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More than 1,000 Afghan soldiers have fled to neighbouring Tajikistan after clashing with Taliban militants, officials have said.
The troops retreated over the border to “save their own lives”, according to a statement by Tajikistan’s border guard.
Violence has risen in Afghanistan and the Taliban have been making significant gains, particularly in the north of the country, in recent weeks.
The surge coincides with the end of Nato’s 20-year military mission.
The vast majority of remaining foreign forces in Afghanistan have been withdrawn ahead of a September deadline. There are concerns that the Afghan military, who were supposed to take over security in the country, will collapse.
Under a deal with the Taliban, the US and its Nato allies agreed to withdraw all troops in return for a commitment by the militants not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in the areas they control.
But the Taliban did not agree to stop fighting Afghan forces, and now reportedly control about a third of the country.
The retreat is the third time Afghan soldiers have fled to Tajikistan over the past three days and the fifth case over the past fortnight. In total, nearly 1,600 soldiers have crossed the border.
The latest group of Afghan troops sought refuge early on Monday morning after fighting with militants during the night, Tajikistan’s National Security Committee said in a statement that was reported by the Tajik state-run news agency Khovar.
Badakhshan and Takhar provinces, which border Tajikistan, have seen a rapid Taliban advance, and the militants have now captured most of the territory. The group has also reportedly taken over at least one Afghan army checkpost on the border with Pakistan.
“The Taliban cut off all the roads and these people had nowhere to go but to cross the border,” one senior Afghan official told Reuters on Monday.
Zabihullah Atiq, a parliamentarian from Badakhshan, said the troops had used various routes to flee.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that the country’s security forces are fully capable of keeping insurgents at bay, but there have also been reports of more soldiers seeking refuge in Pakistan and Uzbekistan to escape the fighting.
Neighbouring countries, including those in central Asia, are bracing themselves for a potential influx of refugees if the fighting continues to intensify.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC the Taliban is not responsible for the recent increase in violence. He insisted that many districts had fallen to the Taliban through mediation after Afghan soldiers refused to fight.
For the people of Afghanistan, it is a worrying time, says Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent. The Taliban, who have been accused of various human rights and cultural abuses, support Islamic punishments – such as public executions of convicted murderers – as well as banning television, music and cinema, and disapproving of girls over 10 going to school.
“They are uncertain about where their country is heading, uncertain about their own village or town or city, and uncertain about their own lives and the futures of their families,” she said.
There are also growing concerns about how to protect diplomatic missions in Afghanistan.
Russia on Monday announced that it had temporarily suspended operations at its consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif because of the deteriorating security situation. Envoy Zamir Kabulov said Afghan troops had surrendered too many districts, making the situation unstable.
Turkey and Iran have also suspended operations in the city, moving diplomats to Kabul, according to reports.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to chair a National Security Council meeting to discuss the situation in the country.
US-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001. The group had been harbouring Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 9/11 attacks in the US that triggered the invasion. However, it has gradually regained enough strength to seize territory again.
The Taliban entered direct talks with the US back in 2018, and President Joe Biden has said the American pull-out is justified as US forces have made sure Afghanistan cannot become a base for foreign jihadists to plot against the West again.
However, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the BBC he believed the Nato and US military mission there had failed in defeating terrorism and extremism.
He called on both the Afghan government and the Taliban to “sit down and talk as soon as possible for peace”.
Twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan – what happened when?
From 9/11, to intense fighting on the ground, and now full withdrawal of US-led forces, here’s what happened.
11 September 2001
Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, carries out the largest terror attack ever conducted on US soil.
Four commercial airliners are hijacked. Two are flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, which collapses. One hits the Pentagon building in Washington, and one crashes into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.
First air strikes
7 October 2001
A US-led coalition bombs Taliban and al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan. Targets include Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. The Taliban refuse to hand over Bin Laden. Their air defences and small fleet of fighter aircraft are destroyed.
Fall of Kabul
13 November 2001
The Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban rebels backed by coalition forces, enters Kabul as the Taliban flee the city.
By the 13 November 2001, all Taliban have either fled or been neutralised. Other cities quickly fall.
26 January 2004
After protracted negotiations at a “loya jirga” or grand assembly, the new Afghan constitution is signed into law. The constitution paves the way for presidential elections in October 2004.
Hamid Karzai becomes president
7 December 2004
Hamid Karzai, the leader of the Popalzai Durrani tribe, becomes the first president under the new constitution. He serves two five-year terms as president.
UK troops deployed to Helmand
British troops arrive in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the country.
Their initial mission is to support reconstruction projects, but they are quickly drawn into combat operations. More than 450 British troops lose their lives in Afghanistan over the course of the conflict.
17 February 2009
US President Barack Obama approves a major increase in the number of troops sent to Afghanistan. At their peak, they number about 140,000.
The so-called “surge” is modelled on US strategy in Iraq where US forces focussed on protecting the civilian population as well as killing insurgent fighters.
Osama Bin Laden killed
2 May 2011
The leader of al-Qaeda is killed in an assault by US Navy Seals on a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan. Bin Laden’s body is removed and buried at sea. The operation ends a 10-year hunt led by the CIA. The confirmation that Bin Laden had been living on Pakistani soil fuels accusations in the US that Pakistan is an unreliable ally in the war on terror.
Death of Mullah Omar
23 April 2013
The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, dies. His death is kept secret for more than two years.
According to Afghan intelligence, Mullah Omar dies of health problems at a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Pakistan denies that he was in the country.
Nato ends combat operations
28 December 2014
At a ceremony in Kabul, Nato ends its combat operations in Afghanistan. With the surge now over, the US withdraws thousands of troops. Most of those who remain focus on training and supporting the Afghan security forces.
The Taliban launch a series of suicide attacks, car bombings and other assaults. The parliament building in Kabul, and the city of Kunduz are attacked. Islamic State militants begin operations in Afghanistan.
Death toll announcement
25 January 2019
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says more than 45,000 members of his country’s security forces have been killed since he became leader in 2014. The figure is far higher than previously thought.
29 February 2020
US signs deal with Taliban
The US and the Taliban sign an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, in Doha, Qatar. The US and Nato allies agree to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.
Date for final withdrawal
11 September 2021
US forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, exactly 20 years since 9/11. There are strong indications that the withdrawal may be complete before the official deadline.