Taliban seize four more districts as fighting intensifies in Afghanistan

Afghan Taliban fighters have captured four more districts from government forces in the past 24 hours amid an escalation in fighting. (AFP/File Photo)
Afghan Taliban fighters have captured four more districts from government forces in the past 24 hours amid an escalation in fighting. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 05 June 2021

Taliban seize four more districts as fighting intensifies in Afghanistan

Afghan Taliban fighters have captured four more districts from government forces in the past 24 hours amid an escalation in fighting. (AFP/File Photo)
  • More than 100 civilians dead across key provinces in war-torn country

KABUL: Afghan Taliban fighters have captured four more districts from government forces in the past 24 hours amid an escalation in fighting across the country.

It comes after the US began withdrawing its remaining troops from the war-torn state more than a month ago, officials said on Saturday.

The Do Aab district in eastern Nuristan, one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, was seized by the Taliban overnight, while Shinkai in southern Zabul, Deh Yak in adjacent Ghazni and Gizab in neighboring Daikundi province were overtaken on Friday.

“The security forces were under Taliban siege for a month in Do Aab. There were more than 300 of them who handed over their weapons to the Taliban and withdrew from their areas as part of a deal,” Ismail Aikan, a lawmaker from Nuristan province, told Arab News.

He added that the Taliban were “now advancing” toward the Noragam region and Do Aab, a strategic district linking Nuristan with the Panjshir province — long seen as an invincible and rugged region that troops belonging to the former Soviet Union and Taliban previously failed to capture.

A lawmaker from Zabul province in southern Afghanistan lamented the loss of the area to the Taliban, who “captured it without any resistance” after overrunning a key army base in Shahjoy, another district of Zabul.

“The troops abandoned their region. The Taliban have stepped up pressure on the government,” Hamidullah Tokhi told Arab News.

“There have been complaints about shortage of troops, lack of equipment and frustration among forces who are forced to leave the areas and just rescue their lives,” he added.

However, the government said that forces had “made a tactical retreat from Do Aab district.”

Interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian also confirmed the “evacuation of troops from Deh Yak” district in Ghazni province, but refused to share details about Shinkai and other districts.

The Taliban have carried out a string of attacks near vulnerable provincial capitals across Afghanistan since May 1, when the withdrawal process for the nearly 3,000 US-led foreign troops began.

It has resulted in an uptick in violence, which analysts say is a sign that the group is assessing the government’s capacity to safeguard the country once the withdrawal process is completed on Sept. 11.

Shafiq Haqpal, a Kabul-based analyst, listed the “halt of air support of foreign forces to the Afghan government, since the drawdown of US forces, lack of coordination among government leaders and weakness in delivering equipment to battle zones on time” as key reasons behind the Taliban’s advances.

“At the same time, the government says it has pulled up troops from some populated areas to avoid civilian casualties,” he told Arab News, adding the Taliban wanted to “show their might and seek concessions on the negotiations” when the stalled intra-Afghan peace talks resume in Doha, Qatar.

Since last month, at least four other districts have also fallen to the Taliban, two of them close to the capital city, Kabul, in the Maidan Wardak province.

Earlier, the Taliban claimed that “hundreds of government soldiers have defected to the group,” in the captured districts in one month alone.

The Taliban were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

The seizure of the districts follows media reports of hundreds of civilians, government forces and Taliban being killed in recent days, while “thousands of non-combatants have been forced to leave their homes.”

On Friday night, government forces were accused of “mistakenly” killing a local commander and 12 of his men in an air raid in the Kohistan district, according to Abdul Wali Niazi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan.

“The government, instead of targeting the enemies, mistakenly killed the commander and his men. Eight others were badly wounded in the incident,” Niazi told Arab News.

Media reports said the attack was carried out by the defense ministry, which refused to comment on the matter when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

Friday’s airstrike comes a day after a group of civilians lost their lives in a separate attack by the army in the southern Helmand province after they reportedly “looted” an army base seized by the Taliban on Wednesday.

Mirwasi Khadem, a lawmaker from Helmand, told Arab News that “based on local sources, almost 100 civilians were killed and wounded” in the air raid in the Yakh Chal area of Helmand’s Nahre Saraj district.

The defense ministry refused to comment on the exact death toll among civilians but expressed “regret” over “a number of locals who, with the Taliban, had entered the base and looted military equipment, and were also killed and wounded in the attack.”

Civilian casualties caused by both Afghan and US-led foreign troops hunting for insurgents have been one of the main reasons for the Afghan population’s dwindling support for the government and defense forces.

Although the UN has linked several civilian casualties to militant attacks in recent years, it has also reported a spike in civilian deaths due to air raids and operations carried out by government and foreign troops.

In its annual Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict report released in February, the UN’s human rights agency and its assistance mission in the country said that there was a “disturbing spike” in civilian deaths, with 3,035 fatalities and 5,785 injuries registered in 2020.


