ISLAMABAD – Fierce fighting continues to rage across Afghanistan, where officials reported Tuesday security forces had reversed some of the recent advances by the Taliban, as U.S. and NATO allies wind up two decades of military presence in the country.
Taliban insurgents have dramatically expanded their area of control since the foreign troop pullout process formally started on May 1, overrunning about 60 districts and inflicting heavy casualties on U.S.-trained Afghan security forces.
“Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” according to Deborah Lyons, special representative and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
“We must accept the reality — increased conflict in Afghanistan means increased insecurity for many other countries, near and far,” Lyons told a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday in New York.
The insurgent gains have fueled fears that a Taliban return to power is inevitable after all international soldiers leave Afghanistan by a September 11 deadline.
Washington reaffirmed Monday, however, that the U.S. troop drawdown was still on pace to conclude in line with President Joe Biden’s orders.
“We will complete the withdrawal of all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan with the exception of those that will be left to protect the diplomatic presence, and that it will be done before early September,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters.
“Those two things are constant and would not change,” he said.
The U.S. military said last week the withdrawal is more than halfway done.
Kirby also said, though, that American military leaders are closely studying and looking at the emerging Afghan situation in case it requires “changes made to the pace or to the scope and scale of the retrograde” process.
“We are looking at a range of options. I am not at liberty to confirm any specific one right now. But, again, our support for the Afghan forces once the retrograde is complete will be largely financial,” Kirby stressed.
Afghan authorities said Tuesday government security forces evicted the Taliban from several districts in northern and northeastern provinces of Balkh, Baghlan and Kunduz during overnight fighting, killing dozens of insurgents.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected official claims as propaganda. He wrote on Twitter that his group retained control of all the recently captured districts.
It was not possible to seek independent verification of either of the statements, and both sides often issue inflated claims about their battlefield activities.
Residents in embattled Kunduz Tuesday told VOA the Taliban seized control of the Sher Khan dry port located at the country’s border with Tajikistan that serves as a major trade route.
Ajmal Omar Shinwari, a newly appointed spokesman for the Afghan security sector, told a news conference in Kabul the government was determined to retake all lost districts.
Shinwari said a comprehensive plan had been worked out to manage the security across Afghanistan, noting the government would require more than a week to implement the plan.
More than half of 407 Afghan districts across the country’s 34 provinces are controlled or threatened by the Taliban.
The surge in Taliban attacks has prompted Afghan officials to call on civilians and former anti-Taliban militias to pick arms in support of government forces to help evict the insurgents from their areas. This, in turn, is raising fears of another round of civil war that gripped Afghanistan in the 1990s and enabled the Islamist Taliban to seize power in Kabul.
Afghan forces for years relied on close U.S. air support to contain insurgent advances but that cover is no longer available to them.
Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst with the U.S.-based research and analysis organization the Center for Naval Analyses, said the Taliban’s military push is not surprising.
“It makes sense for them strategically to test the Afghan security forces to see how they perform in the absence of U.S. support,” he told VOA.
“Their success in overrunning rural districts has exceeded most people’s predictions and their presence at the gates of some provincial capitals is concerning.”
Jonathan noted, though, the Taliban likely will find attacking, seizing, and holding provincial capitals to be significantly more difficult than overrunning lightly defended rural terrain. “And that’s where the Afghan security forces are going to have to dig in and make their stand.”
Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani and the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, along with other senior officials, will travel to Washington this week for a crucial meeting Friday with President Biden at the White House.
Ghani’s aides said that during his first face-to-face meeting with Biden, the Afghan leader will discuss, among other issues, continued assistance for Afghan forces.
The White House said Sunday Biden “looks forward to welcoming” the Afghan leaders and will reassure them of U.S. diplomatic, economic and humanitarian support for the turmoil-hit country as the drawdown continues.
“The visit by President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah will highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues,” it said.
The U.S.-led military drawdown is a product of a February 2020 deal Washington negotiated with the Taliban to end what has been the longest war in U.S. history, costing more than $2 trillion and the lives of more than 2,400 American soldiers.
The agreement also encouraged the Taliban to start direct talks with Afghan government representatives last September in Doha, the capital of Qatar, to arrange a peace deal to end the war between the Afghan adversaries. But those negotiations have had little success nor have they eased the violence in Afghanistan.
The Taliban currently control 124 Afghan districts, while 186 are contested, according to the Long War Journal’s ongoing study of the security situation in Afghanistan. The project is part of Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Ghani warned Tuesday the Taliban were making a “strategic mistake” in increasing the violence rather than seeking a political settlement to through the Doha dialogue process.
“If Afghanistan is to be engulfed in the intensified conflict, no one in the region will be spared,” Ghani told an international conference via a video link. “The consequences will be spread, and we need to understand that type of threat to our well being, and our collective interest very clearly.”
The Afghan president reiterated he was not interested in power and willing to hold early elections to ensure “orderly succession” in a bid to promote a political reconciliation with the Taliban.
“I once again call on Taliban to accept the will of the people as a magnetization of the injections of Almighty God that we must make decisions collectively and move together,” Ghani said.
The Islamist insurgent group previously has also rejected such offers by Ghani, denouncing him and his administration as an outcome of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.