As Taliban seize major cities, US says it “remains invested” in Afghan security

An Afghan soldier seen as Taliban forces overran several cities in northern Afghanistan on August 12, 2021.
An Afghan soldier seen as Taliban forces overran several cities in northern Afghanistan on August 12, 2021. © AFP

The Taliban seized Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, as well as the district capital of Ghazni just 130 kilometres (80 miles) from Kabul on Thursday. According to information obtained by FRANCE 24, much of the city of Kandahar has also fallen to the militants.

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A senior security source from Herat told AFP that government forces and administration officials had retreated to an army barracks outside the city. “We had to leave the city in order to prevent further destruction,” he said.

A Taliban spokesman, however, tweeted that the “soldiers laid down their arms and joined the Mujahideen”.

An AFP correspondent had earlier filmed the Taliban flag flying over the police headquarters in Herat, about 150 kilometres from the Iranian border. The city is home to veteran warlord Ismail Khan, who for weeks has been rallying his forces to make a stand against the Taliban and was seen by many as Herat’s last hope.

Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city

A FRANCE 24 correspondent said the militants had also captured much of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the group’s spiritual home.

“The front line is now within the centre of Kandahar city,” said Bilal Sarwary, speaking from Kabul, adding that the Taliban managed to breach the city’s defences “from several directions”.

“These are very chaotic scenes,” he added.

The Taliban claimed Friday to have captured Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, which would leave just the capital and pockets of other territory in the government’s hands.

“Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square in the city,” a Taliban spokesman tweeted on an officially recognised account — a claim backed by a resident, who told AFP government forces appeared to have withdrawn en masse to a military facility outside the city.

Earlier in the day the interior ministry confirmed the fall of Ghazni, which lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway and serves as a gateway between the capital and militant strongholds in the south.

“The enemy took control,” spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said in a message to media, adding later that the city’s governor had been arrested by Afghan security forces.

Pro-Taliban Twitter feeds showed a video of him being escorted out of Ghazni by Taliban fighters and sent on his way in a convoy, prompting speculation in the capital that the government was angered with how easily the provincial administration capitulated.


FRANCE 24 correspondent Bilal Sarwary reporting from Kabul

US “remains invested” in Afghan security and stability

The U.S. secretaries of state and defense spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan” in the face of Taliban violence, the State Department said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Ghani Washington was reducing its civilian footprint in Kabul given the “evolving security situation” and would increase the tempo of Special Immigration Visa flights for Afghans who helped the U.S. effort in the country, the statement said.

They also said the United States remains committed to maintaining a strong diplomatic and security relationship with the Afghan government, it said.

Kabul’s proposal to Taliban

As security forces retreated across the country, Kabul handed a proposal to Taliban negotiators in Qatar offering a power-sharing deal in return for an end to the fighting, according to a member of the government’s team in Doha who asked not to be named.

A second negotiator, Ghulam Farooq Majroh, said the Taliban had been given an offer about a “government of peace” without providing more specifics.

Authorities in Kabul have now effectively lost most of northern and western Afghanistan and are left holding a scattered archipelago of contested cities also dangerously at risk.

Following talks in Qatar on Thursday, envoys from the United States, China, Russia and other states called for an accelerated peace process for Afghanistan as a “matter of great urgency” and for an immediate halt to attacks on provincial capitals and cities in Afghanistan.

A joint statement issued after the talks said the participants reaffirmed that they would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force” and are committed to reconstruction assistance once a “viable” political settlement is reached.

US, UK troops to evacuate embassy staff

Around 3,000 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan immediately to evacuate US embassy staff, the Pentagon said Thursday. There are thought to be about 1,400 staff remaining at the embassy in Kabul. Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the reduction in staff was “significant”.

The move suggests a lack of confidence by the Biden administration in the Afghan government’s ability to provide sufficient diplomatic security, even in the capital. Roughly 650 US troops remain in the country to protect the airport and embassy.

“The first movement will consist of three infantry battalions that are currently in the Central Command area of responsibility. They will move to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul within the next 24 to 48 hours,” said Defense Department spokesman John Kirby.

The State Department said the US was also planning daily flights to evacuate Afghan allies.

Following the US announcement, the British government said it would send 600 troops to Afghanistan to help British embassy staff leave the country.

“I have authorised the deployment of additional military personnel to support the diplomatic presence in Kabul, assist British nationals to leave the country and support the relocation of former Afghan staff who risked their lives serving alongside us,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said.

“The security of British nationals, British military personnel and former Afghan staff is our first priority. We must do everything we can to ensure their safety,” he added.

>> ‘The Taliban will hunt us down’: Couple stuck in Herat as city falls to Taliban

‘No leverage’

The conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when US-led forces began the final stage of a troop withdrawal set to end on August 31 following a 20-year occupation.

The loss of Ghazni piles more pressure on the country’s already overstretched air force, needed to bolster Afghanistan’s dispersed security forces, which have increasingly been cut off from reinforcements by road.

Pro-Taliban social media accounts also boasted of the vast spoils of war their fighters had recovered in recent days, posting photos of armoured vehicles, heavy weapons and even a drone seized by the insurgents at abandoned Afghan military bases.

Besides Herat, the insurgents have taken 10 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals in less than a week and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Fighting was also raging in Kandahar and Lashkar Gah – pro-Taliban heartlands in the south.

Prison raids

An official in Lashkar Gah said Taliban fighters were inching closer to government positions after a massive car bomb badly damaged the city’s police headquarters Wednesday evening.

The blast forced local police to retreat to the governor’s office, while around 40 of their colleagues and one senior commander surrendered to the Taliban.

In Kandahar, the Taliban said they had overrun the heavily fortified jail, saying “hundreds of prisoners were released and taken to safety”.

The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters and replenish their ranks.

The loss of the prison is a further ominous sign for the country’s second city, which has been besieged for weeks by the Taliban.

Kandahar was once the stronghold of the Taliban – whose forces coalesced in the eponymously named province in the early 1990s – and its capture serves as both a tactical and psychological victory for the militants.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting that has enveloped the country.

In recent days, Kabul has been swamped by the displaced, who have begun camping out in parks and other public spaces, sparking a fresh humanitarian crisis in the already overtaxed capital.

In Washington, defence officials appeared to be grappling with the spiralling situation but have insisted that Afghan security forces were still holding their ground.

“What we’re seeing – a deteriorating security situation, we’ve been nothing but candid about that,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

“But there are places and there are times, including today, where Afghan forces in the field are putting up a fight.”

As the Taliban continued their sweep across the country, envoys from the United States, Pakistan, the United Nations, the European Union, China and Russia called for an accelerated peace process in Afghanistan as a “matter of great urgency” following talks in Qatar on Thursday and for an immediate halt to attacks on provincial capitals and cities.

A joint statement issued after the talks said the participants reaffirmed that they would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force” and are committed to reconstruction assistance once a “viable” political settlement is reached.