Taliban captures sixth city in less than a week

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The Taliban has seized control of its sixth city in less than a week, dealing another blow to government forces trying to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of Islamists.

Aibak, the capital of Samangan province, fell to the jihadist group on Monday morning which tweeted that all government and police outposts had been ‘cleared’. 

Sefatullah Samangani, deputy governor of the province, also confirmed that the Taliban are now in ‘full control’ of the city – coming just a day after they captured Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul and Taloqan.

The cities of Zaranj and Sheberghan also fell late last week. Fierce fighting is still underway in Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat, while the Taliban claims that Mazar-i-Sharif – the largest city in Afghanistan’s north – was attacked today.

Meanwhile it was revealed that pilots are deserting Afghan forces after being targeted for assassinations, leaving government troops largely without air support that will be key to winning the battle against the Taliban. 

The Taliban now controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory and is fighting for control of dozens of other provinces, including the cities of Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar 

Hamidullah Azimi

Hamidullah Azimi

Hamidullah Azimi, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the Afghan army, was killed on Saturday when a bomb attached to his car exploded near the capital Kabul

Azimi's assassination (scene, pictured) along with the murder of seven other pilots has caused a collapse of morale that has seen 19 colleague desert their posts in recent weeks

Azimi’s assassination (scene, pictured) along with the murder of seven other pilots has caused a collapse of morale that has seen 19 colleague desert their posts in recent weeks

Eight pilots have been killed in recent weeks, with Hamidullah Azimi – a Black Hawk pilot – the latest to die after being blown up near the capital Kabul on Saturday.

Azimi was killed by a sticky bomb attached to his car which detonated, wounding five civilians who were nearby. 

Speaking anonymously to The Times, one pilot said he knows of 19 colleagues who have deserted the air force in recent weeks because the government could not guarantee their safety.

‘I have been flying for ten years. From the day I put on my uniform I swore to defend my country until the last drop of blood … but seeing my friends assassinated … I do not feel safe,’ he said.

‘I have to change the car I use every single day, borrowing my friends’ cars to drive to work. I can’t spend time outside my home. I can’t go shopping, not even get a haircut, to protect my identity and reduce the risk.

‘I am considering leaving my job. If the government can guarantee my family’s safety I will stay on base and fight forever.’

The Taliban has also been targeting media personalities with Toofan Omar, a radio station host and activist supporting independent media, shot dead in Kabul today.

Meanwhile Nematullah Hemat, a journalist working in Helmand province, was kidnapped on Monday by the Taliban, local officials said.

The apparent attack on Mazar-i-Sharif – which has been dismissed by government officials as ‘propaganda’ comes after the Taliban captured a major Afghan army base at Hazrat Sultan, halfway between Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Videos posted on pro-Islamist social media channels showed Taliban units at the base, which was reportedly captured without a shot being fired.

Some 50 vehicles, including armoured trucks, were left behind and have fallen into Taliban hands. 

Atta Mohammad Noor, the strongman leader of Mazar’s, vowed on Monday to fight for the city – saying there would be ‘resistance until the last drop of my blood’.

‘I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair,’ he tweeted.

The Afghan air force had been hit particularly hard by US and NATO withdrawal, as an army of contractors who had maintained aircraft and helicopters used by government forces quit the country with them.

Around a third of the military’s planes known to be out of action due to damage or a lack of spare parts, with morale among pilots running low due to non-stop sorties and supply missions they are forced to fly.

Morale then took a further beating due to the assassinations, with pilots seemingly unprotected even in the country’s heavily-defended capital. 

Afghans survey the damage caused by fighting between the Taliban and government forces in Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province which has now fallen to the Islamists

Afghans survey the damage caused by fighting between the Taliban and government forces in Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province which has now fallen to the Islamists

Smoke rises from the remains of shops that were destroyed in fighting between Taliban and government forces in the city of Kunduz

Smoke rises from the remains of shops that were destroyed in fighting between Taliban and government forces in the city of Kunduz

The Afghan army’s air force represents possibly its single-largest advantage over the Taliban, which has ranks filled with experienced and battle-hardened fighters but can field no aircraft.

