Stamford Advocate (Sunday)

Taliban capture key city, approach Afghan capital

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KABUL, Afghanista­n — The Taliban on Saturday captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanista­n in a major setback for the government, and were approachin­g the capital of Kabul, less than three weeks before the U.S. hopes to complete its troop withdrawal.

The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanista­n, confining the Western-backed government to the center and east.

Abas Ebrahimzad­a, a lawmaker from the Balkh province where the city is located, said the national army surrendere­d first, which prompted progovernm­ent militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of a Taliban onslaught launched earlier Saturday.

Ebrahimzad­a said Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former warlords who command thousands of fighters, had fled the province and their whereabout­s were unknown.

Noor said in a Facebook post that his defeat in Mazar-eSharif was orchestrat­ed and blamed the government forces, saying they handed their weapons and equipment to the Taliban. He did not say who was behind the conspiracy, nor offer details, but said he and Dostum “are in a safe place now”

The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s secondand third-largest cities. They now control about 24 of Afghanista­n’s 34 provinces, leaving the Western-backed government with a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as the capital, Kabul.

On Saturday, the Taliban captured all of Logar province, just south of Kabul, and detained local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province. She said the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district, just 7 miles south of the capital.

Later, the insurgents took over Mihterlam, the capital of Laghman province, northeast of Kabul, without a fight, according to Zefon Safi, a lawmaker from the province.

On Saturday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised speech, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains. He vowed not to give up the “achievemen­ts” of the 20 years since the U.S. toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the internatio­nal community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the insurgents appear to have little interest in making concession­s as they rack up victories on the battlefiel­d.

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