Taleban enter key cities in Afghanistan's north after swift offensive

A photo from March 7, 2018, shows a military base littered with old Russian tanks on a hilltop overlooking Kunduz. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (NYTIMES) - The Taleban entered two provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan on Sunday (June 20), local officials said, the culmination of an insurgent offensive that has overrun dozens of rural districts and forced the surrender and capture of hundreds of government forces and their military equipment in recent weeks.

In Kunduz city, the capital of the province of the same name, the Taleban seized the city's entrance before dispersing throughout its neighbourhoods. Kunduz was briefly taken by the Taleban in 2015 and 2016 before they were pushed back by US airstrikes, special operations forces and Afghan security forces.

"Right now, I hear the sound of bullets," said Mr Amruddin Wali, a member of Kunduz's provincial council. "The Taleban have appeared in the alleys and back alleys of Kunduz, and there is panic all over the city."

The setbacks come at a harrowing moment for Afghanistan. US and international troops, now mostly based in Kabul, the capital, and at Bagram Airfield, are set to leave the country in weeks.

To the west of Kunduz in Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, Taleban fighters appeared at the city's entrance before moving into the city's periphery.

The Taleban clashed with security forces into Sunday night, after a series of takeovers in past days in the capital's surrounding districts. In one such recent battle, the Taleban killed more than 20 of the government's most elite forces. In another, dozens of government troops surrendered together after running low on ammunition.

The looming US withdrawal means Afghan troops will be left without the kind of combat support that has stopped such Taleban offensives in the past.

"If reinforcements come from Kabul, and aircraft support the security forces, the Taleban cannot enter the city," said Mr Sebghatullah Selab, deputy of Faryab's provincial capital.

There was also fighting Sunday near the entrance of Taloqan, the capital of Takhar, a province that neighbours Kunduz.

US air support in past weeks has been significantly reduced because of restrictive rules of engagement, and many US military aircraft are now based outside Afghanistan. Afghan air power is struggling to make up the difference.

On Friday, Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani is to meet Mr Biden at the White House to discuss the US troop withdrawal.

In the past 24 hours, around a dozen districts have fallen to the Taleban - mostly in the country's north. Since May 1, when US forces officially began their withdrawal from the country, the Taleban - through local mediation, military offensives and government retreats - have taken more than 50 districts, according to data collected by The New York Times.

Only a small number of districts have been retaken by government forces as the defeats have forced Afghan commanders to consider what territory they can hold after the American departure.

But Mr Rohullah Ahmadzai, a Defence Ministry spokesperson, told Al-Jazeera on Saturday, "There is a new, robust and effective plan to retake areas from which we have pulled back our forces."

There are roughly 400 districts in the country, many of which have been contested and controlled by the Taleban for some time.

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

But before the US withdrawal began, only a handful of districts had exchanged hands in the past year. In the past, many such takeovers played out with the Taleban seizing territory that was later retaken by the government.

In May, Taleban forces entered Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the country's south. Afghan forces and US airstrikes managed to push the insurgents back.

The current situation does not bode well for government forces and militias under the command of northern Afghanistan's power brokers, some of whom are notorious warlords who have held onto power since the country's civil war in the 1990s and the US invasion in 2001.

Those militia forces, often primarily made up of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras, have long seen the north as their stronghold from the Taleban, a primarily Pashtun group that rose in the south.

Even with adjacent militia forces, government troops are low on morale and are frequently besieged in isolated outposts and bases that can be resupplied only by the Afghan air force. The small group of pilots and aircraft are facing their own array of issues as international forces and maintenance contractors leave the country.

On Saturday, in a clear sign of the deteriorating security situation, the Afghan government appointed a new acting minister of defence, minister of interior and army chief.

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