KABUL, Aug 13 (Reuters) – The Taliban have captured Afghanistan’s second and third biggest cities, officials said on Friday, fuelling fears the U.S.-backed government could fall to the insurgents as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
The capture of the second-biggest city of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes are a devastating setback for the government as the deadly Taliban insurgency turns into a rout of the security forces.
“The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,” provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimo said by telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran.
“Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.”
A government official told Reuters: “Following heavy clashes late last night, the Taliban took control of Kandahar city.”
Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, as well as Kabul. But a U.S. defence official cited U.S. intelligence as saying this week that the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it within 90.
Britain said it would deploy about 600 troops https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/britain-sends-troops-afghanistan-help-evacuate-staff-citizens-2021-08-12 to help its citizens leave while other embassies and aid groups said they too were getting their people out.
“I think we are heading towards a civil war,” British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC.
The United Nations has warned that a Taliban offensive reaching the capital would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians” but there is little hope for negotiations to end the fighting with the Taliban apparently set on a military victory.
The Taliban also captured the towns of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officers said on Friday. Firuz Koh, capital of central Ghor province, was handed over without a fight, officials said.
The militants, fighting to defeat the government and impose their strict version of Islamic rule, have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since Aug. 6.
The fall of so many major cities was a sign that Afghans welcomed the Taliban, a spokesperson for the group said, according to Al Jazeera TV.
The speed of the offensive has sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Biden said this week he did not regret his decision, noting Washington has spent more than $1 trillion in America’s longest war and lost thousands of troops.
Kandahar will be a particularly heavy blow to the government. It is the heartland of the Taliban, ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in the province in 1994 amid the chaos of civil war to sweep through most of the rest of the country over the next two years.
Government forces were still in control of Kandahar’s airport, which was the U.S. military’s second biggest base in Afghanistan during their 20-year mission, an official said.
Hashimo, the provincial council member in Herat, said government forces were clinging on to the airport and to an army camp, but the Taliban controlled the rest of the city.
Lashkar Gah is the capital of the southern opium-growing province of Helmand, where British, U.S. and other foreign forces battled the insurgents for years.
The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan”. They also said the United States was committed to supporting a political solution.
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the exit strategy was sending the United States “hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” urging Biden to commit to providing more support to Afghan forces.
“Without it, al Qaeda and the Taliban may celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks by burning down our Embassy in Kabul.”
In the deal struck with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
They also made a commitment to discuss peace but intermittent meetings with government representatives have proved fruitless. International envoys to Afghan negotiations in Qatar called for an accelerated peace process as a “matter of great urgency” and for a halt to attacks on cities.
A Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera: “We will not close the door to the political track.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said this week the Taliban had refused to negotiate unless Ghani resigned from the presidency. Many people on both sides would view that as tantamount to the government’s surrender, leaving little to discuss but terms.
Pakistan officially denies backing the Taliban but it has been an open secret that Taliban leaders live in Pakistan and recruit fighters from a network of religious schools in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military has long seen the Taliban as the best option to block the influence of arch rival India in Afghanistan.
Afghans, including many who have come of age enjoying freedoms since the Taliban were ousted, have vented their anger on social media, tagging posts #sanctionpakistan, but there has been little criticism from Western capitals of Pakistan’s role.
(Reporting by Kabul, Islamabad and Washington bureaus; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan)