The Taliban’s mounting pressure campaign on key cities across Afghanistan continued Wednesday as fighters battled government forces in the capital of Badghis province, the latest advance in a string of attacks on government-controlled districts since foreign forces began to withdraw in May.
Clashes reached the city center Wednesday, but Afghan government officials said the city remains in government control. Videos circulated by Taliban spokesmen showed cheering civilians on the outskirts of Qala-e Nau as dozens of militants sped by on motorcycles. In a video released by the Afghan government, the province’s governor — holding a rifle and wearing an ammunition vest — pledged to defend the city.
“The Taliban suffered casualties and were defeated,” Hasamuddin Shams, the provincial governor, said in the video as explosions rumbled in the background. Hours later, Ajmal Omar Shinwari, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s security forces, said the city’s perimeter had been secured.
The assault on Badghis comes as the Taliban has besieged the capitals of several provinces across the country by overrunning surrounding districts, according to interviews with local officials. The territory grab has given the Taliban control of key roadways into and out of those areas, in what one Taliban commander said was the goal of the operation.
Many of the Taliban’s advances have faced little to no resistance in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal. Without close U.S. support, specifically airstrikes, Afghan forces have been unable to hold territory even in parts of the country far from the Taliban’s traditional heartland in the south.
“It was exactly like a dam breaking down,” said Abdul Aziz Beg, a member of the Badghis provincial council who was in the city when the assault began.
Beg said the breach was triggered by the deputy police chief deserting his post. After he fled, the Afghan police staffing key checkpoints protecting Qala-e Nau abandoned their positions, he said, allowing Taliban fighters to easily enter the capital.
Shinwari, the security forces spokesman, said the commander’s departure was planned, describing it as a “tactical retreat.”
Like many of the other provinces where Taliban fighters have rolled back government troops, parts of Badghis have long been under militant control, with front lines remaining static for years. But after U.S. and NATO forces began the last phase of their withdrawal from Afghanistan in May, the Taliban has steadily expanded its reach.
The militants attacked several provinces south of Kabul where they had long held considerable influence. After consolidating gains there, the group’s focus shifted to the north in recent weeks, where its influence is more recent.
Initially, the Taliban advances were met with government resistance, but after the militants secured a handful of victories, more districts began to surrender.
Some fell without a single shot fired, said Abdul Samigh Atiq, the former district chief from Badakhshan province, where Taliban fighters overran about 20 districts in two days. On Monday, more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled into neighboring Tajikistan ahead of a Taliban advance there.
Takhar and Badghis provinces experienced a similar phenomenon, with Taliban fighters consolidating their control of nearly every district aside from the capital city in a matter of days.
Local officials say a combination of poor logistical support for government forces and officials willing to abandon checkpoints in exchange for money or other deals with the Taliban allowed for the cascading losses.
In Badghis, Beg, the provincial council member, said some local officials accepted bribes from the Taliban to abandon outposts.
“Without commandos or other reinforcements, the situation could get worse,” he said. “The Taliban might wait for the nightfall and then attack again.”
Taliban fighters now control large portions of territory along Afghanistan’s northern border with China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
But some Afghan officials say the Taliban did not expect to take so much territory in the north so quickly and the moves have left the group overstretched in an ethnically diverse part of the country that will prove more difficult to hold than more homogenous, largely Pashtun central and southern provinces.
“They are making a huge mistake,” Mohammad Radmanesh, a retired Afghan general and former Defense Ministry spokesman, said of the Taliban’s northern push. “These operations will only lead to more local resistance against them.”
A senior Taliban commander played down the criticism, saying that in recent years the militants have expanded recruitment in the north, attracting Afghan Turkmen and Uzbeks. The commander spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Local officials in the area did not describe significant Taliban recruitment in Afghanistan’s north, but many cited deals made between local leadership and Taliban fighters in recent months that paved the way for the group’s swift advances.
Ultimately, the senior Taliban commander said the northern push was designed to secure financial gains for the militants.
The aim of the operation was to “get hold of financial hubs, and the main commercial trade routes connecting Afghanistan with central Asian countries,” he said, citing Afghanistan’s main port with Uzbekistan and crossing with Turkmenistan.
The senior commander said although some ground commanders have acted independently and launched limited pushes into government-held cities, that is not the larger plan top Taliban leadership approved.
“Our first priority now is to hold the captured districts, then there will be preparations to attack the cities,” he said. But he said the cities will only be taken by force if the remaining government officials holed up in capitals such as Qala-e Nau in Badghis choose not to surrender.
He described this point in the Taliban offensive as one of “waiting.”
“This is now a time to test our patience. Let’s see whether the government will surrender to us or not,” he said.
Shinwari, the spokesman, acknowledged the severity of the country’s situation, but said that Afghan security forces remain capable of retaking territory. He said government troops have retaken 14 districts in recent days, but did not specify which ones.
“We are in a very difficult moment, but we assure you that the security forces are ready to fight,” he said.