The Taliban’s march through northern Afghanistan gained momentum overnight with the capture of several districts from fleeing Afghan forces, several hundred of whom fled across the border into Tajikistan, officials said.
More than 300 Afghan military personnel crossed from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province as Taliban fighters advanced towards the border, Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security said in a statement on Sunday. The Afghan troops crossed over at about 6:30pm local time on Saturday.
“Guided by the principles of humanism and good neighbourliness,” the Tajik authorities allowed the retreating Afghan government forces to cross into Tajikistan, said the statement.
Since mid-April, when US President Joe Biden announced the end to Afghanistan’s “forever war”, the Taliban has made strides throughout the country. But its most significant gains have been in the northern half of the country, a traditional stronghold of the US-allied strongmen who helped defeat them in 2001.
The Taliban now controls roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan.
Gains in northeastern Badakhshan province in recent days have mostly come to the armed group without a battle, said Mohib-ul Rahman, a provincial council member. He blamed Taliban successes on the poor morale of troops who are mostly outnumbered and lacking supplies.
“Unfortunately, the majority of the districts were left to Taliban without any fight,” said Rahman. In the last three days, 10 districts fell to Taliban, eight without a fight, he said.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers, police and intelligence troops surrendered their military outposts and fled to the Badakhshan provincial capital of Faizabad, said Rahman.
Even as a security meeting was being held early on Sunday to plot the strengthening of the perimeter around Faizabad, some senior provincial officials were leaving the city for the Afghan capital Kabul, he said.
In late June, the Afghan government resurrected volunteer militias with a reputation of brutal violence to support the beleaguered Afghan forces but Rahman said many of the fighters in the Badakhshan districts put up only a half-hearted fight.
The Taliban also captured a key district in its former bastion of Kandahar after fierce night-time fighting with Afghan government forces, officials said on Sunday.
The fall of the Panjwai district in the southern province of Kandahar comes just two days after US and NATO forces vacated their main Bagram airbase near Kabul, from where they led operations for 20 years against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies.
Over the years, the Taliban and Afghan forces have regularly clashed in and around Panjwai, with the armed group aiming to seize it given its proximity to Kandahar city, the provincial capital.
The province of Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban, which went on to rule Afghanistan until being overthrown by a US-led invasion in 2001.
Panjwai district Governor Hasti Mohammad said Afghan forces and the Taliban clashed during the night, resulting in government forces retreating from the area.
“The Taliban have captured the district police headquarters and governor’s office building,” he told the AFP news agency.
Kandahar provincial council head Sayed Jan Khakriwal confirmed the fall of Panjwai, but accused government forces of “intentionally withdrawing”.
The areas under Taliban control in the north are increasingly strategic, running along Afghanistan’s border with Central Asian states. Last month, the group took control of Imam Sahib, a town in Kunduz province opposite Uzbekistan and gained control of a key trade route.
The inroads in Badakhshan are particularly significant as it is the home province of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011. His son, Salahuddin Rabbani, is part of the current High Council for National Reconciliation.
The slain former president also led Afghanistan’s Jamiat-e-Islami, which was the party of famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, killed by a suicide bomber two days before the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The Interior Ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying the defeats were temporary, although it was not clear how they would regain control.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the fall of the districts and said most were taken without a fight. The Taliban in previous surrenders has shown videos of Afghan soldiers taking transport allowance and returning to their homes.