Taliban Takes Key North Afghan District as Fighting Surges

  • Capital of southern Helmand province under Taliban siege
  • Car bombing near U.S. embassy in Kabul wounds at least three

Taliban militants captured a key district about 100 miles north of Afghanistan’s capital, which itself was hit by a bombing on Monday, a blow to the government in Kabul that’s coming under further pressure from a renewed surge in fighting.

Following days of heavy clashes with Afghan security forces, the Dahan-I-Ghori district in northern Baghlan province came under Taliban control, said Mahmood Haqmal, a spokesman for the province. Soon after its capture, the militants set some shops and fields ablaze, Haqmal said by phone on Monday. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed also confirmed the takeover in an e-mailed statement.

Afghan National Security Forces patrol after recent clashes on Aug 12.

Photographer: STR/AFP via Getty Images

“The territorial gains by the Taliban are sending serious alarming bells to the
government and even to the United States,” said Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based independent security analyst and a former army official. “The condition in the country is already fragile and now Taliban are trying to use this opportunity to gain territory.”

The increasingly bloody conflict against the Taliban, now in its 15th year, forced U.S. President Barack Obama last month to slow troop withdrawal plans. The war has cost the U.S. more than $700 billion and killed more than 2,300 American soldiers. Islamic State has also upped attacks in the country, last month claiming responsibility for suicide bombings in Kabul which killed more than 80 people.

Kabul Bombing

“Afghan forces had retreated from” Dahan-I-Ghori, Haqmal said. Fighting is underway to push the insurgents back and reinforcements are being deployed there, he said. The capture of the district adds to the risk that the province’s neighboring capital, Puli Khumri, will also fall to the militants.

In Kabul, three people including an Afghan solider were wounded when a car bomb was detonated at about 9 a.m. local time near the U.S. embassy, Basir Mujahed, a police spokesman, said by phone. The capital has been hit by explosions and gun-battles in past few weeks, the most recent on Aug. 1 at the city’s Northgate Hotel, where international contractors stay.

The Afghan military is also under pressure in southern Helmand province, with the capital Lashkar Gah under siege and surrounded by Taliban fighters, Omar Zowak, a local government spokesman said.

‘Very Worrying’

The situation in Helmand is “very worrying,” Zowak said by phone. Taliban militants have been fighting for days and don’t retreat, he said, without sharing casualty figures. On Friday, humanitarian agency Medecin San Frontieres, which runs a 300-bed hospital in Lashkar Gah, said that the increasing violence and blocked roads means wounded people can’t reach its facility in the city.

“The intensification and proximity of fighting is clearly limiting access to the hospital,” Guilhem Molinie, MSF’s country representative in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “In the immediate aftermath of fighting, one in four patients are unable to reach our emergency room.”

Insurgents control at least 36 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and a further 104 are at risk of capture, according to a report last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The Taliban-controlled districts are mostly in the remote southern regions.

Leader Deaths

With Afghan government forces struggling to take and keep territory from the Taliban, Obama slowed plans to withdraw American troops, with about 8,400 U.S. military personnel set to remain in the country at the end of the year.

Despite the U.S. killing former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone strike in May, the violence hasn’t ebbed under the group’s new chief Maulavi Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Pentagon on Friday also confirmed that Islamic State’s leader in Afghanistan, Hafiz Sayed Kahn, was killed in an airstrike last month in southern Nangarhar province.

White House officials said last month that a resolution will require the Taliban and Afghan government to negotiate a truce, an outcome they acknowledged is complicated by the Taliban’s reluctance to engage in talks.

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