Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents advanced to the gates of a northern province on Sunday and seized several districts after mounting attacks across the country at the weekend.
The Taliban were fighting on edges of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, after seven of its districts fell to the militants, witnesses told The National.
“We have received many severely injured security officials as well as civilians with minor injuries in the clinics in the last 48 hours,” said Dr Abdul Qadir Kiskin, a doctor in Faizabad.
Foreign troops withdrew from their main Afghan base on Friday.
“The situation is very bad in Faizabad; they [Taliban] are near the gates already,” said Mohammad Aman, 32, a development professional working with an international NGO.
He said he was speaking from Faizabad’s airport, where he was waiting to board a UN-chartered flight out of the city.
“Most of the officials and parliamentarians have already escaped,” he said. “We are trying to leave too.”
A video circulating on Afghan social media showed a group boarding an aircraft in Faizabad as a voice criticises local officials for abandoning their people.
“Friends! The people you are seeing are the provincial council members. They are all MPs, commanders, politicians, scholars, directors and civil servants, who are running away. They are all fleeing, leaving Badakhshan in the hands of whom?” a man’s voice is heard to say.
“Why are you leaving the people? Where are you going? Isn’t your home here?” he shouts as people board the plane.
The Badakhshan governor, Ahmad Bashir Samim, issued a statement on social media in which he denied that officials had abandoned the province. He said that those who left were going to Kabul for medical treatment or on personal matters.
“I assure the residents of Faizabad that everything is fine and get back to your normal lives. The security forces are there to protect you,” he said, without mentioning the fall of districts to the Taliban.
Dr Kiskin confirmed that officials were leaving, some of whom were seeking treatment in Kabul.
“It is true that a lot of government officials are leaving including the MPs and the police chief left who were infected with Covid,” he said.
But some security officials had resigned before they left, he said, suggesting that they were unlikely to return soon.
“People are very angry at the officials who left. Some even tried to forcefully enter the airport and get into the flight,” he said.
The Taliban advances come as US and foreign forces leave the country after nearly 20 years of fighting the fanatical militants and helping the government maintain control.
The militants stepped up their attacks after US President Joe Biden announced in April that the US withdrawal would be completed by September 11.
Several key districts in southern Afghanistan fell to the insurgents on Sunday, including Panjwai in Kandahar. The province was a Taliban stronghold in the late 1990s and had a significant presence of Canadian troops after the US-led invasion toppled their regime in 2001.
A security source in the province said the district fell after a week of resisting the militants.
“We had been surrounded by their fighters for almost seven days. But we did not get any support from the central and as a result we lost the district,” the officer told The National.
The Afghan defence ministry said the military had been conducting air strikes in the district, without confirming whether it had fallen.
“Fifty Taliban terrorists were killed when their hideouts were targeted in Panjwai on Saturday,” spokesman Fawad Aman said.
Jawed, a farmer from Panjwai, said the militants had taken control after days of fighting that forced families to flee the area.
“We were forced to leave our homes yesterday. Taliban have taken over the district and there is still fighting ongoing. We were also caught in the crossfire while escaping, and there is a lot of panic and chaos right now,” Mr Jawed, 29, told The National.
“The district governor’s office was evacuated and the office of the district police chief was surrounded by the Taliban.”
Mr Jawed, who grows grapes, said the Taliban had prevented the farmers from harvesting the fruit and had planted explosives in many of the farms to attack Afghan forces nearby.
“For the people of Panjwai, now is time to harvest their grapes to make money that will support us in the coming months. But we haven’t been able to water our crops. We couldn’t even enter the fields,” he said.
“We beg the Taliban and the government, all we are asking is to allow us to go back to our homes and farms and live a normal life.”