Afghan troops flee as northern districts fall to the Taliban

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More than 1,000 Afghan security personnel fled across the border into Tajikistan on Sunday after Taliban advances in northern Afghanistan, according to the Tajik border guard service. Dozens of others were captured by the insurgents, underscoring the rapidly deteriorating situation in the country as foreign troops near a complete withdrawal.

The Taliban took over six key districts in the northern province of Badakhshan, which borders both Tajikistan and China, following which 1,037 Afghan servicemen fled across the borderwith Tajikistan's permission, its border guard service said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke to his Tajik counterpart, President Emomali Rakhmon, by phone on Sunday to discuss the developments.

"Special attention was paid to the escalation of the situation in Afghanistan's northern areas adjacent to Tajikistan," the Tajik president's office said in a statement.

It added that Rakhmon expressed concern about "forced crossings" by members of the Afghan security forces. Tajikistan is looking into setting up camps for potential refugees from Afghanistan, according to government sources.

Since mid-April, when US President Joe Biden announced the end to Afghanistan's “forever war,” the Taliban have made strides throughout the country.

The US on Friday handed over Bagram Air Base – the centre of its operations – to Afghan security forces, effectively wrapping up operations in the country following nearly two decades of fighting.

With vital air cover from the Americans massively curtailed by the closure of Bagram's air base, the Taliban pressed on with their offensive across the north over the weekend, seizing most of Badakhshan and Takhar provinces with government forces holding little more than the provincial capitals.

The Taliban now control roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan.

Districts fall without a fight

The gains in northeastern Badakhshan province in recent days have mostly come to the insurgent movement without a fight, said Mohib-ul Rahman, a provincial council member. He blamed Taliban successes on the poor morale of troops who are mostly outnumbered and without resupplies.

“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 army, 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 Sunday to plot the strengthening of the perimeter around the capital, some senior provincial officials were leaving Faizabad for the capital Kabul, he said.

In late June the Afghan government resurrected militias with a reputation of brutal violence to support the beleaguered Afghan forces but Rahman said many of the militias in the Badakhshan districts put up only a half-hearted fight.

The areas under Taliban control in the north are increasingly strategic, running along Afghanistan's border with central Asian states. Last month the religious movement 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 America.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement 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 without a fight. The Taliban in previous surrenders have shown video of Afghan soldiers taking transportation money and returning to their homes.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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