Petraeus: US has abandoned Afghanistan to civil war

An Afghan National Army commando stands guard on top of a vehicle along the road in Enjil district of Herat province on August 1, 2021, as skirmishes between Afghan National Army and Taliban continues. (AFP)
An Afghan National Army commando stands guard on top of a vehicle along the road in Enjil district of Herat province on August 1, 2021, as skirmishes between Afghan National Army and Taliban continues. (AFP)
Updated 22 min 35 sec ago

Petraeus: US has abandoned Afghanistan to civil war

An Afghan National Army commando stands guard on top of a vehicle along the road in Enjil district of Herat province on August 1, 2021, as skirmishes between Afghan National Army and Taliban continues. (AFP)
  • Kandahar, Lashkar Gar on brink of Taliban capture while American forces prepare to depart
  • Ex-US military chief in Afghanistan warns hard-won rights, freedoms will likely be lost if onslaught continues

LONDON: America has deserted its responsibility to protect rights and freedoms in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, the former US commander in the country, has told The Times.

With the Taliban rapidly sweeping up territories that were until recently defended by US-led coalition troops, Petraeus warned that a “medieval Islamist regime” and the return of terror-training safe havens are a realistic possibility.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have already started fleeing their homes as the Taliban start to take ground around Kandahar, the country’s second city.

“The rest of the world will see that we are not supporting democracy or maintaining the values that we promote around the world — human rights, particularly women’s rights, the right to education and freedom of speech and press — all very imperfect in Afghanistan, to be sure, but vastly better than if the Taliban reinstates a medieval Islamist regime,” Petraeus said.

“The worst-case scenario is we could see a bloody, brutal civil war similar to that of the 1990s when the Taliban prevailed,” he added.

“If that were to happen we would likely see the return of an Al-Qaeda sanctuary, although I don’t think Al-Qaeda would be able to threaten the homeland and Europe in the near-term. And certainly, our intelligence services and military will be watching for that.

“But it would be easier for Al-Qaeda if the Taliban seize control. We would see millions of refugees flooding into Pakistan and other neighboring countries. If the Taliban do take control we will see dramatic reductions in freedoms for Afghan citizens, particularly women. I don’t think this is what the world wants to see.”

Petraeus said he is shocked by how Washington is closing down its military operations in Afghanistan.

“If we had shown the determination and will to stay, we would have been in a much stronger negotiating position with the Taliban. But if we tell the enemy we are going to leave, why would they give up anything?

“I am a little bit unclear why we didn’t think we could maintain 3,500 troops to stop the Taliban from bringing back an ultraconservative Islamist theocracy, which is not in anyone’s interest.”

Petraeus added: “The war will go on and will get much worse. Ryan Crocker (Washington’s envoy to Kabul between 2011 and 2012) once said you can get tired of a movie and leave the theater but the movie continues to roll on. We forced the Afghan government to release thousands of Taliban prisoners, and got little or nothing for it. But if we had 3,500 troops there to maintain situational awareness and help our Afghan partners, we would have been in a position to prevent the Taliban from bringing civil war to the country.”

Petraeus contrasted the Afghanistan policy with the US approach to Iraq, where Washington has retained a small deployment of some 2,500 troops in an advisory role.

“But they can at least help the Iraqi security forces keep an eye on the insurgent and terrorist cell remnants of the Islamic State (Daesh),” he said.

The continued presence of US forces in Iraq is undergoing examination by military planners in Washington. 

The US has been launching airstrikes via fast jets and unmanned Reaper drones in support of Afghan forces. The drones take eight hours to travel to their targets from their airstrip in the Gulf.

Fighter jets launching sorties originate from Qatar, the UAE, and an aircraft carrier off the coast of Pakistan.

“The US may try to continue providing air support. But, to do that, it would have been wiser to keep Bagram and Kandahar air bases. Now, we have to fly from the Gulf, we can’t fly over Iran, so we have to go over southwest Pakistan. We’re not going to get a base in Pakistan,” Petraeus said.

“What will happen next depends most importantly on what the US will do to enable the Afghan air force to continue flying. The Afghan air force requires highly trained mechanics and supply chains and logistical support or they will not be operationally capable.”


UK eases travel restrictions as industry lobbies for more

UK eases travel restrictions as industry lobbies for more
Updated 02 August 2021

UK eases travel restrictions as industry lobbies for more

UK eases travel restrictions as industry lobbies for more
  • Travelers are required to take expensive PCR tests to prove they are virus-free

LONDON: Britain opened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers from the US and European Union on Monday as travel industry leaders urged the government to further ease restrictions and allow people to enjoy the benefits of a successful COVID-19 inoculation program.
The new rules came into effect amid reports that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government may add a new category to Britain’s traffic light system of travel restrictions, a move industry officials say would make many people decide to stay home.
As of Monday, fully vaccinated travelers from destinations on Britain’s “amber list” are allowed to enter the country without self-isolating for up to 10 days. The government is considering creating an amber watchlist to warn people about destinations that may be downgraded because of rising infection rates or the emergence of new variants.
“An amber watchlist will be viewed as a massive red flag, which is likely to cause bookings to those countries on that watchlist to collapse,’’ Huw Merriman, chairman of the House of Commons’ Transport Committee, told the BBC. “In my view, we don’t need any more uncertainty, complexity or anxiety for passengers or this beleaguered sector. It just needs clarity.”
British airlines and holiday companies are hoping for a late summer travel boom after the pandemic halted most international travel, slashing profits and threatening thousands of jobs. The number of passengers traveling through London’s Heathrow Airport, the UK’s busiest airport, fell 75 percent in the first half of this year.
Travelers are required to take expensive PCR tests to prove they are virus-free and countries including the US still bar foreign travelers from crossing their borders.
John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, said the British government should allow most travelers to use cheaper lateral flow tests and work with countries like the US to ease remaining travel restrictions. This is warranted by the UK’s successful vaccination program, he said.
Almost 89 percent of adults in Britain have received at least one dose of vaccine and 73 percent have been fully vaccinated.
“This is a good start, we are showing that the vaccine is our passport to freedom,’’ Holland-Kaye said. “Let’s be confident in the vaccines. Tests show they work against delta and beta variants. So let’s start to show the vaccination will get us back to our lives as they used to be.”


