Afghan forces battle Taliban fighters in effort to retake Pakistan border crossing

Tensions grow between Kabul and Islamabad over Pakistan's alleged support of the Taliban

An Afghan security forces member keeps watch as he sits in an army vehicle in Bagram
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Afghan forces clashed with Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak on Friday after launching an operation to retake the key border crossing with Pakistan, as regional capitals stepped up efforts to get the warring sides talking.

Dozens of wounded Taliban fighters were being treated at a Pakistan hospital near the border after fierce overnight fighting, AFP reported.

“We have suffered one death and dozens of our fighters have got injured,” Mullah Muhammad Hassan, who said he was a Taliban insurgent, told AFP near Chapman in Pakistan, about five kilometres from the border.

The fight for the border comes during a war of words between the Kabul government and Islamabad after the Afghan vice president accused the Pakistani military of providing “close air support to Taliban in certain areas".

Pakistan strongly denied the claim, with a foreign ministry statement saying the country “took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population".

“We acknowledge the Afghan government's right to undertake actions on its sovereign territory,” the ministry said.

Residents of Spin Boldak, which fell to the Taliban on Wednesday, said the Taliban and army were battling in the main bazaar of the border town.

“There is heavy fighting,” Mohammad Zahir said.

One casualty of the fighting was Reuters' Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian journalist Danish Seddiqi, who is embedded with the Afghan troops.

The border crossing provides direct access to Pakistan's Balochistan province, where the Taliban's top leadership has been based for decades, along with an unknown number of reserve fighters who regularly enter Afghanistan to help bolster the group's ranks.

As fighting continued, Pakistan said on Thursday it would hold a special conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad at the weekend, although Taliban officials had not been invited.

There were signs too that official talks in Doha – which have stalled for months – could be revived.

An aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told local media his government had asked for the Islamabad conference to be postponed because negotiators were already heading to Qatar.

The Taliban have capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country, capturing several districts and border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals.

Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades after the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

They have appeared largely out of the picture in recent months, but fears are growing that government forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide.

The speed and scale of the Taliban onslaught caught many by surprise, with analysts saying it appears aimed at forcing the government to sue for peace on the insurgents' terms or suffer complete military defeat.

An Afghan official said on Thursday that a local ceasefire with Taliban leaders had been negotiated for Qala-i-Naw, the Badghis provincial capital where there was fierce street fighting last week.

“The ceasefire was brokered by tribal elders,” Badghis governor Hesamuddin Shams told AFP.

Updated: July 16, 2021, 8:11 AM