Taliban Attack a Provincial Capital in Afghanistan’s North, Freeing Prisoners

Continuing their offensive, the Taliban forces seemed poised to overrun the city, though Afghan airstrikes slowed the assault.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban pushed their way into a provincial capital in Afghanistan’s northwest on Wednesday, freeing prisoners there and threatening to overrun the city itself.

Details were murky from the city, Qala-i-Nau, the capital of Badghis Province, where fighting was widespread. Videos posted on social media showed some residents welcoming Taliban fighters on motorbikes as they entered.

“The entire city is under control of the Taliban,” said Abdul Rahim Rahin, a member of Parliament from Badghis, though his statement could not be immediately confirmed. Reports from the city in the afternoon said that airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force had helped push back the Taliban fighters.

Despite dire reports from the ground, a statement from the Ministry of Defense on Wednesday afternoon said the Taliban were “fleeing” and that “in the next few hours, all parts of the city will be cleared.”

The assault on Qala-i-Nau is the latest in the Taliban’s recent offensive, which began in earnest as U.S. and international forces began withdrawing from the country in May. In the span of just over two months, the Taliban have managed to seize at least 150 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.

Other provincial capitals in the country’s north — long known as an anti-Taliban stronghold — are also under siege, with insurgent fighters on the periphery of at least three other important cities.

The Taliban’s recent victories have put the Afghan government in an increasingly difficult position. Hundreds of Afghan troops have surrendered in past months, forfeiting significant amounts of weapons and equipment to the already well-supplied insurgent group. Last week more than a thousand Afghan troops fled into neighboring Tajikistan to escape the Taliban advance.

What American forces remain in Afghanistan have provided some assistance, with fleeting air support that now originates from outside the country.

Caught in the middle of this brutal new chapter of the war are civilians, dozens of whom have been wounded and killed along with tens of thousands who have been displaced.

Mohammad Yosouf Farahmand, a doctor in the provincial hospital, said that at least one civilian had been killed during the recent fighting and more than a dozen had been wounded.

On Tuesday, the Taliban broke into the Badghis provincial jail and freed those inside, said Mirwais, a police officer in Qala-i-Naw who like many Afghans goes by one name. Dozens of inmates have escaped.

Taliban attacks on provincial capitals are prohibited under the deal on troop withdrawal that the United States signed with the insurgent group last year. The Taliban seem to have adhered to that during their current offensive, as they have sought to avoid civilian casualties and bad publicity. But in some cases, local Taliban commanders have taken advantage of their gains and attacked some cities.

The battle unfolding in Qala-i-Naw, a city of about 50,000 people, has increasingly looked like a direct assault, with the remaining government forces pinned down. It is unclear, however, if the Taliban will try and hold the city outright.

“The city will fall to the Taliban if air support does not arrive,” Abdul-Rahim Khan, a police commander in a nearby district, said in an interview as the fighting progressed.

On Tuesday, Taliban fighters ambushed a large convoy of Afghan security forces on their way to Qala-i-Nau, killing dozens. Though the exact number of casualties is unclear, Mr. Khan said more than 60 troops were killed and that more than a dozen others had been taken prisoner.

Afghan air and commando forces, the backbone of the government’s defense, are already stretched thin by fighting elsewhere in the country, a key part of the Taliban’s strategy to exhaust them.

It is not just the Taliban’s military prowess that has precipitated the collapse of the government forces. Low morale and local feuds between militia leaders and government officials have also contributed.

The Afghan government has retaken some territory, though its gains pale in comparison to the Taliban’s. Its emerging military strategy seems to consist of consolidating what forces remain around key cities and population centers.

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, told reporters on Tuesday that the government “has a plan” to retake the districts, and that some outposts were “relocated” because of a lack of supplies. Some regional groups, skeptical that the Afghan security forces can hold out much longer, have begun to muster their own militias to defend their home turf, in a painful echo of the country’s devastating civil war in the 1990s.

Increasingly absent in the fight are U.S. and international forces.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military said that the withdrawal process was more than 90 percent complete, as part of President Biden’s directive to end the American military mission in Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Last week, U.S. forces left Bagram Air Base, once the largest U.S. base in the country, in the middle of the night. The abrupt departure, with little coordination, led to looting on the base until Afghan security forces arrived.

A Pentagon spokesman attributed the miscommunication to operational security concerns.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Kabul, and Asad Timory from Herat, Afghanistan. Reporting was contributed by Fatima Faizi in Kabul and Eric Schmitt in Washington.

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