As Afghan cities fall to Taliban, a new chapter unfolds

As Afghan cities fall to Taliban, brutal new chapter unfolds

Overwhelmed, Afghan forces have concentrated on defending key cities like Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south

Afghan security personnel and Afghan militia fighting against Taliban, stand guard in Enjil district of Herat province. Credit: AFP Photo

The Taliban seized three Afghan cities Sunday, including the commercial hub of Kunduz, officials said, escalating a sweeping offensive that has claimed five provincial capitals in three days and shown how little control the government has over the country without US military power to protect it.

Never before in 20 years of war had the Taliban directly assaulted more than one provincial capital at a time. Now, three fell on Sunday alone — Kunduz, Sar-i-Pul and Taloqan, all in the north — and even more populous cities are under siege, in a devastating setback for the Afghan government.

The fall of these cities is taking place just weeks before US forces are set to complete a total withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Since the US withdrawal began, the Taliban have captured more than half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts, according to some assessments. And their recent attacks on provincial capitals have violated the 2020 peace deal between the Taliban and the United States. Under that deal, which laid the path for the US withdrawal from the country, the Taliban committed to not attacking provincial centres like Kunduz.

The Taliban’s rapid victories have amplified fears about the Afghan security forces’ ability to defend what territory remains under government control. Since May, the insurgents have swept across the country’s rural areas, and in late June, they began assaulting major Afghan cities for the first time in years.

The simultaneous sieges on provincial hubs have exhausted Afghan security forces. Overwhelmed, Afghan forces have concentrated on defending key cities like Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west and Kunduz in the north — leaving others vulnerable to capture.

On Friday, the Taliban seized on that opening: In Zaranj, a provincial capital near the border with Iran, insurgents faced little resistance upon entering the city. A day later, they captured another capital, Sheberghan. On Sunday, Taliban forces broke through in three more provincial capitals, including Kunduz. By the day’s end, the Taliban had also captured the northern city of Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province, and Sar-i-Pul, the capital of the northern province with the same name.

By Sunday evening, no central government officials — including President Ashraf Ghani — had commented on the capture of the five provincial capitals; the Afghan Ministry of Defense simply said that Afghanistan’s security forces were fighting around the country, killing scores of Taliban fighters.

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