

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