KABUL, Afghanistan: The Taliban has captured nine out of 34 provincial capitals in Afghanistan in less than a week.
The group has captured nine provincial capitals in Afghanistan since Friday, including Faizabad, Farah, Pul-e-Khumri, Sar-e-Pul, Sheberghan, Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan and Zaranj.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani removed Muhammad Ahmed Zai as the army chief. The president has appointed Haibatulallah as the new chief of the Afghan forces.
“This afternoon the Taliban entered the city of Farah after briefly fighting with the security forces. They have captured the governor’s office and police headquarters,” Shahla Abubar, a member of Farah’s provincial council, told news agencies on Tuesday.
The Taliban has captured the province’s central prison, according to parliamentarian Abdul Nasri Farahi.
Farah is now the second provincial city in the southwest of Afghanistan that the group has taken. On Friday, the Taliban captured neighbouring Nimruz province.
The capture of Farah also provides another border crossing into Iran for the group.
On Tuesday, the Taliban captured Pul-e-Khumri, capital of Baghlan province and about 200 kilometres north of Kabul, a member of parliament from the area and an army officer said.“After about two hours of fighting the security forces were overpowered and retreated,” said Mamoor Ahmadzai, the lawmaker.
The capture of Pul-e-Khumri gave the Taliban a trifecta of bordering northern provinces.
Earlier this week, the Taliban captured Kunduz and Takhar. This now gives them control of almost the entire 378-km road from Kabul to the northeastern province of Badakhshan. That road is a major transit hub for passenger and commercial vehicles and the transport of illicit goods, including narcotics.
A senior EU official said on Tuesday that Taliban forces now control 65% of Afghan territory. The group is threatening to take 11 provincial capitals.
The group had already gained vast parts of rural Afghanistan since launching a series of offensives in May to coincide with the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops.
In a major push to repel advancing Taliban from urban centres, the Afghan forces claimed they killed 361 Taliban fighters in air and ground offensives in the past 24 hours.
The defence ministry said the operations were conducted in the Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Paktia, Paktika, Maidan Wardak, Kandahar, Sar-e-Pul, Helmand, Kunduz, and Baghlan provinces.
McBride said the government was now focusing on defending larger, more strategically important provincial capitals and sending its resources there.
The Taliban have now overrun six provincial capitals in the north. They have also taken Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province, in the southwest.
On Tuesday, the Taliban claimed they were closing in on Mazar-i-Sharif – the region’s biggest city and a linchpin for the government’s control of the north – after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz city and Taluqan to its east.
Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said the Afghan forces had the upper hand there. But residents said the city’s Maulana Jalaluddin Balkhi International Airport is being overrun with hundreds of people desperate to flee.
India’s government shut its consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif on Tuesday and urged its diplomats and Indian citizens to take a special flight home.
India, which has invested millions of dollars in development projects across Afghanistan, has now closed all its consulates, leaving only the embassy in Kabul operational, a government official said.