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Taliban take control of Herat in major victory

August 12, 2021

The Taliban have seized Afghanistan's third-largest city, according to several reports citing Afghan officials. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says Berlin will pull all aid if the Islamists take over.

Afghan security forces fighting against the Taliban
The Afghan security forces are struggling against a rapidly advancing TalibanImage: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images

The fundamentalist Taliban reportedly captured the western Afghan city of Herat on Thursday, the country's third largest city.

The US State Department said Thursday that it is drawing down diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan due to the escalated fighting, and sending additional troops to Kabul to help pull out embassy staff.

The UK government also said Thursday it would send troops to Afghanistan to help embassy staff leave the country.

What do we know about Herat's capture?

Local Herat politicians told news agency dpa that the militants took control of the city's police headquarters, governor's office and city jail.

A senior security source told French news agency AFP that Afghan government forces pulled out of the city "to prevent further destruction."

Herat, the home of an international airport, has strategic roads connecting the city with regional neighbors Iran and Turkmenistan.

If confirmed, the capture of Herat makes it the eleventh provincial capital to fall to the insurgents in the past week.

Heavy fighting is also taking place in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city in the southern part of the country. Some reports suggest Kandahar is on the verge of falling to the Taliban, along with the capital of the southern Helmand province, Lashgarkah.

Taliban closing in on Kabul

The Taliban seized the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni on Thursday — just 150 kilometers (95 miles) from the capital, Kabul — according to multiple sources. It provides the militants with a route to the capital from their strongholds in the south.

In Ghazni, the militants seized key government offices, including that of the governor's office and the police headquarters. They also broke into the province's central prison, local officials told the DPA news agency.

The Taliban posted videos and photos online that showed distinguishing features of the city, purporting to show that they were inside.

Government forces were still said to be in control of the city's intelligence headquarters. The militants had already been holding two of Ghazni's police districts since around mid-July. 

Ghazni has an estimated 180,000 inhabitants and sits on an important ring highway that connects the country's largest cities.

Cities fall in quick succession

US defense officials have said the Taliban could isolate Kabul within 30 days and possibly overrun it within 90 days.

The insurgents now control more than a quarter of provincial capitals in Afghanistan, having made rapid territorial gains as the US and its allies withdraw ahead of a September deadline.

Thousands of families have now fled from the provinces to escape violence, hoping to find refuge in Kabul.

A UN spokesperson said Thursday that a Taliban offensive in Kabul would have a "catastrophic impact on civilians."

Afghan government forces have collapsed even more rapidly than thought possible just a few months ago when US President Joe Biden ordered a full withdrawal.

Afghanistan: The resurgent Taliban

The Taliban's success has fueled Western fears that the Islamists could come to power by force rather than through long-stalled peace talks aimed at establishing a more moderate interim administration. 

German General Egon Ramms, former commander of the NATO joint forces in Afghanistan, told DW he was astonished at the failure of the Afghan army in defending against the Taliban.

"We have trained the Afghan army and the Americans in particular have equipped them quite well," said Ramms. "There must be something wrong with the leadership of the Afghan national army."

"I expected that they would be able to fight against the Taliban and that they at least would have a good possibility to oppose them in a way that they could not move forward that quickly."

Afghan official warns of new terror threat to Europe

Ahmad Shuja Jamal, the head of international affairs and regional cooperation at the National Security Council of Afghanistan, told DW Thursday that the gains made by the Taliban are a terrorism threat to Europe.

He alleged that members of various terrorist groups from neighboring countries are fighting alongside the Taliban and warned "extremism is going to spread into Europe."

"All of those countries are going to be affected should they continue to succeed in this country," he said, referring to the Taliban's advances. "So this is not just about Afghanistan and our people in our form of government. It's also about the neighborhood and the world."

New power-sharing terms?

Afghan government negotiators in Qatar are reported to have offered the Taliban a power-sharing deal.

"Yes, the government has submitted a proposal to Qatar as mediator. The proposal allows the Taliban to share power in return for a halt in violence in the country," a source told the AFP news agency.

It remains unclear to what extent the power-sharing offer might differ from the terms already discussed between the Taliban and Kabul in Qatar.

A joint statement after the Doha conference on Thursday from the US, UK, Russia, China and other countries "reaffirmed that they will not recognize any government in Afghanistan that is imposed through the use of military force."

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Taliban would face "isolation" in the international community if take complete control of the country through violence. He has encouraged the Taliban and Afghan government to come together on an inclusive political settlement.

A Taliban spokesperson told Qatari outlet Al Jazeera that the group "will not close the door to the political track." 

Germany ponders future aid

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has said his country will pull all financial support for Afghanistan if the Taliban take over and introduce Sharia law. 

 "We give €430 million euros every year," said Maas. "We will not give a penny more to Afghanistan if the Taliban have completely taken over this country, introduce Sharia law and this country becomes a caliphate," he told ZDF television on Thursday.

The withdrawal of the German military from the country was a consequence of the withdrawal of the US, Maas stressed.

Without US forces and wider NATO engagement, Maas said there was no point in military engagement in the country.

However, he maintained that the deployment of the Bundeswehr and its international partners in Afghanistan had been beneficial in numerous areas.

He pointed, for example, to an increase in life expectancy, lower infant mortality and higher average income. "This must be maintained," said Maas.

France joins Germany in halting Afghanistan deportations

Maas confirmed that Germany would suspend deportations to Afghanistan until at least August 31 in the face of the deterioration of the security situation.

His comments mark a softening in the German government's stance.

Just a week ago, Berlin co-signed a letter from five EU member states to the European Commission calling for the return flights to continue.

"Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU," the letter said, which was also signed by Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Greece.

The Netherlands has since said it will suspend the deportation of Afghan nationals, while France on Thursday confirmed that it has banned returns from early July.

The latest developments come as Germany’s foreign ministry told all German nationals to leave the country.

It said the deteriorating security situation meant they should leave as soon as possible.

No evacuation flights are planned as yet, officials said.

Similar warnings were issued by the US and the UK in recent days.

wd, jf, rc/wmr (AFP, Reuters)