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Taliban fighters overrun an Afghan provincial capital for the first time since withdrawal of foreign forces

Wounded Afghans are treated at a hospital on Friday after fights between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kandahar province south of Kabul. (Sidiqullah Khan/AP)

KABUL — Taliban fighters seized control of the capital of Nimruz province in southwestern Afghanistan on Friday, the first provincial capital to be overrun by the militants since the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the country.

“People and the security forces lost their morale,” said Gul Ahmad Noorzad, a parliament member from Nimruz. Noorzad said Afghan government forces largely fled the city of Zaranj, allowing the Taliban to move in without a fight.

“The Afghan forces simply took off their uniforms and crossed into Iran,” he said, along with many civilians and government officials.

Rohullah Gul Khairzad, the province’s deputy governor, confirmed that the city had fallen to the Taliban.

The fall of a provincial capital to the Taliban marks a significant escalation of the group’s offensive. Previously, fighting was largely confined to the country’s rural areas, but recently the Taliban has also begun increasing pressure on some of the country’s largest cities.

The capture of Zaranj, a relatively prosperous town bolstered by border trading with Iran, came as the Taliban further stretched Afghanistan’s already-thin, beleaguered military in the cities of Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. The Afghan army’s 215th Corps is responsible for security in both Zaranj and Laskhar Gah, which has been the site of intense fighting for weeks.

Afghan military officials in recent days have signaled an intense desire to keep control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. The population of the city has swelled in recent years as Afghans have fled small towns and districts in the province.

On Friday, Gen. Sami Sadat, commander of the 215th Corps, said in a tweet that his forces were in a “defining battle” in Lashkar Gah, and that he was appalled by reports that Taliban fighters were stealing jewelry from women, forcing them to cook and “shooting their sons in front of their eyes.”

“Taliban only bring misery and destruction to the world,” the general said.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the United States assesses that Taliban fighters remain in Laskhar Gah. Clearing operations by the Afghan military have been underway there for weeks, and Afghan commandos — considered some of the country’s best-trained forces — have been deployed.

In the captured capital of Zaranj, unconfirmed videos circulating on social media show residents looting shops in a central market. One Afghan security official said clashes in the city are continuing. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss ongoing operations with the media.

The violence triggered a prison break in Nimruz, but the official said the most notorious inmates had already been transferred to Kabul. The Taliban has prioritized prison raids to replenish the insurgents’ ranks and degrade the morale of Afghan security forces.

Noorzad, the member of parliament, said the Taliban had been threatening the Nimruz capital for days, warning of an attack. “I pleaded for air support and deployment of the commandos to Zaranj to boost the morale of the security forces and people. Unfortunately, nobody listened to me,” he said.

“Our fighters have cleared the military bases, and intelligence offices from the enemies,” said Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi in a statement on the fall of the city.

The Taliban attack on Nimruz reflects the group’s emphasis on controlling Afghanistan’s borders, an effort first illustrated by the Taliban’s surge into the country’s north.

“It undermines the Afghan state by denying [President Ashraf] Ghani’s government the ability to collect revenue and allowing the Taliban to reap financial benefit” from the crossings, said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. Watkins said that while Nimruz is one of Afghanistan’s most remote and sparsely populated provinces, it has incredible strategic value as it borders both Iran and Pakistan.

In other provinces, Taliban fighters have focused on border crossings without also launching sustained attacks on capital cities. Previously, the group has slowly increased pressure on urban areas without engaging in concerted efforts to bring them under their control.

Developments in Nimruz suggest a change in the Taliban’s overall battlefield strategy.

“It’s possible the Taliban feel closer to reaching an endgame,” Watkins said of the apparent shift that accompanies escalated attacks in Kabul on senior government officials.

Also Friday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of Dawa Khan Menapal, who oversaw operations for the government’s local and foreign media, according to Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

The Taliban also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing this week that targeted the home of acting defense minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi in Kabul. Eight civilians were killed and 20 were wounded, but Mohammadi was not present at his guesthouse at the time of the attack.

The White House denounced both Menapal’s killing and Wednesday’s bombing, saying such attacks will not win the Taliban the international legitimacy it claims to seek.

“They do not have to stay on this trajectory,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the Taliban at a news conference Friday. “They could choose to devote the same energy to the peace process as they are to their military campaign. We strongly urge them to do so. This is what the Afghan people so urgently need, deserve after decades of war, and is very much in Afghanistan’s neighbors’ interest to invest renewed energy into a peace process that promotes a peaceful Afghanistan and stable region.”

Taliban spokesmen said the attack Wednesday was in response to the increased use of airstrikes by the Afghan government and the United States. The group warned that similar assaults would follow if the strikes continue.

The use of air power has been particularly intense in the southern province of Helmand, where the capital is besieged by the Taliban and Afghan forces are struggling to retain control. The Taliban said the U.S. and Afghan military’s use of airstrikes amounts to war crimes, according to Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman.

The Pentagon declined to provide details, including intelligence assessments of the fight in Nimruz or whether it would launch airstrikes in support of Afghan forces.

“We feel it is in our best interest — and those of our Afghan partners — to remain disciplined about the amount of information we put out there,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Restricting information about U.S. support is a turnaround for the Defense Department in recent weeks, after officials disclosed to reporters details such as the number of airstrikes and what the strikes targeted. Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who oversees operations in Afghanistan as head of U.S. Central Command, spoke with reporters in Kabul on July 25 and explained numerous operational initiatives the United States would take, including spiriting away Afghan aircraft to another country for crucial maintenance.

U.S. forces are in the last stages of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that President Biden has said will conclude at the end of August. The United States has increased airstrikes in recent weeks to help prop up Afghan government forces, but McKenzie did not commit to ending airstrikes in support of Afghan forces after the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.

Psaki, in her news conference, defended the U.S. withdrawal.

“As it relates to the decision that we knew from the beginning — and the president would be the first to say this — that there are difficult choices a commander in chief needs to make on behalf of the American people,” Psaki said. “The president made clear after 20 years at war, it’s time for American troops to come home. … He also feels and has stated that the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defense Forces have the training, equipment and numbers to prevail.”

Asked about what role Pakistan might play, Psaki replied: “Our view continues to be it’s in the interests of all countries in the region for there to be a political process for peace and stability in the region.”

Alex Horton in Kabul, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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