The Taliban occupied a key northern city, approaching the capital of Afghanistan


The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, for which Afghan forces and two powerful former military leaders have pledged to defend, gives rebels control of all of northern Afghanistan, limiting West-backed government to the center and east.

Abbas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from Balkh province where the city is located, said the national army had first surrendered, prompting pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of a Taliban raid early Saturday.

Ebrahimzada said Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former military leaders who command thousands of fighters, had fled the province and did not know where they were.

The Taliban have made great strides in recent days, including the conquest of Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second and third largest cities. They now control about 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving a West-backed government with several provinces in the center and east, as well as the capital Kabul.

On Saturday, the Taliban seized the entire Logar province, south of Kabul, and arrested local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province. She said the Taliban had reached Char Asyab district, just 11 kilometers south of the capital.

Later, rebels occupied Mihterlam, the capital of Laghman province, northeast of Kabul, without a fight, says Zefon Safi, a lawmaker from the province.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday to gather the city’s defense, assembling with several militia commanders, including Dostum and Noor.

Ghani gave a televised speech on Saturday, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban strikes. He has vowed not to give up on the “achievements” of 20 years since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. resumed peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community warned that the Taliban government brought in by force would be avoided. But the rebels appear to have no interest in making concessions as they gather victories on the battlefield.

“We have started consultations within the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of various levels of the community, as well as with our international allies,” Ghani said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without explaining further.

Hours later, his forces suffered one of the biggest setbacks since the Taliban began its offensive.

Mazar-e-Sharif, home of the famous Muslim shrine with blue tiles, was a stronghold of the Northern Alliance, the ethnic militias that helped the United States overthrow the Taliban in 2001.

In 1997, as many as 2,000 Taliban fighters captured and killed forces loyal to Mohammed Mohaqiq, the leader of the Shiite Khazars and his ethnic Uzbek allies. The following year, the Taliban returned and killed thousands of Khazars in Mazar-e-Sharif in a revenge attack.

Several makeshift camps sprang up around Mazar-e-Sharif where mostly ethnic Khazars took refuge after leaving their homes in remote areas. They said the Taliban detained relatives who tried to leave their districts and in some cases set fire to schools.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, and many fear the return of the oppressive rule of the Taliban. The group had previously ruled Afghanistan under a strict version of Islamic law in which women were forbidden to work or attend school, and could not leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative.

Salima Mazari, one of the few women district governors in the country, expressed fears of taking over the Taliban earlier Saturday in an interview with Mazar-e-Sharif, before he fell.

“There will be no room for women,” said Mazari, who runs a district of 36,000 people near the northern city. “In the Taliban-controlled provinces, there are no more women there, not even in the cities. They are all locked in their homes. “

The Taliban has also seized the capital, Paktika, which borders Pakistan, says Khalid Asad, a provincial lawmaker. He said the fighting began on Saturday in Sharana, but ended after local elders intervened to negotiate a withdrawal. The small province of Kunar, which also borders Pakistan, fell without a fight, says Neamatullah Karyab, a lawmaker from the area.

Sayed Hussan Gerdezi, an MP from the neighboring province of Paktia, said the Taliban had taken over most of the local capital, Gardez, but that fighting with government forces was still ongoing. The Taliban said they controlled the city.

The Taliban have also taken control of the northern province of Faryab and the central province of Daykundi, lawmakers from those areas said.

The withdrawal of foreign troops and the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s own forces – despite hundreds of billions of US aid over the years – have raised fears that the Taliban could return to power or that the country could be devastated by factional fighting, such as after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. also prompted many American and Afghan conflict veterans to wonder if two decades of blood and treasure are worth it.

Afghans have been flocking to Kabul International Airport in recent days, desperate to fly away, even as more U.S. troops arrived to help partially evacuate the U.S. embassy.

The first Marines from the 3,000 contingent arrived on Friday. The rest is expected by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet the August 31 withdrawal deadline.

The United States Air Force has carried out several air strikes to help its Afghan allies on the ground, but they do not seem to have done much to stop the Taliban’s advance. A B-52 bomber and other warplanes crossed the country’s airspace on Saturday, flight tracking data showed.

The Taliban, meanwhile, released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, which fell to rebels earlier this week, renaming it the Voice of Sharia or Islamic Law.

In the video, an unnamed insurgent said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and teaching of the Qur’an, Islamic holy books. It seems that the station will no longer play music. It was unclear whether the Taliban had cleared previous employees or allowed them to return to work.

The U.S. invaded shortly after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaeda planned and carried out while the Taliban were hiding it. After quickly overthrowing the Taliban, the United States turned to nation-building, hoping to create a modern Afghan state after decades of war and unrest.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of August, promising to end America’s longest war. His predecessor, President Donald Trump, reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US withdrawal.

Biden’s announcement launched the latest offensive. The Taliban, who had long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, quickly set out to occupy provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.

“The security situation in the city is deteriorating,” said Kawa Basharat, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif, hours before the city fell. “I want peace and stability; the fighting needs to stop.”


Rahim reported from Istanbul and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Ahmad Seir of Kabul in Afghanistan contributed.


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