But that advantage is fast evaporating – with the US forced to fly bombers and drones in from Oman to try and tip battles in the government’s favour.

Those sorties have managed to halt Taliban assaults such as the one underway in Lashkar Gah, which looked ready to fall last week before US bombs started dropping.

But Taliban commanders are quietly confident that the the US with eventually withdraw its air support.

‘These airstrikes … will not last much longer,’ one commander told The Times.

The US began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in April this year after Biden re-committed himself to an earlier Trump pledge to end America’s ‘forever war’.

Initially due to be complete by the symbolic date of September 11, sources on the ground say the withdrawal is already all-but over.

NATO’s own withdrawal is also thought to be effectively at an end, leaving Afghan security forces under the command of President Ashraf Ghani to defend the country.

Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, has said he wanted British forces to stay in the country and prop up government troops – leading an effort to rally like-minded NATO nations to join the effort.

But not a single country in the 30-member alliance was willing to make a commitment, leaving him with little choice but to join the retreat.   

Ben Wallace told the Mail the UK had urged ‘like-minded’ nations to stay on after US troops withdrew

Ben Wallace told the Mail the UK had urged ‘like-minded’ nations to stay on after US troops withdrew

‘All of us were saddened, from the Prime Minister down, about all the blood and treasure that had been spent, that this was how it was ending,’ he said.

Mr Wallace said that Trump’s deal with the Taliban early last year convinced the militants they had been victorious – calling the treaty ‘rotten’.  

‘It saddens me that the deal picked apart a lot of what had been achieved in Afghanistan over 20 years. We’ll probably be back in ten or 20 years. But acting now is not possible. The damage was done,’ he added.  

The Taliban struck hard and fast as western forces withdrew, rapidly capturing swathes of Afghan countryside and overrunning government outposts.

Some were conquered in fierce gun battles, but in other locations government troops either surrendered or were paid-off to leave their posts.

Ghani played down the Taliban’s initial successes, claiming the retreat was tactical and that he was withdrawing forces into cities which would be easier to defend.

But worrying early signs emerged when the Taliban starting eating up territory not just in its traditional southern hinterlands of Kandahar and Helmand, but also in the north along the borders with Tajikistan and Iran.

Then came the assault on the cities, and so-far Ghani’s forces have not fared well.

Since Friday, they have lost control of no fewer than five provincial capitals: Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul, capitals of Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul provinces, and Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province.

Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, has also been left on the brink with Kandahar also under sustained attack.

Only in Herat, in the north west, has the government met with any degree of success as its troops drove back a Taliban offensive last week – though fighting has since resumed and intensified.

Ghani’s only hope is that the Taliban can be fought to a stalemate, forcing the Islamists to return to the negotiating table and strike a power-sharing deal.

The white flag of the Taliban is pictured flying over the main square of Kunduz after it was captured by Islamist fighters on Sunday

The white flag of the Taliban is pictured flying over the main square of Kunduz after it was captured by Islamist fighters on Sunday

But if major regional capitals such as Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat fall, then it will likely spur the militants on to attack Kabul.

If they can take the capital it will return them to full control of the country and undo two decades of western intervention in just a few months.

But analysts have also warned of another, worst-case scenario: That neither side is able to strike the killing blow while peace talks prove inconclusive.

In that case, the conflict could draw out into a long a bloody civil war of the kind seen in the 1990s and from which the Taliban first emerged.

If that happens, Afghanistan would likely become a haven for terror groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. 

General Sir Nick Carter, head of the Armed Forces, has urged the UK to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Afghan security forces.

Yesterday, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, condemned the ‘shabby withdrawal’, ‘abandoning the country to the very insurgency that drew us there’.

He wrote in The Mail on Sunday: ‘Afghanistan might once again become a terror state. This is the country that brought us 9/11.’

Former Army commander General Sir Richard Barrons told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend yesterday: ‘We run the risk of terrorist entities re-establishing in Afghanistan to bring harm in Europe and elsewhere.’

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