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Afghan soldiers prepare for last stand and UK troops head to Kabul

Taliban tightens noose on Afghanistan: Afghan soldiers prepare for last stand in Kabul and UK troops are on their way to evacuate Britons as militants move within 25 miles of capital and close in on last major city in the north

  • The last major city in the north of Afghanistan Mazar-e-Sharif is under attack from the Taliban  
  • British Government has said 600 troops will be sent in to support evacuation of Brits and former Afghan staff 
  • Taliban continue to sweep eastwards towards Kabul after taking Afghanistan’s third most populous city, Herat

The Taliban has closed in on the last major city in the north with fighters just 25 miles from Kabul as UK troops head to the capital to evacuate Britons.

Taliban fighters seized a province just south of Afghanistan’s capital and launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-e-Sharif, a major city in the north defended by powerful former warlords, today.

Homa Ahmadi, a politician from Logar, says the Taliban control the entire province, including its capital, and reached a district in the neighboring Kabul province on Saturday. 

The Taliban have also captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan less than three weeks before the United States is set to withdraw its last troops.

Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor in northern Balkh province, meanwhile said the Taliban attacked the city of Mazar-e-Sharif from several directions, setting off heavy fighting on its outskirts. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had flown to Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defences, meeting with several militia commanders allied with the government.

The Taliban captured much of southern Afghanistan in recent days in a rapid offensive that has raised fears of a full takeover. Their lightning advance has left the Western-backed government in control of a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Foreign forces’ withdrawal and the swift retreat of Afghanistan’s own troops — despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years — has raised fears the Taliban could return to power or the country could be plunged into civil war.

The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived on Friday to help partially evacuate the US Embassy. The rest are set to arrive by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its August 31 withdrawal deadline.

And 600 British troops will land in Kabul today to to evacuate Britons. Boris Johnson said last night there ‘isn’t a military solution’ to be had in Afghanistan.

Plumes of smoke rise into the sky after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan, southwest of Kabul

Taliban fighters stand guard inside the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday

The Taliban have completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday, as they took four more provincial capitals

Taliban fighters seized a province just south of Afghanistan’s capital and launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-e-Sharif, a major city in the north defended by powerful former warlords, today. Pictured: Militants loyal to warlord Ata Mohammad Noor in Mazar-e-Sharif

Some of the 600 soldiers headed to Kabul to evacuate Britons are pictured on a military transport headed to Kabul 

Pakistani soldiers stand guard as stranded Afghan nationals return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman today

Aug. 6 – ZARANJ – The Taliban take over the city in Nimroz province in the south, the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgents since they stepped up attacks on Afghan forces in early May.

Aug. 7 – SHEBERGHAN – The Taliban declare they have captured the entire northern province of Jawzjan, including its capital Sheberghan. Heavy fighting is reported in the city, and government buildings are taken over by the insurgents. Afghan security forces say they are still fighting there.

Aug. 8 – SAR-E-PUL – The insurgents take control of Sar-e-Pul, capital of the northern province of the same name. It is the first of three provincial centres to fall on the same day.

Aug. 8 – KUNDUZ – Taliban fighters seize control of the northern city of 270,000 people, regarded as a strategic prize as it lies at the gateway to mineral-rich northern provinces and Central Asia. Government forces say they are resisting the insurgents from an army base and the airport.

Aug. 8 – TALOQAN – The capital of Takhar province, also in the north, falls to the Taliban in the evening. They free prisoners and force government officials to flee.

Aug. 9 – AYBAK – The capital of the northern province of Samangan is overrun by Taliban fighters.

Aug. 10 – PUL-E-KHUMRI – The capital of the central province of Baghlan falls to the Taliban, according to residents.

Aug. 11 – FAIZABAD – The capital of the northeastern province of Badakhshan is under Taliban control, a provincial council member says.

Aug. 12 – GHAZNI – The insurgents take over the city, capital of the province of the same name, a senior security officer says.

