Taliban storm an Afghan provincial capital, let hundreds of prisoners escape

Afghan authorities said Wednesday (July 7) that pro-government forces had pushed Taliban insurgents out of parts of the northwestern city of Fort Naud and regained control of official buildings after several hours of heavy fighting.

The fierce fighting broke out in parts of Fort Nau, the capital of Badghis province, after the Taliban launched attacks on the city from multiple directions during the night. Residents and officials said insurgents stormed the city, seized key security facilities, including the provincial police headquarters, and released some 600 prisoners from the central prison.

Video released by the Taliban showed prisoners escaping the prison and insurgent fighters riding motorcycles into different parts of the city.

Provincial governor Hessamuddin Shams told the Voice of America that the Taliban had overrun all the districts around Fort Nau in recent days, which allowed them to launch an offensive against the capital.

Clashes raged in the city throughout the day Wednesday before Afghan forces, backed by air strikes, drove the insurgents out of the city by late afternoon.

Talking to reporters later, Shams claimed that most of the prisoners had been recaptured.

Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, tweeted that government forces had inflicted heavy casualties on the “fleeing” insurgents.

Since the U.S. and NATO allies officially began withdrawing their remaining troops from Afghanistan on May 1, Taliban militants have been advancing rapidly across the country, gaining ground.

Since then, Taliban insurgents have captured at least 150 of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts.

The attack on Fort Nau, the first time the Taliban have attacked a provincial capital, has raised growing fears that the Taliban do not want to resume peace talks with representatives of the Afghan government, but are intent on taking back power in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have also surrounded other provincial capitals, particularly in the north and northeast, fueling fears in neighboring Central Asian countries.

Taliban insurgents in the north and northeast have overrun dozens of districts in recent days, largely because pro-government forces have either retreated or surrendered. In the war-torn border province of Badakhshan, some 1,600 troops have fled into Tajikistan to escape the Taliban’s front.

Under the plan announced by President Joe Biden in mid-April, U.S.-led foreign forces were supposed to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Sept. 11 deadline.

In February 2020, under then-President Donald Trump, the U.S. negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban, under which foreign troops were supposed to withdraw from Afghanistan. The agreement calls for the insurgents to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and negotiate a political solution with the Kabul government to achieve peace.

U.S.-mediated intra-Afghan peace talks began in Qatar last September, however, the peace talks have been slow and have not achieved much success.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that the withdrawal process is more than 90 percent complete. Officials have said the entire withdrawal process is expected to be completed by the end of August. NATO troops are also withdrawing, and most of them have left Afghanistan.

Last Thursday, U.S. troops pulled out of Bagram Air Base, the largest airport facility in Afghanistan, late at night, which was met with criticism and complaints from Afghan commanders. They said the U.S. military did not tell them of the plan to leave the base.

U.S. officials insist that, as with the transfer of other military bases in Afghanistan, the U.S. handed over Bagram in full coordination with Afghan leaders.

Afghan officials insist the sudden departure of U.S. forces allowed locals to loot the military base before Afghan forces arrived and took control of the facility.

Meanwhile, Ross Wilson, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, urged the Taliban to stop the violence and negotiate “in good faith” to end the war for good.

The Taliban offensive has brought hardship to communities across Afghanistan already suffering from drought, poverty and COVID,” Wilson tweeted Wednesday. It violates the human rights of Afghans and instills fear that a system that Afghan citizens don’t support will be imposed on them.”

Iran hosted talks Wednesday with representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government and urged them to quickly negotiate a solution to the crisis.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quoted in official media as telling the visitors, “It is in the best interest of Afghan leaders and political factions to return to the negotiating table and commit to a diplomatic solution.”

Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, echoed such thoughts during an appearance in Washington on Wednesday.

“The only way forward is to reach some kind of common understanding,” he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “If the peace process collapses, we will go back to the old days when militias were side by side. All countries will also start betting on both ends. That would be a disaster.”

The Pakistani ambassador also refuted allegations by top Afghan officials that Pakistan has been providing safe haven and support to the Afghan Taliban.

“Frankly, the issue of safe havens is really irrelevant,” the ambassador said. “In any case, the Taliban don’t need to have a haven in Pakistan because they are occupying more and more space and territory in Afghanistan.”

Late last month, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed acknowledged in an interview with the privately owned Geo News television news channel that Taliban family members live in Pakistan, including in the area around the capital, Islamabad.

Ambassador Asad Majid Khan, however, tried to downplay any notion that Pakistan was not sincere enough in its efforts to prevent Afghanistan from descending into chaos.

He said, “What we have made clear is that we want the Afghan parties to talk to each other and that we will help in any way we can.”