KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban broke into a provincial capital in northwestern Afghanistan on Wednesday, freeing prisoners there and threatening to invade the city itself.
Details were obscure for the town of Qala-i-Naw, the capital of Badghis province, where fighting was widespread. Videos posted on social media showed residents welcoming Taliban fighters on motorcycles as they entered.
“The whole city is under Taliban control,” said Abdul Rahim Rahin, member of parliament from Badghis, although his statement could not be confirmed immediately. Reports from the city in the afternoon indicated that the Afghan Air Force airstrikes had helped repel the Taliban fighters.
Despite terrible reports on the ground, a Defense Ministry statement Wednesday afternoon said the Taliban were “fleeing” and “in the next few hours all parts of the city will be cleaned up.”
The assault on Qala-i-Naw is the latest in the recent Taliban offensive, which began in earnest as US and international forces began withdrawing from the country in May. In just over two months, the Taliban succeeded in taking over at least 150 of Afghanistan’s 400 or so districts.
Other northern provincial capitals – long known as an anti-Taliban stronghold – are also under siege, with insurgent fighters on the outskirts of at least three other major cities.
The recent Taliban victories have placed the Afghan government in an increasingly difficult position. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers have surrendered in recent months, handing over significant quantities of weapons and equipment to the already well-supplied insurgent group. Last week, more than a thousand Afghan soldiers fled to neighboring Tajikistan to escape the advancing Taliban.
What US forces remain in Afghanistan has provided some assistance, with fleeting air support now coming from outside the country.
In the midst of this brutal new chapter in the war are civilians, dozens of whom have been injured and killed as well as tens of thousands of displaced people.
Mohammad Yosouf Farahmand, a doctor at the provincial hospital, said at least one civilian was killed in recent fighting and more than a dozen were injured.
On Tuesday, the Taliban broke into Badghis provincial prison and freed those there, said Mirwais, a Qala-i-Naw police officer who, like many Afghans, has only one name. Dozens of detainees escaped.
Taliban attacks on provincial capitals are banned under the troop withdrawal agreement the United States signed with the insurgent group last year. The Taliban appear to have embraced it in their current offensive, as they have sought to avoid civilian casualties and bad publicity. But in some cases, local Taliban commanders took advantage of their gains and attacked some towns.
The battle in Qala-i-Naw, a town of about 50,000, increasingly looks like a direct assault, with the remaining government forces immobilized. It is not clear, however, whether the Taliban will try to keep the city in place.
“The city will fall to the Taliban if air support does not arrive,” said Abdul-Rahim Khan, a police commander from a neighboring district, in an interview as the fighting progressed.
Taliban fighters ambushed a large convoy of Afghan security forces en route to Qala-i-Naw on Tuesday, killing dozens. Although the exact number of casualties is not clear, Mr Khan said more than 60 soldiers were killed and more than a dozen more were taken prisoner.
The Afghan air force and commandos, the backbone of the government’s defense, are already strained by fighting elsewhere in the country, a key part of the Taliban’s strategy to exhaust them.
It was not only the military prowess of the Taliban that precipitated the collapse of government forces. Low morale and local feuds between militia leaders and government officials also contributed.
The Afghan government has recaptured part of the territory, although its gains are pale compared to those of the Taliban. Its emerging military strategy appears to be to consolidate the forces that remain around key cities and population centers.
Hamdullah Mohib, Afghan national security adviser, told reporters on Tuesday that the government “has a plan” to take back the districts and that some outposts have been “relocated” due to a lack of supplies. Some regional groups, skeptical of the ability of the Afghan security forces to hold out much longer, have begun to rally their own militias to defend their territory, in painful echoes of the country’s devastating civil war of the 1990s.
American and international forces are increasingly absent from the fight.
On Tuesday, the US military said the withdrawal process was over 90% complete, as part of President Biden’s directive to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by September 11. Last week, US forces left Bagram Air Base, once the largest US Base in the country, in the middle of the night. The abrupt departure, with little coordination, led to looting of the base until the arrival of Afghan security forces.
A Pentagon spokesperson attributed the poor communication to operational security concerns.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported in Kabul and Asad Timory in Herat, Afghanistan. Reporting was provided by Fatima Faizi in Kabul and Eric Schmitt in Washington.