Taliban control 65% of Afghanistan, EU official says after series of sudden gains
- US says it’s up to Afghan forces to defend the country
- Taliban capture another regional capital, seventh in one week
- Government withdraws forces from hard-to-defend rural districts
- Ghani asks for help from militias to protect Kabul, assistants say
- EU states warn of open door for Afghan asylum seekers
KABUL, Aug. 10 (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents tightened their grip on captured Afghan territory on Tuesday as civilians hid in their homes, and a European Union official said militants now control 65 percent of the country after a series of gains as foreign forces retreat out.
Pul-e-Khumri, capital of the northern province of Baghlan, fell to the Taliban on Tuesday evening, according to residents who reported that Afghan security forces were retreating to the Kelagi Desert, home to a large military base. Afghan army.
Pul-e-Khumri became the seventh regional capital to come under Taliban control in about a week, although the White House said on Tuesday that the United States was not considering a Taliban takeover of the whole. of the country as inevitable.
President Ashraf Ghani called on the region’s strongmen to support his government, while a UN official said progress on human rights in the 20 years since die-hard Islamists were ousted from power risked being wiped out.
In the national capital Kabul, Ghani’s aides said he was seeking help from regional militias he had fought with for years to defend his government. He also called on civilians to defend the “democratic fabric” of Afghanistan.
In the town of Aibak, capital of Samangan province, on the main road between Mazar-i-Sharif town and Kabul in the north, Taliban fighters were consolidating their control by entering government buildings, officials said. inhabitants.
Most government security forces appeared to have withdrawn.
“The only way is to self-house or find a way to leave for Kabul,” said Sher Mohamed Abbas, a provincial tax officer, when asked about living conditions in Aibak.
“But even Kabul is no longer a safe option,” said Abbas, the sole breadwinner in a family of nine.
Abbas said the Taliban arrived at his office and told the workers to go home. He and other residents said they had neither seen nor heard of any fighting on Tuesday.
For years, the north has been the most peaceful part of the country with a minimal Taliban presence.
The militants’ strategy appears to be to take the north, along with the main border posts to the north, west and south, and then move closer to Kabul.
The Taliban, struggling to defeat the US-backed government and re-impose strict Islamic law with deadlocked peace talks, invaded Aibak on Monday with little resistance.
Taliban forces now control 65% of Afghan territory, threaten to take 11 provincial capitals and try to deprive Kabul of traditional support from national forces in the north, a senior EU official said on Tuesday.
The government has withdrawn forces from hard-to-defend rural districts to focus on detaining major population centers, while officials called for pressure on neighboring Pakistan to prevent Taliban reinforcements and supplies from crossing the border. porous. Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration still believes that only negotiations can bring lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan.
“Ultimately, our view is that the Afghan National Security Defense Forces have the equipment, manpower and training to respond, which will strengthen their position at the negotiating table,” Psaki said. during a regular press briefing.
âThe president continues to believe that it is not inevitable that the Taliban will take over Kabul or the country.
The United States carried out a small number of airstrikes in support of government troops, but said it was up to Afghan forces to defend their country.
On Tuesday, US Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby said the strikes were having a “kinetic” impact on the Taliban, but acknowledged their limitations.
“No one has suggested here (at the Pentagon) that airstrikes are a panacea, which will solve all the problems of the conditions on the ground. We never said that,” Kirby said.
“Deeply disturbing reports”
The Taliban and government officials have confirmed that Islamist insurgents have invaded six provincial capitals in recent days in the north, west and south.
Security forces in Pul-e-Khumri, southeast of Aibak, were surrounded as the Taliban approached the town at a main junction on the road to Kabul, a security official said.
Gulam Bahauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, told Reuters that fighting was unfolding in 25 of the 34 provinces and that 60,000 families had been displaced in the past two months, most seeking refuge in Kabul.
Around 400,000 Afghans have been displaced in recent months and there has been an increase in the number of people fleeing to Iran over the past 10 days, the EU official said.
Six EU member states have warned the bloc’s executive against stopping deportations of failed Afghan asylum seekers arriving in Europe despite major advances by the Taliban, fearing a possible repeat of a 2015 crisis – 16 following the chaotic arrival of more than a million migrants, mainly from the Middle East. Read more
A resident of Farah, the capital and largest city of Farah province in western Afghanistan, near the border with Iran, said the Taliban had taken the governor’s compound and that there had been heavy fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
Civilians said the Taliban captured all of the city’s main government buildings.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said reports of violations that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity were emerging, including “deeply disturbing information” on the summary execution of surrendering government troops.
âPeople rightly fear that a Taliban takeover will erase the human rights gains of the past two decades. “
GREAT NORTHERN CITY AT RISK
The Taliban, driven out in the weeks following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, seemed able to advance in different directions on Mazar-i-Sharif. His fall would deal a devastating blow to Ghani’s government.
Atta Mohammad Noor, a northern militia commander, vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be “resistance to the last drop of my blood.” He added on Twitter: “I’d rather die with dignity than die in despair.”
India sent a flight to northern Afghanistan to bring its citizens home, officials said, asking the Indians to leave. The United States and Britain have already advised their citizens to leave Afghanistan.
The United States will complete the withdrawal of its forces at the end of this month under a deal with the Taliban, which provided for the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for the Taliban’s promises to prevent Afghanistan from being used. for international terrorism.
The Taliban promised not to attack foreign forces when they pulled out, but did not agree to a ceasefire with the government.
Reporting from the Afghan office, additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Sabine Siebold and John Chalmers in Brussels, Andrea Shalal and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich
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