KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban militants took control of a key district in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province and encircled the provincial capital on Monday, police said as the insurgent group added to its recent battlefield victories amid peace talks stalled are.
The Taliban’s gains came after the Pentagon reiterated that US troop withdrawal would be completed by early September.
The fighting over Imam Sahib district began late Sunday and by Monday lunchtime the Taliban had overran the district headquarters and had control of the police headquarters, Inamuddin Rahmani said, a provincial police spokesman said.
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Taliban fighters were within a kilometer of Kunduz, the provincial capital, but not the city, he said, although there were reports of small Taliban troops near the outskirts and residents trying to flee to Kabul.
Since May 1, when US and NATO forces began their final withdrawal from Afghanistan, dozen of districts have fallen to the Taliban. Like the Imam Sahib district in northern Kunduz, their importance is often close to streets and large cities.
Imam Sahib is strategically located near Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, an important supply route from Central Asia.
Rahmani said the Afghan National Army police and soldiers worked together to defend the district. He said it is still not clear how many victims the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces suffered in the protracted struggle, or how many Taliban were killed or wounded.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed confirmed that the Imam Sahib district is in the hands of the Taliban.
Rahmani said that several other districts in Kunduz also fell victim to the insurgent group in the latest round of fighting, including Dasht-e-Archi, who is a neighbor of Imam Sahib, and further strengthened local transport links in the region.
Syed Mohammad Mousavi drove with his family from northern Mazar-e-Sharif, about 120 kilometers west of Kunduz, to the relative safety of Kabul on Sunday.
He said people tried to leave Kunduz city for Kabul for fear of further fighting. “The Taliban were all over the streets checking cars. We were very scared, ”he said after reaching the capital.
Mousavi said the Taliban had captured several districts in the three northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan and Balkh in the past few days. Significantly, witnesses said that Doshi district in Baghlan province was in the hands of the Taliban, giving the insurgent group control of the only road connecting five northern provinces with the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban posted videos on their website and WhatsApp groups claiming to show government soldiers who surrendered, who were asked to return to their homes and receive money from the Taliban. On Sunday, Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a statement ordering his soldiers to “treat those who surrender well and behave well towards them”.
But the fighting was fierce in some districts and both sides suffered losses. A senior police officer, who spoke on condition that he cannot be identified because he is not allowed to speak to the media, said the police fighting in the districts are mostly from poor families. These families have remained poor despite the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. “They haven’t seen any changes in their lives and they are indifferent, so they don’t see any difference. … They just want to save their lives for today. “
The Taliban’s gains and the steady withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 US soldiers and 7,000 NATO forces have made efforts to bring about a negotiated end to the protracted Afghanistan conflict more urgent.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been regularly reviewing the US withdrawal, which he said was “on the pace” and would be completed by early September. “It’s a dynamic situation and we said that from the start,” said Kirby.
Austin “sees the situation with new eyes every day to see if the pace we are setting is the right one.” The uncertainties, officials said, include the State Department’s need for the embassy’s security and its decisions to get interpreters and other Afghans who have worked with the Americans out of the country.
Talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar have stalled. As Taliban leaders agree to negotiate, observers familiar with the talks say the insurgent movement seems more intent on making military gains in hopes of strengthening its negotiating position.
Later this week, President Joe Biden will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, which includes the government’s overseas negotiating team.
The meeting on Friday in Washington is intended to reaffirm US financial and humanitarian aid “to support the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities,” according to a White House statement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday her conversation will also “continue to discuss how we can work together to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups that pose a threat to the US homeland “.