The fall of Herat also puts at risk the Salma Dam, now known as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, which has been under attack the past few weeks. The dam is on the Hari river in Herat province’s Chishti Sharif district.
These stunning, and rapid, victories have brought the insurgents to 40 km from the national capital, Kabul. The Taliban now control 18 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals. The only big cities that the Afghan government still controls, besides Kabul, are Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar in the country’s east, and Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh’s capital, in the north.
After taking over Kandahar city, capital of the eponymous province, the insurgents captured Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighbouring Helmand. The Taliban next entered Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province just south of Kabul, and then seized Ferozkoh, the capital of Ghor in the centre, and Tarinkot, Uruzgan’s capital in the south. The insurgents, government and Taliban sources confirmed, have also taken Qalat, the capital of Zabul, and Badghis’s capital Qala-e-Naw. The other provincials capitals, which fell earlier, are Faizabad, Farah, Pul-e-Khumri, Sar-e-Pul, Sheberghan, Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan, Zaranj, Ghazni, and Herat.
The capture of Kandahar, a city of more than six million people, is considered to be the most significant victory for the Taliban. The group’s founder, Mullah Omar, who had proclaimed himself “Amirul Momineen (commander of the faithful)” in 1996, had ruled Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate from Kandahar till the toppling of his regime by Western forces in 2001. He died in 2013.
The city has enormous symbolic significance for the insurgent group and has also been important for its industrial and agricultural output. Kandahar and the nearby Helmand province were heavily bombed during the US military surge in 2010-14. The most deaths of American soldiers in the last 20 years have occurred in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
“The city was taken without resistance. The Taliban were celebrating their victory by firing AK-47 rifles,” said Pashtana Durrani, a female university student who escaped Kandahar on Friday. “We’ve left behind all the books that my father and grandfather had given me, every memory, and we’ve had to burn all our pictures,” she said.
The Taliban’s formal claims about their latest victories have not been challenged by Kabul. The Uruzgan governor, however, released a video claiming that he was asked by local political leaders and tribal elders to hand over control of Tarinkot to the Taliban to avoid bloodshed.
Some of the provinces that have fallen to the Taliban over the past week were surrendered in negotiated deals, as on Friday, and on Thursday in Ghazni where the governor was subsequently arrested by government forces.
In Herat, however, commando troops and a militia led by 75-year- old warlord Ismail Khan, known as the “Lion of Herat”, had put up stiff resistance, but the city collapsed on Thursday night. The Taliban confirmed on Friday that they had Khan and several of his top aides in their custody.
“All government officials, including the Herat governor, police chief, the head of the National directorate of Security (NDS) office in Herat, warlord Ismail Khan, the deputy minister of the interior for security, and the 207 Zafar Corps commander, surrendered to the Taliban after the province fell to the group,” an Afghan media outlet reported. The Taliban later allowed Ismail Khan to go to his home. In a video message released by a pro-insurgent media outlet, the former governor claimed he had joined hands with the Taliban and was “treated well in custody”.
Local tribal and political leaders have played a key role in Taliban victories by influencing the government’s military and political representatives to avoid bloodshed, surrender and gain safe exit.
The Taliban propaganda machine has also played a major rule in the group’s easy wins in several provincial capitals. “Government functionaries, including foot soldiers and law enforcers, are told that their leaders are dual nationals and have no stake in Afghanistan. Their families are settled abroad and they can no longer stay in the country after the exit of their Western backers. This has been a common perception among locals and Afghan security forces about the incumbent rulers of the country,” said Afghan tribal elders contacted by TOI.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has said that the armed group is determined to push ahead with offensives to take control of all the provinces. He urged the Afghan security forces in the remaining areas to “end resistance and not risk their lives”.
In Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been faced with a challenge: the influx of thousands of people displaced by fighting in other parts of the country. The mosques, parks, schools and government facilities are full of internally displaced people while many sleep on the streets. The World Food Programme has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe due to food shortages in the war-torn country. The displaced families regularly protest in Kabul, appealing to the government to provide them shelter.