Afghan forces have battled to stop the first major city from falling to the Taliban following weekend offensives by the terror group in a sharp escalation of conflict.
Taliban fighters assaulted at least three provincial capitals overnight – Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat – after a weekend of heavy fighting that saw thousands of civilians flee the advancing militants.
Fighting raged in Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where the Taliban launched coordinated attacks on the city centre and its prison – just hours after the government announced the deployment of hundreds of commandos to the area.
An Afghan Air Force’s helicopter rovers near the Afghan Parliament house in Kabul today as conflict escalates with the Taliban
Afghan security officials arrive as part of a reinforcement to fight against Taliban militants as they push to gain access to the city in Herat
Clashes have intensified since early May, with the insurgents capitalising on the final stages of the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces after almost 20 years.
As the country’s security forces struggled to keep the Taliban at bay, President Ashraf Ghani blamed Washington on Monday for Afghanistan’s deteriorating security.
‘The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly,’ Ghani told parliament, referring to the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Ghani said he had warned Washington that the withdrawal would have ‘consequences’.
A market is closed over security fears as Taliban attacked parts of the city in Lashkar Gah on Monday
A sniper keeps a watch from the roof of the parliament building before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrives at parliament
Security officials and pro-government private militia arrive as part of a reinforcement to fight against Taliban militants
In southern Afghanistan, fighting continued in Lashkar Gah overnight as Afghan forces beat back a fresh assault from the Taliban.
‘Afghan forces on the ground and by air strikes repelled the attack,’ the military in Helmand said.
Resident Hawa Malalai warned of a growing crisis in the city: ‘There is fighting, power cuts, sick people in hospital, the telecommunication networks are down. There are no medicines and pharmacies are closed.’
Helmand for years was the centrepiece of the US and British military campaign in Afghanistan – only for it to slip deeper into instability.
The vast poppy fields in the province provide the lion’s share of the opium for the international heroin trade – making it a lucrative source of tax and cash for the Taliban.
Security officials check people on a roadside checkpoint in Kandahar after thousands were evacuated from their homes
America has abandoned its duty to democracy, says former US commander General Petraeus
A former US commander has said America is leaving Afghanistan to face a ‘bloody, brutal civil war’.
General David Petraeus, 68, said that America has abandoned its duty to protect democracy and civil rights in the country.
He told The Times: ‘The rest of the world will see that we are not supporting democracy or maintaining the values that we promote around the world — human rights, particularly women’s rights, the right to education and freedom of speech and press — all very imperfect in Afghanistan, but vastly better than if the Taliban reinstates a medieval Islamist regime.
‘The worst-case scenario is we could see a bloody, brutal civil war similar to that of the 1990s when the Taliban prevailed.’
He added that there would likely be a return of an al-Qaeda sanctuary if that were to happen, causing millions of refugees to flood in Pakistan and other neighbouring countries and a reduction in freedoms for citizens, particularly women.
General Petraeus, who spent 37 years in the US army, said he is ‘a little bit unclear’ why they didn’t maintain 3,500 troops to prevent Taliban sieges, noting that up to 2,500 US troops are remaining in Iran in a non-combat role to help Iraqi security forces keep an eye on ‘insurgent and terrorist cell remnants’.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend provincial capitals at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
Fighting also surged in some districts of Kandahar province, the former bastion of the insurgents, and on the outskirts of its capital.
Kandahar airport came under attack overnight Sunday, with the Taliban firing rockets that damaged the runway, leading to the suspension of flights for several hours.
The facility is vital to maintaining the logistics and air support needed to keep the Taliban from overrunning the city, while also providing air support over large tracts of southern Afghanistan – including nearby Lashkar Gah.
In the west, hundreds of commandos were also defending Herat after days of fierce fighting.
‘The threat is high in these three provinces… but we are determined to repel their attacks,’ Afghan security forces spokesman Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters on Sunday.
Kabul has repeatedly dismissed the militants’ steady gains over the summer as lacking strategic value, but has largely failed to reverse their momentum.
President Ghani said authorities had worked out a six-month plan to thwart the Taliban, but acknowledged the insurgents were no longer a ‘scattered and inexperience movement’.
‘We are faced with an organised command and leadership, backed by an unholy coalition of international terrorism and its supporting circles.’
The capture of any major city by the Taliban would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns about the ability of the Afghan military.
‘If Afghan cities fall… the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will be remembered as one of the most notable strategic blunders in American foreign policy,’ Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani told AFP.
The Taliban have seized Afghan cities in the past but have retained them only briefly.