The Taliban has swept through western Herat province, seizing two key border crossings to Iran and Turkmenistan, and much of the countryside beyond city limits.
It was the latest part of Afghanistan to collapse in the face of a rapid militant advance, during which they have taken control of areas far beyond their original southern strongholds. Their speed has fuelled fears the government in Kabul could fall within months.
In Herat, the civil war era warlord Ismail Khan called up his supporters overnight and deployed armed units to guard key parts of the city and its outskirts. He is in his mid-70s, but called on all armed men in the city to join the fight and promised to go to the frontline himself.
“You can now see hundreds of armed men at my house, thousands gathered since yesterday, with the help of God we will go to the battlefield by this evening, and change the situation,” he said in a video shared on social media. Pictures showed gunmen massing in his courtyard.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan government’s peace council, admitted that while the mobilisation of militias like Khan’s was “not the best option under normal circumstances” it was now vital to preventing a Taliban takeover.
If the Taliban advance is not stopped, the group will never sit down for serious negotiations, he added. The peace talks he is leading for the government have been stalled for months.
One regional official said most of Herat province, bar the city and two nearby districts, Gozara and Injil, was now under Taliban control. Previously the insurgents had full command of only one of Herat’s 18 districts, Obe, although they had a heavy presence elsewhere.
Another senior Herat official said that the situation had been extremely dangerous on Thursday, but by Friday militias and security forces had thrown a cordon around greater Herat and the city and its airport were well protected.
A spokesman for the Taliban said they would allow cross-border commerce to continue as normal through multiple outposts they had seized in the north and west, which would provide a lucrative flow of revenue.
“All borders now in IEA [Taliban] control will remain open and functional,” spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter. The group already holds the main northern crossing to Tajikistan, in northern Badakhshan, which reopened soon after changing hands.
On Thursday evening the Taliban shared a video of themselves at Islam Qala border crossing, the main artery for trade with Iran.
They then took control of the nearby Torghundi crossing to Turkmenistan, including customs, intelligence and police buildings.
Last month, as they raced through northern provinces and sent more than 1,000 troops fleeing to neighbouring Tajikistan, they also took Shir Khan Bandar, the main crossing for that region, about 30 miles north of the city of Kunduz.
Shaheen also said the Taliban would not target “diplomats, embassies, NGOs and their staff”. All those groups have been hit by militant attacks in the past, so the claim was met with scepticism.
Several countries have closed down consulates in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, including Turkey and Russia, as fighters closed in around its outskirts, leaving the urban areas besieged and isolated.
It is a pattern repeated across Afghanistan in recent weeks, with the Taliban seizing territory up to the edge of big towns and cities, but not moving into them. Their only attempt to take a provincial capital, Qala e Nau in western Badghis, was repelled after heavy fighting this week.
Taliban officials said at a press conference in Moscow on Friday they had already taken control of 85% of Afghan territory.
Government officials dismissed the figure as part of a propaganda campaign. Senior military and international officials estimate the group now controls nearly half of the 400 districts in Afghanistan and is fighting in many others. It does not hold any of the major urban areas.
But the fact the Taliban could make such a bold claim, the day after the US president, Joe Biden, confirmed a 31 August deadline for the final departure of American troops, is testament to their military success over the last few weeks.
Biden shrugged off the Taliban’s progress when he confirmed the target date for officially finalising the US withdrawal. He said troops had gone to Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and prevent another attack on the US and had achieved that goal.
The transfer of Bagram airbase last week has already put an effective halt to any significant US operations in the country, although Washington has promised drones and long-range jets will still offer some air support.
The Taliban appear to have taken neighbours and allies by surprise with their advance, as well as the opposition in Kabul. This week Tajikistan ordered 20,000 reservists to reinforce its border with Afghanistan, and Russia said on Friday the Taliban now controls about two-thirds of that frontier.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, urged all sides to “show restraint”. Iran has also this week hosted unofficial peace talks, a long-term proposal which was only finalised after the last few weeks’ advances.
At international negotiations, the Taliban have presented themselves as changed from the brutal ideologues who ruled Afghanistan 25 years ago, when they barred women from work and education and enforced a strict form of sharia law with punishments including stoning and amputation. They have promised to respect women’s rights under Islam and frequently talk about the importance of protecting lives.
Yet the group has driven civilians from their homes and looted and burned property in northern Afghanistan, in apparent retaliation for cooperating with the government, Human Rights Watch warned in a new report.
Residents of Bagh-e Sherkat in Kunduz province said the attacks came in late June. The Taliban said locals had been ordered to leave “for their own safety” during the fighting and denied damaging property.
The attacks are an “ominous warning about the risk of future atrocities,” said Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The Taliban leadership has the power to stop these abuses by their forces but haven’t shown that they are willing to do so.”
Source: The Guardian