The Taliban’s march through northern Afghanistan gained momentum overnight with the capture of several districts from fleeing Afghan forces, several hundred of whom crossed the border into Tajikistan, officials said.
More than 300 Afghan soldiers passed through Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province as Taliban fighters advanced towards the border, Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security said in a statement on Sunday. Afghan troops crossed around 6:30 p.m. local time on Saturday.
“Guided by the principles of humanism and good neighborliness,” the Tajik authorities authorized retreating Afghan government forces to enter Tajikistan, the statement said.
Since mid-April, when US President Joe Biden announced the end of Afghanistan’s “eternal war”, the Taliban have made progress across the country. But its biggest gains came in the northern half of the country, a traditional stronghold of the allied strongmen of the United States who helped defeat them in 2001.
The Taliban now control about a third of the 421 districts and district centers in Afghanistan.
Gains in northeast Badakhshan province in recent days have mainly come from the non-fighting armed group, said Mohib-ul Rahman, a member of the provincial council. He blamed the Taliban’s success on low morale among troops, who are mostly outnumbered and under-supplied.
“Unfortunately, the majority of the districts have been left to the Taliban without any fighting,” Rahman said. In the past three days, 10 districts have fallen to the Taliban, including eight without a fight, he said.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers, police and intelligence services surrendered their military outposts and fled to Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, Rahman said.
Even as a security meeting was held early Sunday to plan to strengthen the perimeter around Faizabad, some senior provincial officials were leaving the city for Kabul, the Afghan capital, he said.
In late June, the Afghan government resuscitated volunteer militias known for their brutal violence to support besieged Afghan forces, but Rahman said many fighters in Badakhshan districts had fought only halfway.
The Taliban also captured a key area of its former stronghold in Kandahar after heavy nightly fighting with Afghan government forces, officials said on Sunday.
The fall of Panjwai district in southern Kandahar province comes just two days after US and NATO forces evacuated their main Bagram air base near Kabul, from where they conducted operations for 20 years against the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies.
Over the years, Taliban and Afghan forces have regularly clashed in and around Panjwai, with the armed group aiming to capture it given its proximity to Kandahar City, the provincial capital.
Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until they were overthrown by a US-led invasion in 2001.
Panjwai District Governor Hasti Mohammad said Afghan and Taliban forces clashed overnight, leading to the withdrawal of government forces from the area.
“The Taliban have captured the district police headquarters and the governor’s office building,” he told AFP news agency.
The head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, 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, along the Afghan border with the states of Central Asia. Last month, the group took control of Imam Sahib, a town in Kunduz province across from Uzbekistan, and took control of a key trade route.
The breakthroughs in Badakhshan are particularly important 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 assassinated former president also led the Jamiat-e-Islami of Afghanistan, which was the party of notorious anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by a suicide bomber two days before the September 11 attacks in the United States.
The Home Office released 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 have shown videos of Afghan soldiers taking money for transport and returning home.