Thousands more Afghans can resettle in US as refugees: State Department

Thousands more Afghans can resettle in US as refugees: State Department
Updated 02 August 2021

Thousands more Afghans can resettle in US as refugees: State Department

Thousands more Afghans can resettle in US as refugees: State Department
  • ‘The US government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States’

WASHINGTON: Thousands of Afghans who may be targets of Taliban violence due to US affiliations but are ineligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) will have the opportunity to resettle as refugees in the United States, the State Department said on Monday.

Reuters exclusively reported on plans to set up the “Priority Two” refugee program, covering Afghans who worked for US-funded projects and for US-based non-government bodies and media outlets, earlier on Monday.

“In light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States,” the State Department said in the announcement.

“This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk.”

Those who worked as employees of contractors, locally employed staff and interpreters and translators for the US government or armed forces are eligible for the new designation, as well as Afghans employed by a US-based media organization or non-governmental organization, the State Department said.


Afghan president blames ‘abrupt’ US withdrawal for worsening security

Afghan president blames ‘abrupt’ US withdrawal for worsening security
Updated 02 August 2021

Afghan president blames ‘abrupt’ US withdrawal for worsening security

Afghan president blames ‘abrupt’ US withdrawal for worsening security
  • ‘The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly’

KABUL: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security Monday on Washington deciding “abruptly” to withdraw its troops.
“The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly,” he told parliament, adding he had warned Washington the withdrawal would have “consequences.”


Troops to enforce Sydney lockdown as Brisbane extends coronavirus curbs

Troops to enforce Sydney lockdown as Brisbane extends coronavirus curbs
Updated 02 August 2021

Troops to enforce Sydney lockdown as Brisbane extends coronavirus curbs

Troops to enforce Sydney lockdown as Brisbane extends coronavirus curbs
  • New South Wales state police requested military help to enforce COVID-19 rules
  • Australia has recorded more than 34,000 cases and 925 deaths so far during the pandemic

SYDNEY: Troops hit Sydney’s streets on Monday to help enforce its prolonged lockdown, as stay-at-home orders in Australia’s third-largest city Brisbane were extended to curb a worsening outbreak.
About 300 Australian Defense Force personnel will be deployed to the country’s largest city after New South Wales state police requested military help to enforce COVID-19 rules.
Authorities have been struggling to stop the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in Sydney — and ensure that residents follow containment rules — with more than 3,600 cases recorded since mid-June.
With thousands of close contacts of COVID cases told to test and stay at home for 14 days, police said they lacked the manpower to make sure everyone was complying.
Troops are expected to help police deliver food parcels, conduct “welfare door-knocks” and check people are complying with self-isolation orders.
“I want to stress up front again that we will be under control of the NSW police,” said Brig. Mick Garraway.
“We are not a law enforcement agency and we will do tasks that are supportive in nature.”
More than five million people in Sydney and surrounding areas are entering their sixth week of a lockdown set to run until the end of August.
Residents are only allowed to leave their homes for exercise, essential work, medical reasons, and to shop for necessities such as food.
But compliance has been patchy and police have increasingly been doling out fines to those violating the restrictions.
The defense force said the latest deployment was in addition to the 250 military personnel already working at hotels and airports in New South Wales.
In Brisbane and several surrounding regions, millions of people will remain under lockdown until Sunday after an “escalating” outbreak grew to 29 cases.
Those stay-at-home orders had been scheduled to lift on Tuesday.
“That will make it an eight-day lockdown. And we desperately hope that that will be sufficient for our contact tracers to get into home quarantine absolutely anyone who could have been exposed to the Delta strain,” acting Queensland state premier Steven Miles said.
The outbreak was linked to a Brisbane school student, with pupils and teachers at several schools subsequently placed into isolation.
Defense Minister Peter Dutton’s sons attend one of the schools hit, so he is among those being forced to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“Having had COVID and being fully vaccinated, I have also tested negative this morning,” he said in a statement.
With about 15 percent of Australia’s 25 million people fully vaccinated, authorities are still relying on lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has outlined a long road out of restrictions — setting a target of 80 percent of the eligible population to be fully vaccinated before borders are reopened and lockdowns eliminated.
Australia has recorded more than 34,000 cases and 925 deaths so far during the pandemic.