The Taliban said on Friday that it had taken control of 85% of the territory in Afghanistan, a statement that government officials had rejected as part of a propaganda campaign.
But local Afghan officials have said that Taliban fighters, encouraged by the NATO retreat, have taken an important district in Herat province, which hosts tens of thousands of Shia Hazaras minorities.
Torghundi, a northern city on the border with Turkmenistan, he was also captured by the Taliban during the night, Afghan and Taliban officials said.
The recent rapid gains come as foreign forces – including the United States – withdraw after nearly 20 years of fighting.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said efforts are underway to oust the Taliban from their newly acquired positions.
The Afghan government has repeatedly rejected the Taliban’s gains for having little strategic value, but taking more border points with mineral-rich areas will likely fill the coffers of the armed group with new sources of revenue.
With the Taliban having swept much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government has little more than a constellation of provincial capital that needs to be largely reinforced and resupplied by air.
On Friday, Taliban fighters also attacked a prison on the shores of the southern city of Kandahar, the capital of their former stronghold of Kandahar province.
“The Taliban … have been trying to get them in prison here. The fighting continues and we have deployed reinforcements including special forces to liberate the area,” Kandahar police spokesman Jamal Naser Barekza said.
Hundreds of Afghan security personnel and refugees have continued to flee across the border into neighboring Iran and Tajikistan, causing concerns in Russia and neighboring nations that the Taliban could infiltrate Central Asia.
Three visiting Taliban officials sought to resolve these concerns during a visit to Moscow on Friday.
“We will take all appropriate measures to ensure that the Islamic State [ISIL, or ISIS] it will not operate in Afghan territory … and our territory will never be used against our neighbors, ”one of the Taliban officials, Shahabuddin Delawar, told a press conference.
“You and the entire world community have probably learned recently that 85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory has come under the control” of the Taliban, Delawar added.
‘Enter the field’
Asked about Taliban territory, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to comment directly.
“Land claim or land claim doesn’t mean you can sustain or maintain it over time,” he said in an interview with CNN. “And so I think it’s really time for Afghan forces to enter the camp – and they are in the camp – and defend their country, their people.
“They had the ability, they had the ability. Now it’s time to have this will.”
In Afghanistan, a prominent anti-Taliban commander said he would support the efforts of Afghan forces to regain control of parts of western Afghanistan, including a border crossing with Iran.
Mohammad Ismail Khan, widely known as the Lion of Herat, encouraged civilians to join the fight. He said hundreds of armed civilians from Ghor, Badghis, Nimroz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar provinces had arrived at his home and were ready to fill the security gap created by the retrieval of foreign force.
Khan, a veteran fighter commander who helped U.S. forces kill the Taliban in 2001, is committed to supporting government forces.
“We will go to the forefront soon and with God’s help we will change the situation,” Khan told reporters in the western city of Herat.
U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday that the Afghan people must decide their future and that they will not hand over another generation of Americans to the two-decade-old war.
Biden has set an August 31 date for the final deployment of U.S. forces, less than 650 troops to provide security for the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban have welcomed Biden’s statement. “Every day or hour that American and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step,” said spokesman Suhail Shaheen.
The Taliban have been encouraged by the withdrawal of troops and – with peace talks in Doha blocked – seem to be pressing for a complete military victory.
Shaheen, who is also a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, insisted the group was still seeking a “negotiated agreement.”
The U.S. president said Washington had long managed to follow its original logic to invade the country in 2001: Eradicate al-Qaeda fighters to prevent another attack on the United States like the one launched on September 11. September 2001.
The mastermind of that attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a U.S. command team in neighboring Pakistan in 2011.
‘Attacks on healthcare’
As the fighting continued, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said health workers were struggling to obtain medicines and supplies in Afghanistan, and some personnel fled after the facility was attacked.
WHO’s regional emergency director, Rick Brennan, said at least 18.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 3.1 million children at risk of acute malnutrition.
“We are concerned about our lack of access to essential medicines and supplies and we are concerned about attacks on health care,” Brennan, speaking via videolink from Cairo, told a UN briefing in Geneva.
Some aid will arrive next week including 3.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines and oxygen concentrators, he said.