KABUL, Afghanistan (Dispatches) — The Taliban seized three more provincial capitals in Afghanistan and a local army headquarters completing their blitz across the country’s northeast and pressing their offensive elsewhere, officials said Wednesday. The insurgents now control some two-thirds of the nation as the U.S. and NATO finalize their withdrawal after a decades-long war there.
The fall of the capitals of Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces to the northeast and Farah province to the west put increasing pressure on the country’s central government to stem the tide of the advance, even as it lost a major base in Kunduz. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rushed to Balkh province, already surrounded by Taliban-held territory, to seek help in pushing back the insurgents from warlords linked to allegations of atrocities and corruption. He also replaced his army chief of staff.
While Kabul itself has not been directly threatened in the advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of its countryside. The multiple fronts of the battle have stretched the government’s special operations forces — while regular troops have often fled the battlefield — and the violence has pushed thousands of civilians to seek safety in the capital. The U.S. military, which plans to complete its withdrawal by the end of the month, has conducted some airstrikes but largely has avoided involving itself in the ground campaign.
Humayoon Shahidzada, a lawmaker from the western province of Farah, confirmed Wednesday to The Associated Press his province’s capital of the same name fell. Neighboring Nimroz province was overrun in recent days after a weeklong campaign by the Taliban.
In Farah, Taliban fighters dragged the shoeless, bloody corpse of one Afghan security force member through the street. Taliban fighters carrying M-16 rifles and driving Humvees and Ford pickup trucks donated by the Americans rolled through the streets of the capital.
The crackle of automatic weapon fire continued throughout the day in Farah.
Hujatullah Kheradmand, a lawmaker from Badakhshan, said the Taliban had
seized his province’s capital, Faizabad. An Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak about an unacknowledged loss, said Baghlan’s capital, Poli-Khumri, also fell.
Badakhshan borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. The insurgents earlier captured six other provincial capitals in the country in less than a week.
On Wednesday, the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s 217th Corps at Kunduz airport fell to the Taliban, according to Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a provincial council member in Kunduz, and lawmaker Shah Khan Sherzad. The insurgents posted video online they said showed surrendering troops. The corps is one of seven across the army and its loss represents a major setback. The province’s capital, also called Kunduz, was already among those seized, and the capture of the base now puts the country’s northeast firmly in Taliban hands.
It wasn’t immediately clear what equipment was left behind for the insurgents, though a Taliban video showed them parading in Humvees and pickup trucks. Another video showed fighters on the airport’s tarmac next to an attack helicopter without rotor blades.
In southern Helmand province, where the Taliban control nearly all of the capital of Lashkar Gar, a suicide car bomber targeted the government-held police headquarters, provincial council head Attaullah Afghan said. The building has been under siege for two weeks.
The rapid fall of wide swaths of the country to the Taliban raises fears that the brutal tactics they used to rule Afghanistan before will also return. Some civilians who have fled Taliban advances have said that the insurgents imposed repressive restrictions on women and burned down schools. There have also been reports of revenge killings in areas where the Taliban have gained control.
In addition to the northeast, much of northern Afghanistan has also fallen to the Taliban, except for Balkh province. There, warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor and Muhammad Mohaqiq planned to mobilize forces in support of the Afghan government to push back the Taliban.
Dostum in particular has a troubled past, facing investigations after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion for killing hundreds of Taliban fighters last year by letting them suffocate in sealed shipping containers.
On Wednesday, Dostum said that the Taliban “won’t be able to leave north and will face the same fate” as the suffocated troops.
Ghani meanwhile ordered Gen. Hibatullah Alizai to replace Gen. Wali Ahmadzai as the Afghan army chief of staff, according to an Afghan official who spoke to the AP and local media reports. Alizai was the commander of the Afghan army’s Special Operations Corps.
The speed of the Taliban advance has shocked the government and its allies. After a 20-year Western military mission and billions of dollars spent training and shoring up Afghan forces, many are at odds to explain why the regular forces have collapsed, fleeing the battle sometimes by the hundreds.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in the country’s north to escape battles that have overwhelmed their towns and villages. Families have flowed into the capital, Kabul, living in parks and streets with little food or water.
However, a U.S. defense official told Reuters on Wednesday citing U.S. intelligence that Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan’s capital in 30 days and possibly take it over in 90.