Aug. 12 – FIRUS KOH – The capital of Ghor province, was handed over to the Taliban on Thursday night without a fight, security officials said.

Aug. 12 – QALA-E-NAW – The Taliban have captured the capital of the northwestern province of Badghis, a security official and the Taliban said.

Aug. 12 – KANDAHAR – The Taliban have captured Afghanistan’s second biggest city of Kandahar, government officials and the Taliban said.

Aug. 13 – LASHKAR GAH – The Taliban have captured the capital of the southern province of Helmand, police said.

Aug. 13 – HERAT – Capital of Herat province in the west was under Taliban control after days of clashes, a provincial council member said.

Aug. 13 – POL-E ALAM – Taliban captured provincial capital of Logar, 30 miles south of Kabul 

Aug. 14 – MAZAR-E-SHARIF – Insurgents launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-e-Sharif, a major city in the north defended by powerful former warlords, today

The Taliban meanwhile released a video in which an unnamed insurgent announced the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, which fell to the insurgents earlier this week.

The station has been renamed the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law. He said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. It appears the station will no longer play music.

It was not clear if the Taliban had purged the previous employees or allowed them to return to work. Most residents of Kandahar sport the traditional dress favored by the Taliban. The man in the video congratulated the people of Kandahar on the Taliban’s victory.

The Taliban have operated mobile radio stations over the years, but have not operated a station inside a major city since they ruled the country from 1996-2001. At that time, they also ran a station called Voice of Sharia out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the militant group. Music was banned.

It comes after the Taliban was accuse of tarring men accused of theft and parading them around the streets of newly-captured city Herat with fears that Kabul could fall within days or weeks sparking increasingly urgent evacuation efforts by British and American soldiers. 

The pictures shared by Afghan journalist Bilal Sarway show men tarred in black with nooses around their necks being dragged through the streets by armed gunmen, were shared online in the wake of the Taliban seizing control of Herat on Thursday. 

With the 20th anniversary to 9/11 looming, Afghanistan risks falling to the Taliban after the militant group seized control of two thirds of the nation following the prolonged withdrawal of US and UK troops.

Some reports have claimed that the Taliban is as little as 50 miles from Kabul, but the Pentagon yesterday held a press conference insisting that the Afghan capital is not in immediate danger of falling. 

The blitz through Afghanistan’s southern heartland means the insurgents now hold half of the country’s 34 provincial capitals and control more than two-thirds of the nation. 

US President Joe Biden, whose announcement of a 31 August withdrawal appears to have led to the collapse of the Afghan National Army is spending a long weekend at Camp David.   

Taliban commanders have ‘vowed to enter Kabul like a roaring lion’ as their rampage towards the strategic stronghold, and capital of the country, continues.

The Times reports one senior figure saying: ‘We will enter Kabul like a roaring lion soon, God willing, hopefully within this month and wrap up the American puppets who are already in a state of fear.

‘Their silence on our triumphs in the south and west speaks for itself and they are hiding like cowards.’

Boris Johnson said on Thursday night that it is not ‘realistic’ to expect outside powers to impose a ‘combat solution’ on Afghanistan as the Taliban’s surging advance closes on Kabul and British and US troops start to arrive to evacuate Westerners. 

The Prime Minister said: ‘There isn’t a military solution. Thanks to the efforts of the UK armed services and all the sacrifices they made we have seen no al Qaida attacks against the West for a very long time.’

‘I think we have got to be realistic about the power of the UK or any power to impose a military solution — a combat solution — in Afghanistan.’

He spoke after the Taliban seized large swathes of Helmand province , where hundreds of UK troops died over more than a decade of fighting that has seen 454 UK personnel killed since 9/11.  

‘What we certainly can do is work with all our partners in the region around the world who share an interest with us in preventing Afghanistan once again becoming a breeding ground for terror.’  

After a week of intense fighting saw the Taliban seize control of swathes of the country, the Prime Minister said the UK can be ‘extremely proud’ of its role in the last 20 years.

But after leading a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee yesterday, Mr Johnson insisted there was no military solution to the deteriorating security situation.  

And he denied that the sacrifices made by British forces in Afghanistan had been in vain.

‘I don’t think that it was in vain. If you look back at what has happened over the last 20 years there was a massive effort to deal with a particular problem that everybody will remember after 9/11,’ he said.

‘That was successful. To a very large extent the threat from al Qaida on the streets of our capital, around the UK, around the whole of the West was greatly, greatly reduced.

‘I believe it was right, it was worth it and what we must do now is not turn our backs on Afghanistan.’

Some 600 troops are due to deploy to Kabul to evacuate British nationals as a mass exodus begins to escape the ravages of the hardliners.  

He finally addressed the situation after fierce criticism from Labour and even his own MPs over his silence on the issue. 

The pictures, which show men tarred in black with nooses around their necks being dragged through the streets by armed gunmen, were shared online in the wake of the Taliban seizing control of Herat, Afghanistan on Thursday

The men pictured above are purportedly accused of theft, and have been tarred in black and dragged through the streets by armed Taliban sympathisers 

The armed insurgents celebrated in the streets of Afghanistan’s third most populous city, Herat, as the Taliban continue their march eastwards towards Kabul

UN begs Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep borders open 

The United Nations begged on Friday for neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to allow people to escape the Taliban, and U.N. agencies warned of a growing humanitarian catastrophe amid spreading hunger.

The plea comes as hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conduct commonplace public executions. 

Pictures from Friday showed fleeing Afghans entering neighbouring Pakistan after the country re-opened its Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing for people who had been otherwise stranded in recent weeks. 

The crossing is a major gateway between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is reported to be under Taliban control.

Juma Khan, the border town’s deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban.

The decision to open the border was made after the United Nations refugee agency called on Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep crossings open as the crisis intensifies.

‘An inability to seek safety may risk innumerable civilian lives. UNHCR stands ready to help national authorities scale up humanitarian responses as needed,’ a spokesperson for the agency told a briefing in Geneva.

The World Food Programme sees food shortages in Afghanistan as ‘quite dire’ and worsening, a spokesperson added, saying the situation had all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe. 

As Western embassies prepare to send in troops to help evacuate staff, the United Nations said its 320 staff members would remain.

‘We fear the worst is yet to come and the larger tide of hunger is fast approaching… The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe,’ the World Food Programme’s Thomson Phiri told a U.N. briefing.

More than 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since May, 80 percent of them women and children, the U.N. refugee agency’s Shabia Mantoo said.

Many reported extortion by armed groups on the way and having to dodge improvised explosive devices along major roads.

Thousands of people are rushing from rural areas to the capital Kabul and other urban centres in search of shelter, another U.N. official said.

‘They are sleeping in the open, in parks and public spaces,’ Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. ‘A major concern right now is simply finding shelter for them.’

A World Health Organisation official reported a doubling of trauma cases in the last two to three months in the health facilities it supports. 

She also expressed concerns about shortages of medical supplies and said it was training medical staff on mass casualty management. 

Posting to his private Instagram account on Thursday, Sultan Ghani shared pictures of him walking across a runway to a private jet.

‘Moving from one crisis to the other as elegantly as I can’ his caption read, sparking outrage on social media.

‘While Afghanistan is burning & the ppl are suffering across the country because of his uncle’s disastrous leadership, posts these photos on his Instagram account,’ one user wrote on Twitter while sharing the images of the Sultan and his plane. 

The Taliban insurgency seized Lashkar Gah – the capital of the southern province of Helmand – on Friday, and two afghan lawmakers officials had surrendered the capital of Uruzgan province to the rapidly advancing Taliban.

On Thursday, the group took of Kandahar and Herat, marking the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long blitz

‘The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,’ provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi said of Kandahar via telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran.

‘Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.’

Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul. 

According to recent UN data, 400,000 people have fled their homes inside Afghanistan since the start of the year, with almost 300,000 of those fleeing since May as fighting between the government and Taliban stepped up.

The vast majority of those are still inside the country, the UN says, but with Islamist fighters making rapid gains in almost every region and government forces in retreat, many are looking to leave the country.  

The crisis worsened on Thursday as the Taliban continued its bloody advance, seizing control of Afghanistan’s second largest city Kandahar.

It now controls more than two-thirds of the country and is closing in on the capital Kabul.

Mr Johnson said it was not realistic to expect outside powers to impose a ‘combat solution’ on Afghanistan.

‘There isn’t a military solution. Thanks to the efforts of the UK armed services and all the sacrifices they made, we have seen no al-Qaeda attacks against the West for a very long time,’ he said.

‘I think we have got to be realistic about the power of the UK or any power to impose a military solution, a combat solution, in Afghanistan. What we certainly can do is work with all our partners in the region around the world who share an interest with us in preventing Afghanistan once again becoming a breeding ground for terror.’

Mr Johnson insisted the 457 British military personnel killed in the country had not died ‘in vain’ and said the military intervention that began 20 years ago was right and had been ‘worth it’.

He suggested he had no choice but to pull out troops as he was dealing with the ‘consequences’ of the US’s decision to withdraw.

Tory MPs had earlier accused him of a ‘shameful’ silence as the situation deteriorated and questioned whether he had done enough to persuade Joe Biden to not pull out US troops.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday said the US withdrawal was a ‘mistake’ and the West will ‘probably pay the consequences’.

He voiced fears about the resurgence of al-Qaeda – the terror group behind 9/11 – who he warned could plot attacks on British soil.

He told Sky News: ‘Of course I am worried, it is why I said I felt this was not the right time or decision to make because, of course, al-Qaeda will probably come back, certainly would like that type of breeding ground.

‘That is what we see – failed states around the world lead to instability, lead to a security threat to us and our interests.’

He refused to rule out further military action in the country, telling LBC: ‘I’m going to leave every option open. If the Taliban have a message from last time, you start hosting al-Qaeda, you start attacking the West or countries, we could be back.’ 

Mr Johnson faced growing calls from some of his own backbenchers as well as opposition party politicians for Parliament to be recalled on Thursday night.

The Lib Dems demanded MPs are brought back from their summer break and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said Labour could join the push to hold the Government to account if it did not show a clear strategy.

Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, urged Mr Johnson to call an emergency session of the UN Security Council and to ‘consider recall of Parliament to seek views on leading a non-US led coalition and prevent a full scale civil war’.

Grieving families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan also spoke of their anger as the Taliban captured territory UK troops fought and died to protect.

Donald Trump and the Taliban signed a deal last February for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan. Joe Biden has continued with the withdrawal timetable, with all troops due to have left by the symbolic date of September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

The UK Government announced on Thursday around 600 troops are being deployed to help evacuate British nationals and former Afghan staff.

Meanwhile in Kabul, US troops sent to evacuate embassy staff reportedly started to arrive at the international airport, with more expected over the next 24 hours.

And hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the country will return to the brutal, repressive rule imposed by the previous Taliban government. The UN Refugee Agency said nearly 250,000 Afghans have fled their homes since the end of May. 

The announcement came hours after the Home Office said Home Secretary Priti Patel had taken on the role’s responsibilities following criticism of the Government for failing to replace James Brokenshire – who had left the post last month.

The Pentagon claimed on Friday it did not believe Kabul was under imminent threat from the rapid Taliban advance, as the first of 3000 U.S. troops arrived in the Afghan capital to protect embassy staff.

Earlier Taliban fighters seized the country’s second and third biggest cities, and their fighters closed to within 50 miles of Kabul.

The speed of their advance has sent Western nations scrambling to bring home civilian staff.

And a defence official told the Associated Press that an attack on Kabul could come within days.

Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby declined to say whether officials were surprised by the way Afghan forces had failed to slow the advance.

‘We are certainly concerned by the speed with which the Taliban has been moving,’ he said.

‘And as we’ve said from the very beginning, this still is a moment for Afghan national security and defence forces, as well as their political leadership.

