Taliban fighters have seized control of a key district in western Afghanistan that includes an important border crossing with Iran, Afghan security officials said, as the armed group continues its rapid military advances around the country.
In the last week, the Taliban has overrun areas bordering five countries – Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Pakistan – as foreign forces end their 20-year intervention and the domestic security situation deteriorates.
“We are monitoring the slightest movement near the border,” said Brigadier General Farhad Arianfar, a commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
Border guards and the elite Revolutionary Guard were also taking part in the operation.
“We will not allow any smuggling operation or any unauthorised entry across these borders,” Arianfar said during a tour of the border zone
Pitched battles between Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces were also under way in the northern Balkh province bordering Uzbekistan.
Two senior security officials told Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity that the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, located in Herat province, had fallen to the Taliban and that Afghan security and customs officials had fled across the border.
Al Alalam TV, Iran’s official Arabic language service, also reported that Afghan soldiers had entered Iranian territory via the border crossing to escape the Taliban.
Tareq Arian, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s interior ministry, told AFP news agency in Kabul that government forces were seeking to retake Islam Qala.
The border between Iran and Afghanistan is about 900 kilometres (550 miles) long.
Calls by Reuters to the offices of the provincial governor and police went unanswered.
Another security official said Taliban fighters had seized five districts in Herat without a fight.
Earlier this week, more than 1,000 Afghan security personnel fled into Tajikistan as the Taliban captured most of the northern province of Badakhshan, which also borders China and Pakistan.
The defence ministry said Afghan government forces earlier on Thursday wrested back control of Qala-e-Naw, capital of the western province of Badghis, which had been stormed by the Taliban on Wednesday.
Hundreds of troops were deployed to the region, the ministry said, adding that fighting was continuing on the fringes of Qala-e-Naw, where the Taliban had earlier seized key government buildings in the city, including police headquarters.
“The city is fully [back] under our control and we are conducting operations against the Taliban on the outskirts of the city,” defence ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said.
The ministry said 69 Taliban fighters were killed in operations on the edge of Qala-e-Naw – the first major provincial capital entered by the fighters in their latest offensive.
The rest of Badghis province is in Taliban hands. Western security officials say the Taliban has captured more than 100 districts in Afghanistan.
Taliban making gains
The Taliban says it holds more than 200 districts in 34 provinces comprising over half the country. Main cities remain under government control.
The group has been gaining territory for weeks but accelerated its thrust as the United States vacated its main Afghan base, effectively ending an intervention that began with the removal of the Taliban government in 2001.
Taliban advances have been especially dramatic in northern provinces where they had long been kept at bay.
Stop-start peace talks between the government and the group remain inconclusive. Taliban delegations visited Iran on Wednesday and were in Moscow on Thursday.
Defending the decision to pull US forces out of Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said on Thursday he did not expect the Taliban to take over the whole country and that he trusted the Afghan military.
“We are ending America’s longest war,” he said.
Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the president said: “No, it is not.”
But, he admitted, “the likelihood there is going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely”.
The Taliban, for their part, welcomed Biden’s statement.
“Any day or hour that US and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step,” spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP.
As fighting continued, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said health workers were struggling to get medicines and supplies into Afghanistan, and that some staff had fled after facilities came under attack.
The WHO’s regional emergencies director, Rick Brennan, said at least 18.4 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 3.1 million children at risk of acute malnutrition.
“We are concerned about our lack of access to be able to provide essential medicines and supplies and we are concerned about attacks on health care,” Brennan, speaking via videolink from Cairo, told a UN briefing in Geneva.
Some aid will arrive by next week including 3.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and oxygen concentrators, he said.
They included doses of Johnson & Johnson’s shot donated by the US and AstraZeneca doses through the COVAX facility.
A US donation of more than 1.4 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrived on Friday, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said.