Taliban fighters seized control on Thursday of a key district in western Afghanistan that includes a major border crossing with Iran, according to Afghan security officials, as the militia continued their rapid military advances around the country.
Pitched battles between Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces were also under way in the northern Balkh province bordering Uzbekistan.
In the last week, the Taliban have overrun areas bordering five countries — Pakistan, China, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — as foreign forces end their two-decade intervention and the domestic security situation deteriorates.
Two senior security officials said the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, located in Herat province, had fallen to the Taliban and that Afghan security and customs officials had fled across the border.
Al Alalam TV, Iran’s official Arabic language service, also reported that Afghan soldiers had entered Iranian territory via the border crossing to escape the Taliban.
Another security official said Taliban fighters had seized five districts in Herat without a fight. Earlier this week, more than 1,000 security personnel fled into Tajikistan as the Taliban’s captured most of the northern province of Badakhshan.
Clashes in western province
The defense ministry said Afghan government forces earlier on Thursday wrested back control of Qala-i-Naw, capital of the western province of Badghis, which had been stormed by Taliban on Wednesday.
Hundreds of troops were deployed to the region, the ministry said, adding that fighting was continuing on the fringes of Qala-i-Naw, where Taliban had earlier seized key government buildings, including police headquarters.
“The city is fully (back) under our control and we are conducting operations against the Taliban on the outskirts of the city,” defense ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said.
The ministry said 69 Taliban fighters were killed in operations on the edge of Qala-i-Naw – the first major provincial capital entered by the militia in its latest offensive.
The Taliban have been gaining territory for weeks, but accelerated their thrust as the United States vacated its main Afghan base, effectively ending an intervention that began with the ousting of the Taliban’s government in 2001.
Western security officials say the Taliban have captured more than 100 districts in Afghanistan. The Taliban say they hold over 200 districts in 34 provinces comprising over half the country. Major cities remain under government control.
Taliban advances have been especially dramatic in northern provinces where they had long been kept at bay.
Stop-start peace talks between the government and Taliban remained inconclusive. Taliban delegations visited Iran on Wednesday and were in Moscow on Thursday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Thursday that most British troops have left Afghanistan, almost 20 years after the UK and other Western countries sent troops into the country to engage in what they described as a war on terror.
Johnson stressed that the threat posed by Al Qaeda to the UK has substantially diminished, but he sidestepped questions about whether the hasty military exodus by his country and its Nato allies risks undoing the work of nearly two decades or leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to the Taliban, who have made rapid advances in many northern districts.
The prime minister declined to give details about the troop withdrawal, citing security reasons. But he said that all British troops assigned to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan are now returning home, adding that most of our personnel have already left. Most US and European troops have also pulled out in recent weeks.
“We must be realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events. It will take combined efforts of many nations, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, to help the Afghan people to build their future,” Johnson said.