Speed of Taliban’s assault on key cities exceeds Indian assessment
The speed of the Taliban’s assault on key cities in Afghanistan has exceeded an Indian assessment, with hundreds of fighters of the group engaging Afghan forces over the past week in a bid to capture provincial capitals such as Herat and Lashkargah.
According to the Indian assessment done last month, officials were expecting the Taliban to expand its sustained campaign of violence from rural areas to urban centres and provincial capitals by the end of August, when the US is set to complete the drawdown of its troops in Afghanistan.
The Indian side had also expected the Taliban to step up its offensive in more provinces by the end of the month, including Paktia, Ghazni, Helmand and Kandahar, the southern province which is of symbolic and historic importance to the group because it served as the Taliban headquarters in the 1990s.
However, the Taliban began its assault on Herat, the third-largest Afghan city and capital of the western province of the same name, and Lashkargah, capital of the key southwestern province of Helmand, late last month – much earlier than the Indian assessment, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
These attacks follow the Taliban’s campaign to capture a swathe of rural areas in order to strengthen its position before any possible negotiations, and to gain control of international border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan to maximise the collection of funds by extorting money from exporters.
Clashes began around Herat – located some 100km from the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran – almost a week ago and Afghan forces in the city have been bolstered by support from local militias and 75-year-old warlord Ismail Khan, whose group had fought alongside American forces to topple the Taliban in 2001.
“If Herat doesn’t fall, this might become a turning point in the Afghan war,” Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in the department of politics and international studies at SOAS University, who closely tracks developments in Afghanistan, said in a tweet.
The situation in Lashkargah is more serious, with media reports stating that the Taliban had made inroads into the western city. Tolo News channel cited local residents as saying on Tuesday that heavy fighting had been going on since last night close to the city’s police headquarters, the provincial governor’s compound, the office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) or the spy agency and a prison in the capital of Helmand province.
The local residents also said all other areas of Lashkargah are under the control of the Taliban and that air strikes were being carried out in many parts of the city.
The people cited above said air support will be crucial to efforts by Afghan security forces to push back the Taliban offensive in many key areas, both in terms of air strikes on the Taliban and for logistics, supplies and casualty evacuation. Such support is also crucial in view of the backing for the Taliban from the Pakistani side, the people added.
“The supply lines from the Pakistani side remain open. Funds are being raised in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for the Taliban and madrasses in these provinces are calling on people to join the jihad in Afghanistan,” said one of the people cited above.
“All forms of logistical and tactical support from the Pakistani side are still active,” the person added.
Numerous videos and images have also emerged in social media in recent weeks about injured Taliban fighters being brought for treatment to Pakistani cities such as Peshawar, Chaman and Quetta and of funerals being held for Pakistani fighters killed on Afghan soil.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has documented extra-judicial killings in areas captured by the Taliban, such as Spin Boldak, a border crossing with Pakistan. Following the emergence of videos of Taliban fighters summarily executing pro-government civilians in Spin Boldak after capturing the district on July 14, AIHRC investigated the incidents and interviewed families of victims and witnesses.
“The evidence indicates that the Taliban, in violation of international humanitarian law, committed retaliatory killings of civilians and looted the property of several local residents, including the properties related to former and current government officials,” AIHRC said in a statement.