By Ayaz Gul
Taliban insurgents Wednesday captured airports in the Afghan provinces of Farah and Kunduz as they consolidate control and U.S. troops complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of the month.
Reports also said the insurgents took control of an army corps base in Kunduz after hundreds of soldiers surrendered to them.
Afghan lawmaker Shah Khan Sherzad told local TOLO news channel the airport and army corps in Kunduz “fell to the Taliban with all their equipment.”
The Taliban also said they were in full control of nine provincial capitals and closing in on others.
The latest insurgent advances came on a day when President Ashraf Ghani traveled to Mazar-i-Sharif to rally pro-government forces to defend the city, the biggest in northern Afghanistan. It is an important commercial hub and border trade route between the landlocked county and its neighbors.
The recent Taliban offensive has seen the insurgent group seize control of Afghanistan’s border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan, Iran and one of five regular trade and travel routes with Pakistan.
Afghan security forces have been struggling to stem rapid Taliban gains, which have shocked the U.S.-backed government and its international backers.
The battlefield setbacks prompted Ghani on Wednesday to remove his army chief and replace him with the commander of the special operations corps, General Hibatullah Alizai.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Wednesday while speaking to VOA that the fall of nine provincial capitals meant the insurgents were “effectively” in control of nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Mujahid said Taliban fighters were determined to push ahead with their offensive on southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where most of the districts are controlled by the insurgents.
Regions in northern Afghanistan are traditionally anti-Taliban but that’s where insurgents have overrun most of the provinces during their weeklong offensive.
The Taliban extended their control to 65% of the war-torn country and seek to deprive Kabul of its traditional support from national forces in the north, a senior European Union official said this week.
The Taliban were unable to establish complete control over northern provinces when they ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Critics say this time, the Islamist group seems intent on securing hostile northern regions before staging an assault on the capital, Kabul.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden urged Afghan leaders to fight for their homeland, saying he did not regret his decision to order American troops to withdraw by the end of this month.
Biden noted in his remarks that the United States had spent more than $1 trillion over 20 years and lost thousands of troops. He maintained that Washington was living up to its pledges by providing close air support, food, equipment and salaries to beleaguered Afghan security forces.
The Afghan fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people and it has killed more than 1,000 civilians, including women and children, in the past month alone.
A Taliban statement Wednesday rejected allegations that insurgent offensives were harming civilians and uprooting them from their homes. It called on the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international humanitarian groups to form a joint team to conduct “an impartial and independent” investigation to determine the veracity of the allegations.
The ICRC said Tuesday that its 15 health facilities across Afghanistan had treated more than 4,000 patients with weapon-related injures since August 1.
The United Nations reported that Afghan civilian casualties rose by nearly 50 percent in the first six months of 2021, and it warned that the year could see the highest number of civilian casualties since the war started 20 years ago unless the Afghan warring sides agreed on a peace arrangement.
Since the start of the year, nearly 390,000 people have been newly displaced by conflict across the country, with a huge spike since May, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday.
The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and his counterparts from Russia, China and Pakistan met in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday to discuss ways to collectively pressure the Taliban and the Afghan government to urgently resume peace talks.
The Moscow-initiated group, known as extended troika, was also planning to meet with representatives of the two Afghan warring sides to convey the urgency of the situation, according to sources aware of the developments in the Qatari capital.
VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.