© Reuters. Tanks arrive on the battlefield in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on July 7, 2021 in this still image taken from video. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
KABUL (Reuters) – The United States said it was up to Afghan security forces to defend the country after Taliban militants captured a sixth provincial capital on Monday, along with border cities and trade routes.
President Joe Biden has said that the US military mission in Afghanistan will end on August 31, arguing that the Afghan people must decide their own future and that they will not send another generation of Americans to the 20-year war.
The Taliban, struggling to restore strict Islamic law after their overthrow in 2001, have stepped up their campaign to defeat the government in the face of the withdrawal of foreign forces.
On Monday they took Aybak, capital of the northern province of Samangan.
“Right now, the Taliban are fighting with Afghan forces to capture the police headquarters and the provincial governor’s compound,” said Ziauddin Zia, a lawmaker in Aybak.
“Various parts of the capital have fallen into the hands of the Taliban.”
The insurgents seized three provincial capitals over the weekend: Zaranj in the southern province of Nimroz, Sar-e-Pul, in the northern province of the same name, and Taloqan, in the northeastern province of Takhar.
They had already taken the northern provincial capital of Kunduz and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby (NYSE 🙂 said the United States was deeply concerned by the trend, but that Afghan security forces had the ability to fight the insurgent group.
“These are your military forces, these are your provincial capitals, your people to defend and it will really depend on the leadership that you are willing to exude here at this particular time,” Kirby said.
When asked what the US military can do if the Afghan security forces do not oppose it, Kirby replied, “Not much.”
US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while the military had warned Biden earlier this year that provincial capitals would fall with troop withdrawals, they were still surprised at how quickly the Taliban were taking some of them.
The United States carried out fewer than a dozen attacks over the weekend when the Taliban invaded provincial capitals, in one case simply destroying equipment.
An official said that the Afghan forces did not ask for any support as Kunduz was being outmaneuvered.
The Taliban’s advances have prompted recriminations for the withdrawal of foreign forces. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the Daily Mail that the deal reached last year between the United States and the Taliban was a “rotten deal.”
Washington agreed to pull out in a deal negotiated last year under Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Wallace said his government had asked some NATO allies to keep their troops in Afghanistan once US troops left, but failed to garner enough support.
“Some said they were interested, but their parliaments were not. It became clear quite quickly that without the United States as the framework nation it had been, these options were closed,” Wallace said.
Germany’s defense minister rejected requests that his soldiers return to Afghanistan after Taliban insurgents seized Kunduz, where German troops were deployed for a decade.
Afghan commandos had launched a counterattack to try to push back the Taliban fighters who invaded Kunduz, and residents fleeing the conflict described the almost constant sound of gunfire and explosions.
In the west, near the Iranian border, security officials said heavy fighting was taking place outside Herat. Arif Jalali, director of Herat Zonal Hospital, said 36 people died and 220 were injured in the past 11 days. More than half of the injured were civilians, and the dead included women and children.
UNICEF said 20 children were killed and 130 children injured in the southern Kandahar province in the past 72 hours.
“Atrocities are increasing by the day,” said Hervé Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.
In Helmand, a hotbed of Taliban activity, security officials reported a loud explosion in Lashkar Gah on Monday morning.
In Kunduz, many desperate families, some with young children and pregnant women, left their homes in hopes of reaching the relative safety of Kabul, 315 km (200 miles) to the south, a journey that would normally take around 10 hours.
Ghulam Rasool, an engineer, was trying to hire a bus to take his family to the capital as the sound of gunfire reverberated through the streets of his hometown.
“We may be forced to walk to Kabul, but we are not sure that they will kill us on the way … The ground fighting did not stop for even 10 minutes,” Rasool told Reuters.
He and several other residents, and a security official, said that Afghan commandos had launched an operation to drive insurgents out of Kunduz.
In Kabul itself, suspected Taliban fighters killed the manager of an Afghan radio station, government officials said, the latest in a long line of attacks on media workers.
Thousands of people were trying to enter Kabul, even after the city witnessed attacks on diplomatic districts.
Speaking to Al Jazeera TV on Sunday, Taliban spokesman Muhammad Naeem Wardak warned the United States against further intervention to support government forces.