KABUL — Taliban fighters overran three major cities in the north of Afghanistan on Sunday, the most significant territorial gains the militants have netted in a single day since the withdrawal of U.S. forces entered its final phase this year.
The developments marked a sharp escalation in the pace of Taliban gains across Afghanistan. For months, Taliban fighters focused on taking control of districts and increasing pressure on urban areas, but that changed Friday when they overran a provincial capital for the first time since the withdrawal of foreign forces. The militants took a second city on Saturday, and by Sunday government-held territory in the north appeared to be collapsing quickly.
In Takhar, Afghan officials said government forces abandoned the provincial capital before Taliban fighters attacked, according to Rohullah Raufi, a provincial council member. In Sar-e Pol, a small number of Afghan security forces and government officials also fled, seeking refuge at a military base on the city’s outskirts.
In Kunduz, too, Afghan government control shrank to a single military base near the airport, where most of the government officials left in the city were sheltering.
Taliban fighters pushed into Kunduz from the north Sunday and closed in on the city prison, according to an Afghan officer in contact with the few government security forces left there. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists about ongoing operations.
The Taliban quickly overwhelmed the prison guards. They then released prisoners and bolstered their numbers with dozens of inmates who were Taliban fighters, the officer said. The additional Taliban fighters helped the militants launch attacks on the main government compounds in central Kunduz.
Afghan security forces have been scrambling to secure prisons and Taliban inmates for weeks as the militants have closed in on urban areas across the country. The most dangerous Taliban prisoners have been relocated to Kabul, but many low-level Taliban fighters remain in provincial detention centers, according to Afghan officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information to journalists.
The officials warned that if even a fraction of Taliban inmates were freed, it could give the group significant battlefield advantages.
Taliban fighters launched attacks on the main government compounds in Kunduz for hours, according to Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a member of the provincial council. Clashes lasted into the evening.
Amr al-Din Wali, another Kunduz provincial council member, said Afghan security forces have “no morale.” Speaking from the base near the airport, he said waves of intense airstrikes had been launched in and around the city, but he didn’t think security forces had a plan to retake it.
The Taliban attack on Takhar mirrored the attack on Kunduz. Fighters first assaulted the central prison to release dozens of Taliban inmates, according to a Taliban member briefed on the operation. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Raufi, the provincial council member from Takhar, said government forces retreated to avoid the destruction of the city, but some informal anti-Taliban fighters attempted to hold the militants off. He estimated that some two thousand Taliban fighters moved on the city from multiple directions.
Clashes in the capital city of Sar-e Pol province continued into the evening, according to deputy governor Abdul Malik Azimi, who spoke by phone from a military base on the city’s outskirts. A provincial council member, Sayed Asadullah Danish, said Taliban fighters were in control of the city’s main government compounds.
Taliban fighters overran Zaranj, the capital of the western province of Nimruz, on Friday and pushed into Shebergan, the capital of the northwestern province of Jowzjan, on Saturday.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the militants were in full control of the important government buildings in Kunduz, Sar-e Pol and Takhar and were “chasing away the remaining forces of the enemy.” He repeated a call for Afghan government “officials and security forces to stop fighting,” and pledged that anyone who chose to lay down their arms would “be provided protection.”
As the conflict escalates across the country, the Taliban is increasingly accusing Afghan forces and the United States of indiscriminately using air power that is killing and wounding large numbers of civilians.
Human rights groups are also voicing concerns about a spike in civilian casualties.
For years, the majority of the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces occurred in the country’s rural areas. As the Taliban is now pushing into cities, Deborah Lyons, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, has warned that more civilians will be injured or killed.
In testimony to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Lyons said that in Lashkar Gah — one of the most closely contested provincial capitals in the country — more than 104 civilians were killed and 403 wounded in a 10-day period. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported recently that civilian casualties could reach “unprecedented” levels this year if the war continues on its current trajectory.
“To attack urban areas,” Lyons said, “is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties.”
U.S. officials acknowledged an increase in the use of American air power last month, but have since declined to comment on the number of American strikes in Afghanistan. The United States stopped releasing strike data last year after signing an accord with the Taliban. Officials have cited sensitivities surrounding peace talks that have been stalled for months.
U.S. forces are in the last stages of a withdrawal from Afghanistan that President Biden has said will conclude at the end of the month. But Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who oversees operations in Afghanistan as head of U.S. Central Command, has not committed to ending airstrikes in support of Afghan forces after that deadline.
Raufi, speaking by phone from a military base besieged by the Taliban in Takhar’s capital city, said he had not received any information from the central government about a potential push to retake the area.
“It is not clear what comes next,” he said.
Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.
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