KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban is ramping up pressure on some of Afghanistan’s largest cities, striking busy transit hubs and pushing front lines deep into urban areas for the first time since the militants were overthrown nearly two decades ago.
“There was a large blast and the whole room started shaking,” said Massoud Ahmad Pashtun, the chief of Kandahar airport, who was present at the time of the attack. He said three rockets landed within seconds of each other and damaged one of the runways.
The attacks mark a potential turning point in the Afghan conflict. Previously, clashes were largely confined to the country’s rural areas or smaller cities contested by the militants. Large-scale conventional attacks on Kandahar and Herat, the second- and fourth-largest cities in the country, have the potential to endanger millions more civilians.
Initial reports suggested the Kandahar rocket attack came from the eastern side of the city, where Taliban fighters have made advances. Pashtun said he feared more attacks in the coming days, because of the deteriorating security situation and the removal of an American antimissile system that protected the airfield before the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the southern province of Kandahar.
Gen. Ajmal Shinwari, a security forces spokesperson, said at a news conference on Sunday that all troops were on high alert due to “the emergency situations” in Kandahar and Herat province in the west. Hundreds more Afghan forces have been sent to both provinces as reinforcements.
Taliban attacks in Kandahar province have been ongoing for months, but in recent days the group began pushing closer into the center of the city, the capital.
Front lines that crisscrossed largely agricultural suburbs just weeks ago now span densely populated neighborhoods. Just a few hundred yards from a Taliban-held neighborhood on Kandahar’s western edge, government forces have transformed a wedding hall and an opulent multistory home into makeshift bases.
“They watch us from those houses over there,” said a commando officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. He pointed out a white Taliban flag visible just a few blocks away from a traffic circle.
The government soldiers said they exchanged fire with Taliban fighters occasionally during the day, but it is at night that clashes grow more intense.
Thousands of civilians are being forced to flee their homes. Deeper inside Kandahar city, makeshift camps have sprung up in empty lots.
Jalil Ahmad, 30, said his house was destroyed by a mortar attack and his ears were still ringing from the blast. He said that a police unit took up a firing position on the roof of his home and that Taliban fighters retaliated with a volley of mortar shells.
“An entire wall collapsed on my family,” he said. “We have never seen fighting like this in our area before.”
In Herat, Afghan special forces were deployed to the capital city on Sunday to help push back Taliban advances. Taliban fighters breached the city limits and a U.N. compound was attacked, as clashes raged for hours. The United Nations condemned the attack. A Taliban statement described the destruction as “regrettable,” saying the group remains committed to protecting U.N. sites.
Abdul Rahman Rahman, a senior Interior Ministry official, traveled to Herat on Sunday to calm “the atmosphere of panic” growing in the city, he said. Rahman arrived with a team of Afghan special forces, who he pledged would deal “fiercely” with the Taliban.
The Taliban push on major cities comes as the group continues to squeeze much smaller provincial capitals in areas long contested by militants. In Helmand, a province that has been one of the least stable in Afghanistan for years, fighting intensified last week, heightening fears that the province’s capital, Lashkar Gah, would fall. Taliban fighters have pushed into the city and are steadily closing in on the central government compound.
Afghan forces responded with a punishing wave of air support. One airstrike hit a small hospital on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah on Saturday, killing the relative of a patient and injuring four others, including a patient and three members of staff, according to hospital director Mohammad din Naraiwal.
As the airstrikes drew closer in recent days, Naraiwal repeatedly communicated with Afghan government forces, asking them not to strike the facility. He said no Taliban fighters were present in the building when it was hit.
“I’m worried if the government resupplies their forces there will be more fighting,” he said. “There will be more civilian casualties.”
Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Kabul contributed to this report.