The United States has said it is up to Afghan security forces to defend the country after Taliban militants captured a sixth provincial capital, along with border cities and trade routes.
Fighting in Afghanistan’s protracted conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal to be completed before the end of the month.
“It is your country to defend now. It’s their fight, ”Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference Monday.
“These are your military forces, these are your provincial capitals, your people to defend, and it will really depend on what leadership you are willing to exude here at this particular time,” Kirby said.
He acknowledged that the fight on the ground “clearly wasn’t going in the right direction.”
While it declined to provide additional military support, the United States said it would continue to push for a diplomatic resolution to the escalating conflict.
US negotiator on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad “will pressure the Taliban to stop their military offensive” at talks in Doha this week, the state department said.
Khalilzad would help formulate an international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation, he said, as he described the victims and alleged human rights atrocities as of “grave concern”.
“A negotiated peace is the only way to end the war.”
The Taliban have invaded six provincial capitals in days. On Sunday, the group claimed a great symbolic victory when its fighters seized Kunduz, a strategic city near the border with Tajikistan and a major political and military center. It has also claimed Sheberghan, the capital of the northern province of Jawzjan, and neighboring Taloqan.
On Monday, armed fighters invaded the city of Aibak without meeting resistance, as forces advanced towards Pul-e Khomri, another provincial capital in the north.
“The city of Aibak, unfortunately, fell into the hands of the Taliban on Monday afternoon,” a local official confirmed to The Guardian by phone. “Taliban fighters, armed with heavy weapons, defeated the city for a week. He fell without any confrontation. “
The official added: “The security forces and local officials withdrew from one side and about 30 minutes later the Taliban entered the city from the other side. Kabul did not send aid. The Taliban now control the headquarters of the police, the governor and the intelligence services. People are worried. The stores are closed. Many government employees and local residents have fled in recent days. “
The Taliban released a video of their triumphant fighters standing in front of Aibak main administrative building, Y on a road on the outskirts. The city is a key route for the supply of goods to northern Afghanistan. His capture leaves pro-government forces in the region increasingly isolated.
Another senior local official blamed a former senator and local strongman for the city’s downfall after he switched sides on Sunday and joined the Taliban with 300 of his men. Switching sides has been a tactic for decades in war-torn Afghanistan.
The Taliban were also putting pressure on the region’s largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif. Its fall would be a devastating and possibly terminal blow to the Kabul government. Officials and residents contacted by phone said the Taliban were exaggerating. They confirmed clashes in neighboring districts.
“The enemy is trying to distort public opinion and create anxiety in the civilian population with its propaganda,” said a statement from the police force in Balkh province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital. Atta Mohammad Noor, a commander of the northern militia, vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be “resistance to the last drop of my blood.”
“I’d rather die with dignity than die in despair,” he tweeted.
On Monday, UNICEF said it was “shocked” by the recent escalation of violence: 27 children died and 136 were injured in three days.
These are not numbers. Each of these deaths and each case of physical suffering is a personal tragedy, ”said Hervé Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF representative in Afghanistan.
In other parts of the country, the Taliban began searching for government employees in newly captured territories.
“I refused to go to my office on Thursday and fled to a nearby town, to the home of a relative,” said Shahla, a woman who had been a local prosecutor for four years in the city of Zaranj. The Taliban seized Zaranj, in the southwestern province of Nimroz, on Friday, the first provincial capital to be captured by insurgents since the Biden administration announced it was withdrawing US troops.
“Then I came to Herat with just my clothes on Saturday, leaving everything behind. It was a horrible trip. The Taliban had checkpoints all over the road and they searched our vehicle several times along the road. They only asked men questions. He was wearing a burqa. It was very hot, but it was my only protection. “
The Taliban have started giving so-called “immunity cards” to soldiers and public officials in the same city, asking anyone with connections to the government to come and register, local people told The Guardian. Employees are told to go to the local governor’s office and, after a few questions, receive their cards.
“The Taliban warned the people that if they cooperate with the government in the future, they will be killed immediately, without any trial,” a resident said by phone. “Many did, but I can’t. They are not trustworthy. I suppose they are looking for high-ranking officials. “
Shahla said she was skeptical of the plan. “I was afraid to tell them that as a woman I worked for the government. He couldn’t trust them. I was afraid of being stoned to death for what I did for the past four years. I have already received several threats from them. “
With Reuters and Associated Press