Kabul: Taliban fighters took control of a key district in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province Monday and encircled the provincial capital, police said, as the insurgent group added to its string of recent victories on the battlefield.
Fighting around Imam Sahib district began late Sunday and by mid-day Monday the Taliban had overrun the district headquarters and were in control of police headquarters, said Inamuddin Rahmani, provincial police spokesman said.
Taliban militants were within a kilometer (mile) of Kunduz, the provincial capital but had not entered into the city, he said, although there were reports of small bands of Taliban near the outskirts.
Dozens of districts have fallen to the Taliban since May 1, when U.S. and NATO troops began their final departure from Afghanistan. Like Imam Sahib district in northern Kunduz, their significance often lies in their proximity to roads and major cities.
Imam Sahib is strategically located near Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, a key supply route from Central Asia.
Rahmani said police and Afghan National Army soldiers had jointly tried to defend the district. He said it still wasn’t clear how many casualties the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces suffered in the protracted battle or how many Taliban were killed or injured.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed confirmed Imam Sahib district was in Taliban hands and we have heard that so many soldiers have surrendered to the Taliban.
Several other districts in Kunduz have also fallen to the insurgent group in the latest round of fighting, including Achin, which neighbours Imam Sahib, said Rahmani, further consolidating local transportation links in the area.
The Taliban have circulated videos on their website and to WhatsApp groups which claim to show government soldiers who have surrendered being told to return to their home and receiving money from the Taliban. On Sunday Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a statement ordering his soldiers to treat those who surrender well and display good behavior with them.
But the fighting has been bitter in some districts with both sides suffering casualties. A senior police official speaking on condition he not be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media said in the district battles the police are mostly from poor families, who have remained poor despite the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan in the past 20 years.
They have not seen changes in their lives and are indifferent so they see no difference. … They want to save their lives just for today.”
Taliban gains and the steady withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops and 7,000 NATO forces have lent an urgency to efforts to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s protracted conflict.
Talks between the government and the Taliban taking place in Qatar have been stalemated. While Taliban say they are ready to negotiate, several observers familiar with the talks say the insurgent movement seems more anxious to chalk up military gains, with the intention of strengthen their negotiation position.
Meanwhile, on Sunday the White House announced that President Joe Biden will meet Friday in Washington with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, which overseas the government’s negotiation team.
It’s understood that Washington would like to see a peace deal or at least an indication that a peace deal was in the offing by the time its last soldiers leave the country by no later than Sept. 11.
Friday’s meeting, according to a White House statement, is intended to re-affirm America’s financial and humanitarian aid to support the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities.
The statement also said Washington will stay deeply engaged with the government to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland U.S. military officials have said America’s ability to ferret out terrorist threats in Afghanistan and respond will be reduced after the final troops have withdrawn. Neighboring Pakistan has issued several statements saying it will not provide the United States with listening posts on its territory.