Afghan defence officials are focusing on securing major cities, roads and border towns in the face of the Taliban onslaught as US, NATO forces withdraw.
The Taliban has launched its first assault on a provincial capital in Afghanistan since waging a major offensive against Afghan forces, as the pullout of US troops from the country nears completion.
Fierce fighting erupted on Wednesday in the western city of Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Badghis province, with the militants managing to seize police headquarters and offices of the country’s spy agency, before retreating a counter attack by Afghan forces and pro-government militia groups.
After routing much of the north, the fall of Badghis would further tighten the Taliban’s grip on western Afghanistan as its forces have also inched closer to the nearby city of Herat bordering Iran.
Afghan defence officials are focusing on securing major cities, roads and border towns in the face of the Taliban onslaught that was launched as US and NATO troops pressed ahead with their final withdrawal in early May.
The militant group seized dozens of rural districts and are stirring fears that the Afghan government are in crisis.
But the attack on the city of Qala-e-Naw, in western Badghis Province, marks the first time the Taliban have attempted to overrun a provincial capital.
“The enemy has entered the city, all the districts have fallen. The fighting has started inside the city,” Badghis governor Hessamuddin Shams told reporters in a text message.
Badghis provincial council chief Abdul Aziz Bek said some security officials had surrendered to the Taliban during the night, but many have continued defending the city.
“The provincial council officials have fled to an army camp in the city. Fighting continue s in the city,” added Badghis provincial council member Zia Gul Habibi.
She said that the Taliban were inside the city’s police headquarters and the local office of the country’s spy agency, the National Directorate of Security.
On Wednesday, an Afghan government delegation met with Taliban representatives in Tehran, the Iranian foreign ministry said.
Opening the Tehran talks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed the departure of the US from its eastern borders but warned, “Today the people and political leaders of Afghanistan must make difficult decisions for the future of their country”.
Leading negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai headed the Taliban delegation while former vice president Younus Qanooni represented the government, the Iranian ministry said.
US and NATO exit
Last week, all US and NATO forces left Bagram Air Base near Kabul – the command centre for anti-Taliban operations – effectively wrapping up their exit after 20 years of military involvement that began in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The assault in Qala-e-Naw comes hours after the Pentagon confirmed that their pullout was more than 90 percent completed.
For months the Taliban have been effectively surrounding several provincial capitals across the country, with observers predicting that the militants were waiting for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces before ordering an onslaught on urban areas.