Kabul, August 14
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani said he was in urgent talks with local leaders and international partners as Taliban rebels seized two more provinces on Saturday and approached the outskirts of Afghanistan's capital while also launching a multi-pronged assault on a major northern city defended by former warlords.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised speech on Saturday, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains, in which he vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the US toppled the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks.
"As your President, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people," Ghani said in a brief televised address as the United States and other countries rushed in troops to help evacuate their embassies.
Ghani gave no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign for any talks on a ceasefire and a political settlement, saying "re-integration of the security and defence forces is our priority, and serious measures are being taken in this regard".
“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” he said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.
He spoke soon after the insurgents took Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province that is 70 km (40 miles) south of Kabul, according to a local provincial council member.
The Taliban captured all of Logar province, just south of the capital, Kabul, and detained local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province. She said the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district, just 11 kilometers (7 miles) south of Kabul.
The insurgents also captured the capital of Paktika, bordering Pakistan, according to Khalid Asad, a lawmaker from the province. He said fighting broke out in Sharana early Saturday but ended after local elders intervened to negotiate a pullout. He said the governor and other officials surrendered and were on their way to Kabul.
Sayed Hussan Gerdezi, a lawmaker from the neighboring Paktia province, said the Taliban seized most of its local capital, Gardez, but that battles with government forces were still underway. The Taliban said they controlled the city.
The Taliban meanwhile attacked the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif from several directions, setting off heavy fighting on its outskirts, according to Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country's second- and third-largest cities. They now control 19 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, leaving the Western-backed government in control of a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
The president had flown to Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defenses, meeting with several militia commanders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, who command thousands of fighters.
They remain allied with the government, but during previous rounds of fighting in Afghanistan, warlords have been known to switch sides for their own survival. Ismail Khan, a powerful former warlord who had tried to defend Herat, was captured by the Taliban when the insurgents seized the western city after two weeks of heavy fighting.
Residents of Mazar-e-Sharif expressed fear about the security breakdown.
“The situation is dangerous outside of the city and inside the city,” Mohibullah Khan said, adding that many residents are also struggling economically.
“The security situation in the city is getting worse,” said Kawa Basharat. “I want peace and stability. The fighting should be stopped.”
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. They now control 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving the Western-backed government in control of a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
The withdrawal of foreign forces and the swift retreat of Afghanistan’s own troops—despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years—has raised fears the Taliban could return to power or the country could be shattered by factional fighting, as it was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived on Friday to help partially evacuate the US Embassy. The rest are set to arrive by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its August 31 withdrawal deadline.
The Taliban meanwhile released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, renaming it the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
In the video, an unnamed insurgent said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. It appears the station will no longer play music.
It was not clear if the Taliban had purged the previous employees or allowed them to return to work. Most residents of Kandahar sport the traditional dress favored by the Taliban. The man in the video congratulated the people of Kandahar on the Taliban’s victory.
The Taliban have used mobile radio stations over the years, but have not operated a station inside a major city since they ruled the country from 1996-2001. At that time, they also ran a station called Voice of Sharia out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the militant group. Music was banned.
The US invaded shortly after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaeda planned and carried out while being sheltered by Taliban. After rapidly ousting the Taliban, the US shifted toward nation-building, hoping to create a modern Afghan state after decades of war and unrest.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of August, pledging to end America’s longest war. His predecessor, President Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.
Biden’s announcement set the latest offensive in motion. The Taliban, who have long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, with many fearing a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were largely confined to the home.
A US defence official said before the fall of Pul-e-Alam that there was concern that the Taliban—ousted from power in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States—could make a move on Kabul within days.
"Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment, but clearly ... if you just look at what the Taliban has been doing, you can see that they are trying to isolate Kabul," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Some embassies have begun to burn sensitive material ahead of evacuating, diplomats said.
The US embassy in the Afghan capital informed staff that burn bins and an incinerator were available to destroy material including papers and electronic devices to "reduce the amount of sensitive material on the property," according to an advisory seen by Reuters.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that "Afghanistan is spinning out of control" and urged all parties to do more to protect civilians.
"This is the moment to halt the offensive. This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war, or the isolation of Afghanistan," Guterres told reporters in New York.
Many people in the capital were stocking up on rice and other food as well as first aid, residents said. Visa applications at embassies were running in the tens of thousands, officials said, and Washington was asking countries to temporarily house Afghans who worked for the US government.
The explosion in fighting has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of gains in human rights, especially for women. Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes this year, 250,000 of them since May, a UN official said.
Canada said it would resettle more than 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, including women leaders, human rights workers, and reporters, to protect them from Taliban reprisals.
The speed of the Taliban's gains has led to recriminations over the US withdrawal, which was negotiated last year under the administration of President Joe Biden's Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Biden said this week he did not regret his decision to follow through with the withdrawal. He noted Washington has spent more than $1 trillion and lost thousands of troops over two decades, and called on Afghanistan's army and leaders to step up.
Opinion polls showed most Americans back Biden's decision, but Republicans criticized the Democratic president's handling of the US withdrawal.
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