KABUL, Afghanistan: Fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban has intensified in three provinces in southern and western Afghanistan as the United States and NATO troops plan to complete their pullout by August 31 after 20 years of war.
The Taliban is now trying to seize provincial capitals, after already taking smaller administrative districts in recent months. fighting ensued in Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.
The Taliban have made rapid rural gains since it was announced almost all foreign troops would go by September.
But the fate of these key cities could be crucial amid fears of a humanitarian crisis and how long government forces will be able to hold out.
The fundamentalist Islamist militia is already thought to have captured up to half of all Afghanistan’s territory, including lucrative border crossings with Iran and Pakistan, but it has yet to take a provincial capital. In Lashkar Gah, heavy fighting continued inside the city on Sunday.
Insurgents were reportedly only a few hundred metres from the governor’s office on Saturday – but had been pushed back by nightfall.
Afghan and US airstrikes have reportedly targeted Taliban positions and government forces say they have killed dozens of militants.
One resident, Halim Karimi, told Agence France-Presse: “Neither the Taliban will have mercy on us, nor will the government stop bombing.”
The EU’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson, said he believed the war was set to get much worse.
He said he feared the Taliban way of thinking now was “something they had in the past – re-establishing… their Islamic emirate”.
And the former head of the British Armed Forces, Gen David Richards, warned the international withdrawal could result in the collapse of the Afghan army’s morale, leading to Taliban control and possibly a renewed international terrorist threat.
Humanitarian organisations have also warned of a major crisis in coming months as the Taliban continue their offensive – with a lack of food, water and services, and overcrowding in camps for the displaced.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani is expected to address the parliament shortly as fighting rages on across the country against the Taliban forces.
General Ajmal Omar Shinwari, spokesman for the Afghan army, on Sunday said the situation was particularly serious in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, where the army was planning to intercept Taliban movements and subsequently launch an offensive.
Provincial authorities in Helmand said the Taliban had increased its forces in Lashkar Gah on Sunday, confirming that the rebels now have control of the city’s seventh district.
Meanwhile, Russia has scaled up military drills near the Afghan border. The country will send an additional contingent of 800 troops to take part in military exercises at the Afghan border and use two times more hardware there than originally planned, Interfax news agency has reported, citing the defence ministry.
The drills, which are set to take place on August 5-10 and involve Uzbek and Tajik forces, come as the security situation rapidly deteriorates in Afghanistan amid a US troop withdrawal.
Russia said that 1,800 of its soldiers would take part in the drills, instead of 1,000 as initially planned. More than 2,500 troops would be involved in total, it said. Moscow will also use 420 units of military hardware for the drills, two times more than originally planned, it said.
The US Department of State is expected to announce the new programme to resettle certain Afghans as refugees in the US, an administration official and two knowledgeable sources say.