KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Another provincial capital in Afghanistan all but fell to the Taliban on Tuesday, this time in the country’s west, local officials said, marking the seventh to be overrun in under a week.
The Taliban had been encroaching for some time on Farah city, the capital of the province with the same name, as the province has been a focal point for the group’s offensive operations in the country’s west for years.
Gulbuddin, a police officer in the city who like many Afghans goes by one name, said that government officials had fled to an army headquarters several miles outside the city and that the main prison had been breached by Taliban fighters. The streets, he said, were full of freed inmates.
Masood Bakhtawar the provincial governor, denied that the capital had been captured by the insurgents and said that fighting was ongoing.
But several residents of Farah said there was little, if any shooting in their parts of the city, by Tuesday afternoon. Ahmad Zubair, who lives in the city, said he had heard or seen no sign of fighting.
“The Taliban are walking in our neighborhood,” he said.
Belqis Roshan, a member of Parliament from Farah Province, said that the governor’s office and the police headquarters had been seized, but fighting was still ongoing near the airport, in the city’s east.
Farah’s likely fall comes as the Afghan security forces have been fending off attacks in other cities, including in the neighboring province of Herat, where fighting has been reported outside the capital.
There was also fierce fighting on Tuesday in another provincial capital, Puli-Khumri, situated on the highway connecting the northern provinces to Kabul, the country’s capital, officials said. And in Badakhshan, the remote northern province that was once considered an anti-Taliban stronghold, insurgents were closing in on its capital.
A fenced-in basketball court in a park downtown was transformed into a place of refuge. On Monday, displaced people huddled together under makeshift lodging consisting of little more than bedsheets stretched across wooden poles.
Hasib Siddiqi, a resident of Farah city, said his neighbors had fled the city in recent days.
“We were deceived by the government’s assurances,” he said. “They said the city won’t collapse and that they have brought choppers and aircraft and they will defend the city.”
In recent weeks, the Afghan government has done little to articulate a plan to fend off the Taliban’s military offensive, which has captured roughly half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts since the U.S. withdrawal began on May 1.
But a fledgling strategy to slow down the Taliban’s string of victories does now exist, U.S. and U.N. diplomats and officials say. As they described it, the plan aligns closely with longstanding U.S. recommendations that the Afghans consolidate their remaining forces around crucial roads and cities, as well as key border crossings, and abandon most of the dozens of districts already seized by the Taliban.
How that plan takes into consideration the capture of now seven provincial capitals around the country remains unclear. As of Tuesday, Afghan security forces had yet to carry out any earnest operations to retake the seized capitals.
The one stopgap measure that Afghan military leaders appeared to rely on in recent months — shuttling better-trained commando forces from one vulnerable position to another to stymie the insurgent advance — has been exhausted. There are simply not enough of those troops to prevent the Taliban from taking provincial capitals.
The seizure of Zaranj in Nimruz Province on the Afghanistan-Iran border on Friday highlighted this.
The 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army is responsible for security in both Zaranj and Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand Province, which had also been under siege for several days last week. The 215th Corps’ leadership ultimately shifted its focus to defending Lashkar Gah, leaving Zaranj open to the Taliban, who saw little resistance when they entered the city.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said that the push to take provincial capitals was in response to an announcement earlier this month by Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, of his war strategy that included defending cities. Another Taliban official said the offensive against urban areas, which has killed and wounded thousands of civilians, was a response to American airstrikes.
But for whatever the reason, it was already clear months ago that the Taliban, confident of victory in battle, had all but stepped away from peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
Despite peace talks being stalled for several months, Afghan representatives met with Taliban officials this week in Doha, Qatar, in an attempt to restart negotiations.
Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, said the Taliban were willing to accelerate peace talks, but continued to refuse to discuss any kind of political settlement. Instead, they continued to demand the release of Taliban prisoners, which the Afghan government had rejected.
The city of Farah, with a population of roughly 50,000, was almost captured in a Taliban attack in 2018, but the insurgents were beaten back by American warplanes and elite U.S. ground troops.
Farah Province sits on the main highway that runs to the western city of Herat, where Taliban fighters have also laid siege. The province also shares a border with Iran; the main border crossing there was seized by the Taliban last month.
Taking Farah and other cities in the area would allow the group to funnel insurgent fighters toward Herat or elsewhere to reinforce other positions, while also limiting Afghan security forces’ ability to relocate to aircraft, which are in short supply because of a lack of maintenance resources and exhausted pilots.
Despite the Taliban’s rapid shift from attacking rural areas to assaulting cities, U.S. air support has been muted. The United States has only provided air support to Afghan security forces in two southern cities.
Barring intervention by the White House or Pentagon, such support is considered likely to end by Aug. 31, as American forces complete their withdrawal.
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Fahim Abed and Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul.