Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban
The Taliban have captured a key district in their former bastion of Kandahar after fierce night-time fighting with Afghan government forces, officials said Sunday, sending scores of families fleeing from the area.
The insurgents have pressed on with their campaign to capture territory across Afghanistan’s rural areas since early May when the US military began its final pullout of troops from the violence-wracked country.
The fall of Panjwai district in the southern province of Kandahar comes just two days after US and NATO forces vacated their main Bagram Air Base near Kabul, from where they led operations for two decades against the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies.
Over the years, the Taliban and Afghan forces have regularly clashed in and around Panjwai, with the insurgents aiming to seize it given its proximity to Kandahar city, the provincial capital.
The leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, hails from Panjwai.
The province of Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban, who went on to rule Afghanistan with a harsh version of Islamic sharia law until being overthrown by a US-led invasion in 2001.
Panjwai district governor Hasti Mohammad said Afghan forces and the Taliban clashed during the night, resulting in government forces retreating from the area.
“The Taliban have captured the district police headquarters and governor’s office building,” he told AFP.
Kandahar provincial council head Sayed Jan Khakriwal confirmed the fall of Panjwai, but accused government forces of “intentionally withdrawing”.
Scores of families of Panjwai fled their homes after the Taliban captured the district, an AFP correspondent reported.
“The Taliban fired on our car as I was fleeing with my family. At least five bullets hit my car,” Giran, a resident of Panjwai told AFP as he took refuge in Kandahar city.
“The Taliban are on top of the mountains and firing at any moving vehicles. The Taliban don’t want peace.”
Assadullah, a commander of border police in the area, said it was only the police force that was fighting against the insurgents.
“The army and the commandos who have better military equipment are not fighting at all,” he said.
Panjwai is the fifth district in Kandahar province to fall to the insurgents in recent weeks.
Fighting has raged across several provinces of Afghanistan and the Taliban claim to have seized more than 100 out of nearly 400 districts in the country.
Afghan officials dispute the claims but acknowledge that government troops have retreated from some districts. It is difficult to independently verify the situation.
The exit of foreign troops from Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, has fuelled concerns the insurgents will ramp up their campaign to capture new territory.
Bagram Air Base has great military and symbolic significance, with foreign forces previously stationed there offering vital air support in the fight against the insurgents.
Experts say that one of the main reasons for government forces to lose dozens of districts is the lack of US air support in recent weeks.
Afghan authorities who have taken control of Bagram Air Base say they will use it to fight terrorism, and have already re-activated its radar system.