‘No outcome has to be inevitable here. 

‘We’re obviously watching this just like you’re watching this and seeing it happen in real time, and it’s deeply concerning.’ 

Instead, he echoed President Biden and other administration officials in insisting that Afghan security forces held the advantage over the Taliban.

‘We will do what we can from the air, but they have the advantage,’ he said. ‘They have greater numbers. They have an air force. They have modern weaponry. It’s indigenous forces that can make the difference on the ground.’

The signs so far are that Afghan forces are struggling, despite billions of dollars in U.S. training and equipment. 

Members of the Parachute Regiment are among  the troops being sent to Afghanistan with the Taliban just 90 miles from Kabul 

Boris Johnson said tonight that it is not ‘realistic’ to expect outside powers to impose a ‘combat solution’ on Afghanistan

 

First lady Jill Biden (right) is helped onboard Marine One by President Joe Biden (left) wearing a walking boot on her left leg and using a crutch. She was at Walter Reed more than two weeks ago getting a puncture wound cleaned out of her foot 

The Taliban have completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday, as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling Kabul. Pictured: Taliban fighters stand guard over surrendered Afghan troops in the city of Ghazni

In some cases they have simply melted away or switched sides in the face of an insurgency emboldened by Biden’s promise to end the U.S. combat mission by Aug 31.

‘They have the benefit of the training that we have provided them over 20 years,’ said Kirby. ‘They have the material, the physical – the tangible – advantages. It’s time now to use those advantages.’

Yet the Taliban advance continued at rapid pace on Friday. They took four more provincial capitals on Friday, including Ghazni on the road south out of Kabul.

Staff at the U.S. embassy were told on Friday to begin destroying sensitive information or anything that could be used by the Taliban, according to a management memo obtained by CNN.

A former diplomat told DailyMail.com it suggested that plans were further advanced for fleeing the compound than officials had suggested.

But Kirby said the capital was not at imminent risk of Taliban capture.

‘Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment,’ he said. ‘But clearly … if you just look at what the Taliban has been doing you can see that they are trying to isolate Kabul.’

In the meantime, the first forces of a Marine battalion arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

‘I expect that by the end of the weekend the bulk of the 3,000 that we talked about yesterday will be in place,’ said Kirby.   

Yesterday, militants seized Pol-e Alam — the provincial capital of Logar — which lies less than 40 miles south of Kabul, according to a local official. They also captured the key cities of Lashkar Gah — the capital of the southern province of Helmand – earlier on Friday, and the capitals of Kandahar and Herat on Thursday, tightening the group’s grip on the country.

 The loss of Helmand’s provincial capital of Kandahar in the past 24 hours comes after years of toil and blood spill by American, British and allied NATO forces. Estimates suggest those countries lost some 800 troops over the decades-long war there.

Britain alone lost more than 450 troops in Afghanistan. Just over 400 were the result of hostile action, and the vast majority of causalities were in Helmand province.

Former army officer and ex-defence minister Tobias Ellwood invoked Winston Churchill – the PM’s political hero – after the evacuation deployment was announced. 

Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee, said on Twitter: ‘What would Churchill say? This is NOT our finest hour. What happened to GLOBAL BRITAIN and AMERICA IS BACK?

‘The largest high tech military alliance ever – defeated by an insurgency armed with mines, RPGs and AK47s. We can and must do better.’

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday said that the withdrawal of the US, the dominant military force in Afganistan, had meant the UK had to leave as well. He said there has been no international will to carry on without Washington’s involvement.

But former defence minister and Afghanistan veteran Johnny Mercer contested the idea that the UK cannot act alone in the central Asian country.

The Conservative MP said the current situation was ‘deeply humiliating’, telling BBC Breakfast: ‘This idea we cannot act unilaterally and support the Afghan security forces is simply not true.

‘The political will to see through enduring support to Afghanistan has not been there and a lot of people are going to die because of that, and for me that is extremely humiliating.

‘It’s a world tragedy and we are going to reap the repercussions of this over many years to come.’  

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