Taliban capture Zaranj, a provincial capital of Afghanistan, in symbolic victory

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KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban captured a regional hub city in western Afghanistan on Friday, officials said, the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgency since the Biden administration announced the full withdrawal American troops.

The successful takeover marks an important step in the insurgents’ relentless march to increase their grip on the Afghan government and regain power in the country. The Taliban besieged multitudes of these towns for weeks, and the fall of Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz province on the Afghan-Iranian border, is the Taliban’s first breakthrough. And he handed the insurgents another crucial border crossing, the last in his recent campaign to control road access into Afghanistan.

A regional administrative center is now fully controlled by the Taliban, an interesting addition to their constant drumbeat of rural victories in recent months. This was a major setback for the government, which had to contend with simultaneous attacks on capital cities that strained military resources.

Zaranj’s collapse at the hands of the insurgents was confirmed on Friday by Rohgul Khairzad, the vice-governor of Nimruz, and Hajji Baz Mohammad Naser, the head of the provincial council.

“All the people are hiding in their homes for fear of the Taliban,” said Khair-ul-Nisa Ghami, a member of the provincial council. “The situation is very worrying. People are afraid, ”she said, adding:“ The Taliban captured the city without any fighting. “

The collapse of Zaranj, a city of 160,000, occurred the same day a senior government official was assassinated in the capital Kabul. It also happened as insurgents pressed heavily into other provincial towns, in a day of grim news for the government.

Located in the remote southwest corner of the country, Zaranj has long been seen as a lawless border town, acting as Afghanistan’s main hub for illegal migration, teeming with an illicit economy focused on drug trafficking. and fuel. For decades, a steady stream of Afghans displaced by conflict and poverty have flocked to the city’s smuggler-owned hotels to negotiate deals to cross into Iran.

“Nimruz is a place where business interests and criminal networks rule the province,” said Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, adding that a Taliban takeover that would have disrupted these business interests “would not have not been possible “.

Taliban fighters met little resistance to take Zaranj, said Afghan officials who were not authorized to speak to the media. They said an agreement had been negotiated with the Taliban allowing city officials to cross the Iranian border with their families.

The leak from provincial authorities began Thursday evening when neighboring Kang district fell, officials said. They said people started looting local government offices and businesses in the city until around 2 p.m. Friday when the Taliban arrived.

Only the local office of the National Security Directorate, the Afghan intelligence agency, fought but eventually surrendered, officials said. One of the first acts of the Taliban after entering the city was to break into his prison, immediately filling the streets of Zaranj with released detainees, they added.

Later that day, Afghan Air Force planes flew over the city, launching airstrikes against the police headquarters and the border brigade, officials said.

Mr. Naser, the head of the provincial council, said the government had not sent reinforcements to Zaranj and the authorities had decided to abandon the town in order to avoid casualties. He denied that an agreement was reached with the Taliban.

Since the Taliban began their military campaign in May, the city has been teeming with people seeking to leave the country. In early July, around 450 vans carrying migrants meandered from Zaranj to crossing points along the Iranian border each day – more than double the number of cars that made the trip in March, according to David Mansfield, migration researcher at the Overseas Development Institute. .

The capture of Zaranj is a symbolically significant development in the Taliban’s campaign, as they have moved away from targeting rural districts to focus on attacking provincial capitals.

The 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army is responsible for security in Zaranj and Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand province, which has been under siege for several days. Leaders of the 215th Corps focused on the defense of Lashkar Gah, leaving Zaranj vulnerable to capture.

The Taliban also took responsibility for the assassination on Friday of a senior government official in Kabul. Dawa Khan Meenapal, the head of the government’s information and media center, was shot dead in a targeted attack. Dozens of officials and civil society figures have been murdered over the past year, although the Taliban has largely denied responsibility for the attacks.

The murder came days after a coordinated attack by the insurgent group on the residence of the acting defense minister that left eight people dead. This assault highlighted the Taliban’s ability to strike into the heart of the Afghan capital as they continue their vast military campaign.

In northern Afghanistan on Friday, the Taliban attacked another provincial capital, Sheberghan, from five directions, torching homes and wedding halls, and attacking the police headquarters and prison. There were many civilian casualties, said Halima Sadaf Karimi, MP for Jowzjan province, of which Sheberghan is the capital.

Fighting also continued around the large western city of Herat, in the city of Kandahar in the south and in other provincial capitals.

The government’s response to recent insurgent victories has been piecemeal. Afghan forces have recaptured some districts, but the Afghan Air Force and its commandos – who have been deployed to hold the remaining territory as regular army and police units withdraw, surrender or refuse to fight – are exhausted.

In place of the security forces, the government has once again turned to local militias to fill in the gaps, a move reminiscent of the chaotic and ethnically divided civil war of the 1990s that many Afghans now fear will return.

In recent weeks, the US military has stepped up airstrikes on Taliban positions around crucial cities in an attempt to give Afghan forces on the ground time to regroup. The strikes alone do little to change the situation on the ground, but have slowed the Taliban’s advances.

The United States is expected to complete its withdrawal by August 31, when the Biden administration said its military operations would end. This would only leave a few weeks for the Afghan government to rebuild its security forces to defend the towns and territory still under its control.

During a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan, warned that without action, the country could sink “into a situation of disaster if serious that it would have few, if any, parallels in this century.

Afghanistan, she said, had come to resemble the battlefields of Syria and Sarajevo, as the Taliban made a “strategic decision” to attack urban areas, causing hundreds of deaths among them. civilians in the last few weeks alone. The fighting, she said, comes on top of a severe drought that has left 18.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

She added: “As one Afghan recently told us, ‘We are no longer talking about preserving the progress and the rights that we have acquired, we are talking about simple survival.'”

Reporting was provided by Christina Goldbaum, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Michael Schwirtz.


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