TEHRAN -- An Afghan government delegation met with Taliban representatives in Tehran Wednesday, the Iranian foreign ministry said, as the militia pressed a lightning advance amid the pullout of U.S. troops.
Opening the Tehran talks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif welcomed the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan but warned: “Today the people and political leaders of Afghanistan must make difficult decisions for the future of their country.”
Leading negotiator Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai headed the Taliban delegation while former vice president Younus Qanooni represented the government, the Iranian ministry said.
Zarif hailed the “defeat” of U.S. troops after two decades of war that had caused “extensive damage” but warned of the “unfavorable results of continuing the conflict in Afghanistan”.
Iran hosts several million Afghan refugees and migrant workers and is deeply concerned about the intensifying turmoil in the neighboring country.
Zarif appealed to the warring parties in Afghanistan to return to the negotiating table, calling “commitment to political solutions the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political movements”.
“We are proud to have stood alongside our noble Afghan brothers and sisters during the jihad against the foreign occupiers,” he added, in a video excerpt of his speech released by the ministry.
On Tuesday, Afghan authorities vowed to retake all the districts lost to the Taliban as the pullout of U.S. forces neared completion.
Hundreds of commandos were deployed to counter the insurgents’ blistering offensive in the north, a day after more than 1,000 government troops fled into neighboring Tajikistan.
But on Wednesday, the Taliban attacked the Badghis provincial capital Qalat-i-Naw, the first regional
seat they have entered since the launch of their latest offensive, local officials said.
The insurgents already control all of the surrounding countryside in the western province.
The U.S. Central Command meanwhile announced that the American withdrawal from the country, ordered in April by President Joe Biden, was now more than 90 percent complete, underscoring that Afghan forces are increasingly on their own in the battle with the Taliban.
Officials said airstrikes were being carried out and special forces had been deployed to push the Taliban fighters back.
Provincial governor Husamuddin Shams told Reuters the Taliban had attacked the city of Qala-e-Naw from three directions in the morning and Afghan security forces were fighting them back.
“They entered some parts of the city, but later on the enemy was faced with a strong reaction,” he said.
Video footage showed smoke over the city. Speaking on a street as gunfire could be heard in the background, a special forces commander, Sayed Nezami, said troops had “cleared the area of the enemy. The enemy suffered heavy casualties and now we are advancing and driving the enemy out of the city.”
A ministry of defense official said on condition of anonymity that the insurgents had taken control of the provincial office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and police headquarters, and were attempting to take over the governor’s office before special forces pushed them back.
“They were inside the city and the city briefly collapsed,” said the official.
Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said government forces had managed to take back control of the police and NDS offices and within the next few hours they expected to clear the city of Taliban fighters.
Abdul Aziz Bek, head of Badghis’ provincial council, said that Afghan forces began airstrikes against Taliban fighters during the afternoon.
Earlier, he described panic: “Qala-e-Naw was in a state of disarray as security forces and people do not know what to do now,” he said. “More than 200 prisoners in the central prison of the Badghis broke the prison gate and escaped.”
The prospect of a Taliban victory is alarming for millions of urban Afghans, particularly women and girls who were banned from school or most work under their rule. The Taliban say they have changed, but many remain skeptical.
As foreign forces withdraw, Taliban fighters have been swiftly gaining ground across towns in the north and western provinces, forcing soldiers to surrender and civilians to flee.
Afghan defense minister Bismillah Muhammadi said in a statement the war was entering a “difficult” stage and security forces were “defending Afghanistan and our compatriots with all their might and resources under all circumstances”.
Talks between Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Qatar have failed to make substantive progress, though the warring sides have been holding meetings in recent days.