The Taliban said on Friday it has seized control of 85 percent of territory in Afghanistan, a declaration government officials dismissed as part of a propaganda campaign.
But local Afghan officials said Taliban fighters, emboldened by NATO’s withdrawal, captured an important district in Herat province, home to tens of thousands of minority Shia Hazaras.
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Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan, was also captured by the Taliban overnight, Afghan and Taliban officials said.
The recent rapid gains come as foreign forces – including the United States – withdraw after nearly 20 years of fighting.
Afghanistan’s interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said efforts were under way to dislodge the Taliban from their newly acquired positions.
The Afghan government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban’s gains as having little strategic value, but the seizure of multiple border crossings along with mineral-rich areas will likely fill the armed group’s coffers with new sources of revenue.
With the Taliban having routed much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government holds little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must largely be reinforced and resupplied by air.
Taliban fighters also attacked a prison on the edge of southern Kandahar city, the capital of their former bastion of Kandahar province, on Friday.
“The Taliban … tried to get to the prison there. Fighting continues and we have deployed reinforcements including special forces to clear the area,” said Kandahar police spokesman Jamal Naser Barekza.
Hundreds of Afghan security personnel and refugees continued to flee across the border into neighbouring Iran and Tajikistan, causing concern in Russia and nearby nations that the Taliban could infiltrate Central Asia.
Three visiting Taliban officials sought to address those concerns during a visit to Moscow on Friday.
“We will take all measures so that Islamic State [ISIL, or ISIS] will not operate on Afghan territory … and our territory will never be used against our neighbours,” one of the Taliban officials, Shahabuddin Delawar, told a news conference.
“You and the entire world community have probably recently learned that 85 percent of the territory of Afghanistan has come under the control” of the Taliban, Delawar added.
‘Get into the field’
Asked about how much territory the Taliban held, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined direct comment.
“Claiming territory or claiming ground doesn’t mean you can sustain that or keep it over time,” he said in an interview with CNN. “And so I think it’s really time for the Afghan forces to get into the field – and they are in the field – and to defend their country, their people.
“They’ve got the capacity, they’ve got the capability. Now it’s time to have that will.”
In Afghanistan, a prominent anti-Taliban commander said he would support efforts by Afghan forces to claw back control of parts of western Afghanistan, including a border crossing with Iran.
Mohammad Ismail Khan, widely known as the Lion of Herat, urged civilians to join the fight. He said hundreds of armed civilians from Ghor, Badghis, Nimroz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar provinces had come to his house and were ready to fill the security void created by foreign force withdrawal.
Khan, a veteran commander of fighters who helped US forces topple the Taliban in 2001, pledged to back government forces.
“We will soon go to the front lines and with the help of God change the situation,” Khan told reporters in the western city of Herat.
US President Joe Biden said on Thursday the Afghan people must decide their own future and that he would not consign another generation of Americans to the two-decade-old war.
Biden set a target date of August 31 for the final withdrawal of US forces, minus about 650 troops to provide security for the US embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban welcomed Biden’s statement. “Any day or hour that US and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step,” spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.
The Taliban have been emboldened by the troop withdrawal and – with peace talks in Doha deadlocked – appear to be pressing for a full military victory.
Shaheen, who is also a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, insisted the group was still seeking a “negotiated settlement”.
The US president said Washington had long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001: Rooting out al-Qaeda fighters to prevent another attack on the US such as the one launched on September 11, 2001.
The mastermind of that attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a US commando team in neighbouring Pakistan in 2011.
‘Attacks on health care’
As fighting continued, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said health workers were struggling to get medicine and supplies into Afghanistan, and some staff fled after facilities came under attack.
WHO’s regional emergency 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.