UN warns of gruelling Sarajevo-style urban war in Afghanistan

Envoy predicts ‘deadlier and more destructive’ phase of conflict as insurgents take Zaranj city

Afghan security officials patrol after they took back control of parts of Herat city following an intense battle with the Taliban in Herat. EPA
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Taliban attacks on towns and cities are dragging Afghanistan into a “deadlier and more destructive” phase of urban warfare resembling the bloodiest days of fighting in Syria and the Balkans, UN official Deborah Lyons warned on Friday.

Ms Lyons, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, addressed the UN Security Council as the hardline insurgents made blitzkrieg gains against the embattled government, including the reported seizure of Zaranj, the capital city of Nimruz province.

“The war in Afghanistan has entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase,” Ms Lyons said.

The Taliban made “significant territorial gains” in rural areas these past two months and now threaten the provincial capitals of Kandahar, Herat, and Lashkar Gah and are putting the northern city of Shebergan under pressure, she added.

“This is a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not so distant past,” Ms Lyons said.

“To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties.”

Afghanistan will likely see more of the urban fighting, mass civilian casualties and pitched street battles that were seen during the siege of Sarajevo during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and in Syria's towns and cities this past decade, Ms Lyons said.

Diplomats met in New York against a backdrop of worsening bloodshed across Afghanistan.

The insurgents have taken dozens of districts and border crossings in recent months and put pressure on several provincial capitals as the US and allied forces pulled out of a war that started soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Taliban fighters on Friday shot dead the head of the Afghan government's media information centre, Dawa Khan Menapal, near a mosque in the capital, Kabul.

The insurgents had earlier warned they would target senior administration figures in retaliation for increased airstrikes.

Fighting has intensified since May when foreign forces began the final stage of a withdrawal due to be completed this month.

Government forces continue to hit Taliban positions with airstrikes and commando raids, and the defence ministry boasted on Friday of eliminating more than 400 insurgents in the past 24 hours. Both sides frequently exaggerate their battlefield successes.

Still, security forces have yet to flush out the militants from provincial capitals they have already entered.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee in recent weeks.

Social media was filled with videos of the devastating toll the fighting has taken in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, with posts showing a major market area in flames.

In the western city of Herat, streams of people were leaving their homes in anticipation of a government assault on Taliban-held positions.

Ms Lyons said the Taliban could be pressured by again banning its negotiators from travelling to peace talks with government officials taking place in Doha. The council will review its Afghanistan mandate next month.

Central Asian leaders sounded the alarm over the spiralling war next door at a summit in the Turkmenistan resort town of Avaza on Friday.

In a joint declaration, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan pledged to "provide all possible assistance" towards achieving peace in Afghanistan.

Updated: August 06, 2021, 3:53 PM