Taliban within miles of Kabul

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PESHAWAR: The Taliban were within miles of Kabul on Friday after seizing control of five more provinces and capturing veteran militia commander Ismail Khan along with his top military commanders and government officials.

The Taliban made enormous gains on Thursday and captured strategically important provinces, including Kandahar, Helmand and Herat and seized control of the provincial headquarters on Friday.

Taliban said they had captured five more provinces on Friday, including Badghis, Ghor, Uruzgan, Zabul and Logar. According to Taliban, they had so far captured 18 of 34 provinces, including, Nimroz, Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pul, Takhar, Kunduz, Kandahar, Samangan, Farah, Baghlan, Ghazni, Herat, Badghis, Kandahar, Helmand, Ghor, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Logar.

Unlike other provinces, Taliban faced a tough resistance from the Afghan security forces in Kandahar and Helmand. Public and private properties were damaged during the clashes. In most of the remaining provinces, the Taliban didn’t require any major fight or suffer losses and were in control of important government and military installations, including the highly-secured airports and airbases.

The Taliban released a video of the airbase in Sheendand in Herat where they got hold of hundreds of tanks, pick-up trucks and huge arms and ammunition. In Kunduz, the Taliban took control of eight modern drones that were used to fire missiles and target their positions.

In Herat, stated to be Afghanistan’s third largest city, the Taliban captured a prominent militia commander, Ismail Khan. Until now it was believed that Ismail Khan and hundreds of his men had taken positions to resist the Taliban and prevent Herat from falling.

However, the Taliban Friday released pictures of Ismail Khan sitting among them. The media initially reported that the Taliban captured Ismail Khan and his senior commanders while trying to escape from Herat.

According to senior Taliban members, they were in contact with Ismail Khan and people close to him for some time and they had assured them that they would surrender and join them whenever they wanted.

“The Taliban would have killed him and his men if he had tried to escape without striking a deal with them. Besides Ismail Khan, we are in contact with many other governors, senior officials in the government, military and police and they are waiting for our call,” said one Taliban commander on condition of anonymity in Ghazni province.

Ismail Khan is known as the ‘Lion of Herat’ and was almost a ruler of his native Herat province. In the past, the Taliban had captured and jailed him when they were in power in Afghanistan, but he managed to escape. Later, he joined the Afghan government and fought against the Taliban.

Meanwhile, there were media reports that the Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh had escaped to Tajikistan after the Taliban advance towards Kabul. Amrullah Saleh left Kabul on Friday and went to Tajikistan to take refuge. A video message from the Afghan vice president was likely to be released soon.

In a related development, former ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal Friday blamed Ashraf Ghani for the country's "rapid collapse" as the Taliban continue to make swift advances and conquer more territory. In a series of tweets, Zakhilwal blamed Ashraf Ghani's misuse of authority, and rampant corruption for reducing the Afghan state to "personal fiefdom".

The former ambassador lashed out at the Afghan president, saying that he had spent years on promoting his image as the "greatest leader" Afghanistan ever had and the "second-most intellectual person in the world".

He said due to Ghani's self-promotion, the Afghan security forces today were unsure whether they were fighting to protect the state or to ensure Ghani stays in power for another term. "The fall of dozens of districts and provincial capitals to Taliban across Afghanistan every week without much of a fight lately is largely resulted of that confusion [sic]," he continued.

Zakhilwal pointed out that a peace settlement was not possible with Ghani as the president, considering he was mainly responsible for the Afghanistan ceding more territory to opposition forces.

Meanwhile, the United States and Britain deployed thousands of troops to evacuate their citizens from capital Kabul. In a related development, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace Friday criticised the US decision to leave Afghanistan as a “mistake” that had handed the Taliban “momentum”.

Speaking to Sky News, Ben Wallace warned that “the international community will probably pay the consequences” and said he was worried al-Qaida would regain a base in Afghanistan. Wallace said the withdrawal agreement negotiated in Doha, Qatar, by the Trump administration was a “rotten deal” which the UK tried to resist.

