The Afghan Air Force on August 5 resumed air strikes against Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan as militants made additional gains in the country’s north.
A Defense Ministry statement said air strikes were carried out across the country, including in the southern Helmand Province where government forces are battling for control of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Taliban commanders quoted by Reuters said on August 5 that the militants’ “priority” was to overrun airports in Kandahar and Herat but that soon other major cities could be targeted, too.
“The operations in Kandahar and Herat are very much important to us and our priority is to capture the two crucial airports or airbases in Kandahar and Herat,” the commander said.
Residents in Lashkar Gah reported heavy bombing near the government radio and television station, which is under Taliban control.
Nine of that city’s 10 districts have fallen into the militants’ hands.
Before launching the counterattack in Lashkar Gah on August 5, the army urged the city’s 200,000 residents to evacuate but it was unclear if routes out of the city were safe.
In northern Afghanistan, the Taliban took control of most of the provincial capital of Sar-e Pol, according to provincial council leader Mohammad Noor Rahmani.
Fierce fighting also has occurred around Herat, near the western border with Iran, and Kandahar in the south.
The Taliban have been conducting an all-out offensive since early May, when U.S.-led international forces stepped up a final withdrawal that is scheduled to be completed by the end of this month.
Afghan security forces have been increasingly using air strikes, raising concerns about civilian casualties across the country.
Three Taliban commanders who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity cited their goals of overtaking Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah and suggested their offensives were a response to the United States’ delaying withdrawal plans first agreed under then-President Donald Trump.
“Mullah Yaqoob argued that when U.S. didn’t fulfil their commitment why should Taliban be made to follow the accord?” the Kandahar-based commander said in a reference to the Taliban’s top military commander.
He suggested that more big cities could be targeted for siege and said Yaqoob’s arguments had outweighed the Taliban political office’s arguments.
“Mullah Yaqoob has decided to capture Kandahar and Herat and now Helmand and then it could be Kunduz, Khost or any other province.”
Taliban fighters have also carried out revenge killings and indiscriminate violence in areas they capture, and the group warned after several attacks in Kabul that it would also be targeting government officials in “retaliatory operations.”
The United Nations said on August 4 it had received reports of mounting civilian deaths and damage to critical infrastructure in Helmand and Kandahar.
“Hospitals and health workers are becoming overwhelmed by the number of wounded people,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told a press briefing.
“We can tell you that we are deeply concerned about the safety and protection of people in Lashkar Gah, in the south, where tens of thousands of people could be trapped by fighting,” Dujarric said.
The UN also urged donors to fund the Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan, which Dujarric said had received less than half of the needed $1.3 billion to date.
“We, along with our humanitarian partners in Afghanistan, are assessing needs and responding in the south, as access allows,” he said.
The European Union on August 5 urged “an urgent, comprehensive and permanent cease-fire” and condemned Taliban militants’ attacks.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and its commissioner for aid and crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, accused the Taliban of abandoning its stated commitment to seeking a negotiated peace.
While stepping up its offensive across Afghanistan, the Taliban also targeted institutions and officials in the capital in an attempt to disable the decision-making centers of the government.
On August 3 and 4, Taliban suicide bombers and armed attackers struck at the residence of acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security building, killing at least eight people and wounding dozens.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned on August 4 of more attacks targeting top Afghan government officials.
He said that the attack on Mohammadi “is the beginning of the retaliatory operations against the circles and leaders of the Kabul administration who are ordering attacks and the bombing of different parts of the country.”
The Taliban said the Kabul raid was in response to stepped-up air strikes against the insurgents by Afghan and U.S. military forces.
Recently, hundreds of Afghan security troops fled into neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the face of the Taliban offensive.
Even as it has stepped up its diplomatic efforts including through direct meetings with the Taliban, Russia has expressed concern about Taliban advances in connection with the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were expected to begin a major military exercise near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan on August 5, with Moscow announcing it will deploy four Tu-22M3 supersonic strategic bombers during the drills.
More than 2,500 soldiers are set to take part in the joint exercise, in the Tajik region of Khatlon until August 10.
Up to 1,800 of the soldiers will be from Russia, which has its largest foreign base in the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
Moscow also recently announced an expansion of its Central Asian bases.