Kabul: The Taliban completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling Kabul, just weeks before the US is set to officially end its two-decade war.
The latest significant blow was the loss of the capital of Helmand province, where American, British and allied NATO forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in the past 20 years. Hundreds of foreign troops were killed in the province, which is also a major opium hub.
Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul.Credit:AP
The insurgents have taken half of the country’s 34 provincial capitals in recent days, including its second- and third-largest cities, Herat and Kandahar. The Taliban now control more than two-thirds of the country just weeks before the U.S. plans to withdraw its last troops.
While the capital of Kabul isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and advances elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban. The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months.
In the south, the insurgents swept through the capitals of Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, in addition to Helmand’s.
Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said that the Taliban captured Lashkar Gah following weeks of heavy fighting and raised their white flag over governmental buildings. He said that three national army bases outside of Lashkar Gah remain under control of the government.
Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council chief in Zabul province, said the local capital of Qalat fell and that officials were in a nearby army camp preparing to leave.
Bismillah Jan Mohammad and Qudratullah Rahimi, lawmakers from Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province, said local officials surrendered Tarin Kowt to the Taliban. Mohammad said the governor was heading to the airport to depart for Kabul.
Tarin Kowt is the former base of Australian soldiers who were based there for almost a decade. Many Afghan civilians who worked alongside the Australians are thought to be still trapped there.
In the country’s west, meanwhile, Fazil Haq Ehsan, head of the provincial council in Ghor province, said its capital, Feroz Koh, also fell to the insurgents.
With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the US Embassy in Kabul. Separately, Britain said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country, and Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy.
Australia announced on Friday night that it would be joining the international effort to evacuate Afghan civilians who had previously worked with Australian troops.
Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban would again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public executions.
Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats are still meeting, as the US European and Asian nations warned that any government established by force would be rejected.
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