Sunday August 15, 2021
The Taliban’s blitz across Afghanistan pushed to within miles of Kabul on Saturday, as remaining towns and provinces continued to fall to the militants with a speed that seemed inconceivable just a week ago.
With the Afghan capital among the few areas left to conquer, President Biden warned that any moves to threaten American personnel or interests there would be met with a “swift and strong” U.S. military response from thousands of American troops flooding into the city.
Biden, in his first public statement since the administration on Thursday announced the deployment of 3,000 troops to aid in the evacuation of American diplomats and civilians and Afghans who have aided the U.S. government, said the force being dispatched to Kabul would grow to 5,000.
The difference, according to a Defense official, reflected an additional 1,000 troops the president on Saturday authorized to be sent to Kabul from a force being held at the ready in Kuwait in case they were needed, and at least 650 more who had stayed behind after the U.S. military withdrawal with a narrow mission of protecting the U.S. Embassy and airport.The increased deployment came as U.S. diplomats appealed to the Taliban to halt its advance or risk a direct confrontation with the American force.
In Doha, Qatar — where just two days before representatives of world and regional powers had gathered to warn the militants that the world would cut them off from any legitimacy or aid if they took over Kabul by force — administration envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was left with Taliban officials who countered his entreaty with their own demand for an end to escalating U.S. airstrikes trying to delay their advance.
Biden said his message about a U.S. military response to “any action on the ground … that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there” had been conveyed to the Taliban in Doha “via our combatant commander” for the region.
The fate of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government also hung in the balance. President Ashraf Ghani, in his first public appearance since the Taliban’s stunning sweep took hold, told Afghans he was turning to the international community for help, even a
By late Saturday, Taliban fighters had broken the defenses of northern Afghanistan’s main city, Mazar-e Sharif, where Ghani had flown days earlier to rally pro-government forces, giving the insurgents full hold of the north and critical routes to Central Asia.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from Balkh province, where the city is located, told the Associated Press that the army first surrendered in Mazar-e Sharif amid a multipronged assault by the Taliban, leading pro-government militias to lay down their weapons.
Earlier in the day, the Taliban appeared to have gained full control of Logar province, bringing fighters as close as seven miles from Kabul, a provincial lawmaker, Hoda Ahmadi, told the AP. Logar’s flatlands, ringed by mountains, serve as an important gateway to the capital, with roadways connecting to cities to the south.
The insurgents on Saturday also seized the capital of Paktika, an eastern province bordering Pakistan, lawmaker Khalid Asad confirmed to the AP. Asad said fighting had broken out in the capital, Sharana, and lasted until local elders intervened to negotiate a pullout. Local officials, including the governor, left for Kabul after surrendering.
The numerous battlefronts have pushed Afghanistan toward a potential humanitarian catastrophe, as tens of thousands of people flee their homes amid the swift insurgent advances.
In Kabul, scenes were reminiscent of the Taliban’s rise in the mid-1990s — with families selling their possessions and doing whatever they could to flee the country. Many fear a return to the repressive and brutal rule the Taliban inflicted when it was last in power, rooted in an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Civilians in areas of Taliban control elsewhere were already reporting shuttered girls’ schools, poor families forced to cook food for ravenous fighters and young men pressured to join the ranks of the militants.
In a statement taking stock of its battlefield victories, the Taliban on Saturday sought to project itself as Afghanistan’s rightful ruler, appealing for calm and claiming no harm would come to those who have aided the American-led military campaign over the 20-year war or held jobs in the central government. Rather, those people would be granted “amnesty,” it said.