BBC.COM-image copyright AFP
image caption Heavy fighting is reported to have been going on in Qala-e-Naw all day
The Taliban have entered a key city in western Afghanistan as they continue a rapid advance before Nato troops leave.
All government officials in Qala-e-Naw, provincial capital of Badghis province, had been moved to a nearby army base, the local governor told the BBC.
He said the militants were moving “towards the centre of the city” and there was heavy fighting with government troops.
The Taliban gains come as the US, UK and allies withdraw after 20 years.
The vast majority of remaining foreign forces in Afghanistan have left ahead of an 11 September deadline, leaving the Afghan military in sole charge of security.
Local sources told the BBC the Taliban moved on the prison in Qala-e-Naw and freed about 400 inmates, including more than 100 of the group’s fighters.
Afghan forces guarding the prison are reported to have surrendered without a fight.
Governor Hisamudin Shams said he had seen the Taliban in the district of Qala-e-Naw where he lives, and the headquarters of the intelligence service had been set on fire.
But he denied reports the city had fallen to the Taliban, and said Afghan troops were defending it.
The governor told Reuters the militants attacked the city from three directions in the morning. Other local officials said there was panic among residents. Later in the day, officials said special forces had been deployed against Taliban fighters and air strikes were being carried out, the news agency reported.
The Taliban have seized dozens of districts in recent weeks and are now thought to control about a third of the country, making new gains on a daily basis. So far provincial capitals have remained under government control.
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 any extremist group to operate in the areas they control.
But the Taliban did not agree to stop fighting Afghan forces, whose ability to hold off the insurgents is being questioned.
Military officials in Kabul have talked about “tactical retreat” whenever insurgents make gains, but commanders in the battlefield have told the BBC about a lack of ammunition, and delays in sending support.
‘Seizing the initiative’
In a besieged north-west corner of this country, the storming of Qala-e-Naw seemed to mark an escalation, a frontal assault with fighters advancing in three directions.
The capture of a provincial capital, a strategic and psychological prize, would ring alarm bells at this sensitive time.
Dramatic Taliban advances in districts can be discounted by officials who speak of tactical retreats; their best forces will be tested when battles move to the cities.
Under the 2020 US-Taliban deal, the Taliban agreed to hold back from capitals as Nato’s military mission winds down. But local fighters seem to be seizing the initiative when they sense there’s a moment to exploit.
In the past, the Taliban have taken – but then quickly lost – capitals under the blistering firepower of US warplanes. The moment of reckoning approaches for the forces Nato has trained, with the assets it has given them.
Long-suffering civilians hold their breath, hoping against hope to avoid yet more pain in this punishing conflict.
Neighbouring countries are bracing themselves for a potential influx of refugees if the fighting continues to intensify.
The foreign minister of Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan, said the US had failed in Afghanistan and its presence had caused major damage to the country. Mohammad Javad Zarif was speaking in Tehran during a meeting between an Afghan delegation and representatives of the Taliban.
President Ashraf Ghani insists that Afghan security forces are fully capable of keeping insurgents at bay, but more than 1,000 Afghan troops have fled over the border to Tajikistan in recent days, and there have also been reports of more soldiers seeking refuge in Pakistan and Uzbekistan to escape the fighting.
Earlier in the week, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC that the group was 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. The Taliban, who have been accused of various human rights and cultural abuses, support 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.
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 been regaining territory in recent years.
The Taliban entered direct talks with the US 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.
Many observers question that claim.
On Tuesday it was reported that the US military left Bagram Airfield – its key base in Afghanistan – at night without notifying the Afghans.