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Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security Monday on Washington deciding “abruptly” to withdraw its troops.
"The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly," he told parliament, adding he had warned Washington the withdrawal would have "consequences".
In southern Afghanistan, fighting continued in Helmand province’s capital of Lashkar Gah overnight as Afghan forces beat back a fresh assault from the Taliban.
"Afghan forces on the ground and by air strikes repelled the attack," the military in Helmand said.
Resident Hawa Malalai warned of a growing crisis in the city: "There is fighting, power cuts, sick people in hospital, the telecommunication networks are down. There are no medicines and pharmacies are closed."
Helmand for years was the centrepiece of the US and British military campaign in Afghanistan – only for it to slip deeper into instability.
The vast poppy fields in the province provide the lion's share of the opium for the international heroin trade – making it a lucrative source of tax and cash for the Taliban.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend provincial capitals at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
'Organised command and leadership'
Fighting also surged in some districts of Kandahar province, the former bastion of the insurgents, and on the outskirts of its capital.
Kandahar airport came under attack overnight Sunday, with the Taliban firing rockets that damaged the runway, leading to the suspension of flights for several hours.
The facility is vital to maintaining the logistics and air support needed to keep the Taliban from overrunning the city, while also providing air support over large tracts of southern Afghanistan – including nearby Lashkar Gah.
In the west, hundreds of commandos were also defending Herat after days of fierce fighting.
"The threat is high in these three provinces ... but we are determined to repel their attacks," Afghan security forces spokesman Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters on Sunday.
Kabul has repeatedly dismissed the militants' steady gains over the summer as lacking strategic value, but has largely failed to reverse their momentum.
Ghani said authorities had worked out a six-month plan to thwart the Taliban, but acknowledged the insurgents were no longer a "scattered and inexperienced movement".
"We are faced with an organised command and leadership, backed by an unholy coalition of international terrorism and its supporting circles."
The capture of any major city by the Taliban would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns about the ability of the Afghan military.
"If Afghan cities fall ... the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will be remembered as one of the most notable strategic blunders in American foreign policy," Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani told AFP.
The Taliban have seized Afghan cities in the past but have retained them only briefly.
Refugee resettlement in the US
The US State Department responded to the worsening Afghan security situation on Monday by announcing that thousands of Afghans who may be targets of Taliban violence due to US affiliations but are ineligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) will have the opportunity to resettle as refugees in the United States.
"In light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States," the State Department said in the announcement.
"This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk."
Those who worked as employees of contractors, locally employed staff, interpreters and translators for the US government or armed forces are eligible for the new designation, as well as Afghans employed by a US-based media organisation or NGO, the State Department said.
However Afghans referred to the US refugee program will need to get themselves out of Afghanistan, senior State Department officials said, adding it was the responsibility of the applicants to get themselves to a third country where applications will be processed.
The US has been in touch with Afghanistan's neighbours and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, about the potential outflows of people, the officials said.
Joint Russian, Uzbek military drills
US geopolitical rival Russia responded to the deteriorating security situation by starting joint military drills with Uzbekistan on Monday near the Afghan border.
Russia said 1,500 Russian and Uzbek troops would take part in the five-day exercises that began at the Termez military site in Uzbekistan, the TASS news agency reported.
Moscow fears that the situation in Afghanistan could destabilise its southern defensive flank and push refugees into its Central Asian backyard.
In a sign of how serious Moscow is taking the potential threat, it said it would send a much bigger military contingent to Tajikistan for separate trilateral exercises due to begin there later this week.
Those separate drills are due to take place on August 5-10 and involve Russian, Uzbek and Tajik forces.
On Monday, Russia's defence ministry said that 1,800 of its soldiers would take part in the Tajik drills, instead of 1,000 as initially planned. More than 2,500 troops would be involved in total, it said.
Moscow will also use 420 units of military hardware for the drills, double the quantity originally planned, it said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)