He said the UK had no choice but to pull troops out, because the international community had to act together. “When the United States as the framework nation took that decision, the way we were all configured meant that we had to leave,” Wallace said.

Asked how big a mistake it was to withdraw troops, Wallace said: “At the time of the Trump deal with, obviously the Taliban, I felt that was a mistake to have done it that way. We will all, in the international community probably pay the consequences of that.”

Nato was also set to hold an urgent meeting later on Friday about the deteriorating situation, diplomatic and official sources told AFP. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will lead discussions with envoys from the 30 allies, with one source saying it would focus on evacuation planning.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Friday said it was closely monitoring the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan. “We are deeply concerned over the rapidly deteriorating security situation as well as lack of progress in the Afghan peace process,” said the spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri while speaking at the weekly media briefing in Islamabad.

“At this critical juncture, it is critical for the international community to redouble their efforts to revive the stalled peace process to achieve an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement”, said the spokesman.

He said Pakistan will continue to support the Afghan peace process with a view to achieving a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan at peace with itself and with its neighbours. The spokesman said India always played the role of a ‘spoiler’ in the ongoing Afghan peace process. They have always supported a military solution over a negotiated political settlement, and used the Afghan soil for sponsoring terrorist activities in Pakistan.

“On the issue of use of Afghan soil by anti-Pakistan elements, last year we presented a comprehensive dossier in which we presented irrefutable evidence of India’s active planning, promoting, aiding, abetting, financing and execution of terrorist activities in Pakistan. We have also recently exposed the Indian hand in the terrorist attack in Lahore. More recently, we have presented concrete evidence regarding the involvement of RAW-NDS nexus in the Dasu terrorist incident”, he added. Such activities make India culpable under the international law, UN sanctions regime, and international counter-terrorism conventions.

“We have been consistently sharing the evidence with the international community, and will continue to use all relevant forums including the United Nations (UN) to not only expose India, but to also hold it accountable to perpetrating state-sponsored terrorism against Pakistan”, he said.

To a query on the Extended Troika Meeting, the spokesman said it was decided that there was a need for urgent measures to reduce violence leading to a ceasefire, there was no military solution to the Afghan conflict, the Afghan sides should put forward their peace plans on priority basis so that progress is made towards a political roadmap, and there is a need for all sides to respect human rights and not indulge in human rights violations.

“Pakistan attaches great importance to the role of Extended Troika for bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan. Pakistan will continue to engage in this platform to undertake collective efforts to expedite the peace process”, said the spokesman.

Earlier in a statement, the spokesman said Islamabad considered Washington a friend and wants broad-based relations to achieve the shared objective of peace and prosperity in the region and beyond.

“We have repeatedly stated that neither should Pakistan be looked at through the prism of another country, nor should our relations be viewed narrowly. “We want to build long-term, broad-based, comprehensive and mutually beneficial partnerships rather than having transactional relations”, said the spokesman.

The spokesman said he was responding to a statement (which had been attributed to Prime Minister Imran Khan) in which he said “the US considers Pakistan good only to clear the mess in Afghanistan”.

Khan had been speaking to the international media. “Pakistan will take all such decisions and pursue policies that are in our national interest and contribute to peace and prosperity in the region and beyond. Pakistan and the United States have a history of close cooperative relations it was pointed out and this cooperative relationship has served the interests of both the countries. We have convergence of views and interests on a number of key issues including the ongoing Afghan Peace Process. We both believe that there’s no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and we both want to see peace in Afghanistan”, added the Foreign Office.

Both Pakistan and the United States support an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement in Afghanistan through a process that is owned and led by Afghan themselves.

As for the withdrawal of US and Nato forces, Pakistan has always underscored the need for responsible and orderly withdrawal, so that there is no security vacuum in Afghanistan that can be exploited by any spoilers, and well as international terrorist outfits. We have also emphasized that the withdrawal of foreign troops must coincide with the progress in the peace process.

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