The Taliban claimed on Friday that they control 85 percent of Afghanistan after seizing important border crossings with Iran and Turkmenistan, part of a sweeping offensive launched as US troops withdraw from the war-torn nation.
Hours after President Joe Biden issued a strong defense of the US withdrawal, the Taliban said its fighters had seized the two major crossings in western Afghanistan – completing a bow of territory from the Iranian border to the border with China.
In Moscow, a delegation of Taliban officials said they controlled about 250 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts – a claim impossible to independently verify and contest by the government.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP separately that their fighters had captured the border town of Islam Qala on the Iranian border and the Torghundi crossing with Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan spokesman Tareq Arian said efforts were underway to free the rebels from their positions.
The Afghan government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban’s gains as a bit of strategic value, but the seizure of several border crossings along with mineral-rich areas is likely to fill the group’s coffers with several new sources of revenue.
A few hours earlier, Biden said that the US military mission would end on August 31 – almost 20 years after it began – after “achieving” its goals.
However, he acknowledged that their numbers were not enough to defeat Kabul’s government.
“The status quo is not an option,” Biden said of staying in the country. “I will not send a new generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan.”
With the Taliban directing much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government has little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must be largely reinforced and delivered by air.
The air force was under heavy pressure even before the Taliban’s lightning offensive overwhelmed the government’s northern and western positions and put further pressure on the country’s limited aircraft and pilots.
Biden said that the Afghan people alone should decide their future, but he acknowledged the uncertainty about what it would look like.
Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the president said: “No, it is not.”
But he acknowledged that their numbers were not enough to defeat Afghanistan.
On Friday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called for international pressure to force an agreement between Kabul and the Taliban to end the conflict in the country.
“The security situation in Afghanistan only argues more for international pressure to have a negotiated political solution to end this conflict and give the Afghan people [the] government they want and they deserve, says Austin in a tweet.
“The whole world can help by continuing this pressure,” Austin added.
US leaves “positive step”
The Taliban, for their part, welcomed Biden’s statement.
“Every day or hour that US and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step,” spokeswoman Suhail Shaheen told AFP.
Afghan commands clashed with rebels this week in a provincial capital, with thousands fleeing Qala-i-Naw in northwestern Badghis province.
On Friday, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said government forces had “full control” over the city.
“They have withdrawn from the city and the fighting has stopped inside for now,” Badghi provincial councilor Abdul Aziz Bek told AFP.
A few hours later, a group of Taliban fighters attacked a prison on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar, the capital of their former bastion in Kandahar province.
“The Taliban … tried to get to the prison there. The fighting continues and we have deployed reinforcements including special forces to clear the area,” said Kandahar police spokesman Jamal Naser Barekza.
President Ashraf Ghani said the government could handle the situation, but acknowledged that there were difficulties.
“What we are witnessing is one of the most complicated stages of the transition,” he said in a speech in Kabul on Thursday.
Ismail Khan, a veteran warlord whose militia helped US forces overthrow the Taliban in 2001, vowed to support government forces in the fight against insurgency.
“We will soon go to the front line and, with the help of God, change the situation,” Khan told reporters in the western city of Herat.
As the Afghan military struggled to hold its ground against the Taliban, the country’s leadership also seemed to be engulfed in chaos.
In a leaked audio call published on social media, Vice President Amrullah Saleh could be heard issuing a death threat against a parliamentarian after accusing the official of encouraging security forces to give up on the Taliban in Badghis.
The Taliban have been encouraged by the withdrawal of their troops and – with Doha peace talks stuck – they seem to be pushing for a complete military victory.
On Thursday, Shaheen, who is also a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, still insisted that the rebels seek a “negotiated solution”.
In Moscow, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said the Taliban controlled about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border when a rebel delegation held a visit.
About “85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory” was under the group’s control, said Taliban delegate Shahabuddin Delawar, who added that the group was determined to prevent other jihadists from using Afghanistan as a base for their operations.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)