Detain commander Ismail Khan; US, UK troops to evacuate diplomats from Kabul
The Taliban completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that brought them closer to Kabul, just weeks before the U.S. is set to officially end its two-decade war.
In just the last 24 hours, the country’s second- and third-largest cities — Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south — have fallen to the insurgents as
has the capital of the southern province of Helmand, where American, British and NATO forces fought some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict.
The blitz through the Taliban’s southern heartland means the insurgents now hold half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and control more than two-thirds of the country.
The Western-backed government in the capital, Kabul, still holds a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said that the Taliban captured Lashkar Gah following weeks of heavy fighting and raised their white flag over governmental buildings. He said that three national army bases outside of the city remain under control of the government.
Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council chief in Zabul province, said the local capital of Qalat fell and that officials were in a nearby army camp preparing to leave.
Bismillah Jan Mohammad and Qudratullah Rahimi, lawmakers from Uruzgan province, said local officials surrendered Tirin Kot. Taliban fighters paraded through a main square there, driving a Humvee and a pickup seized from Afghan security forces.
In the country’s west, meanwhile, Fazil Haq Ehsan, head of the provincial council in Ghor province, said its capital, Feroz Koh, also fell to the insurgents.
With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Britain and Canada are also sending forces to aid their evacuations. Denmark said it will temporarily close its embassy in Kabul, while Germany is reducing its embassy staff to the “absolute minimum.”
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will return the country to the sort of brutal, repressive rule it imposed when it was last in power at the turn of the millennium.
The U.N. refugee agency said nearly 250,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since the end of May, and that 80% of those displaced are women and children.
It says some 400,000 civilians have been displaced since the beginning of the year, joining millions who have fled previous rounds of fighting in recent decades.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines.
The insurgents circulated photos and a video showing Khan in their captivity as well as video footage that appeared to show captured military helicopters.
Khan, who has been leading fighters against the Taliban in recent weeks, was handed over to the insurgents along with the provincial governor and security officials under a pact, provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi told Reuters.
One official said Afghan government forces had agreed to withdraw from Herat airport, 15 km from the city, and the Army Corps commander’s headquarters, the last centers under their control. However other sources said Afghan forces were still at the airport as of 1 p.m. local time (0830 GMT). —AP