Herat in Afghanistan under pressure amid continued Taliban assault

Kabul, Afghanistan – Intense fighting in Herat province in western Afghanistan continued for a third day on Saturday as the Taliban continued an assault to capture the provincial capital, home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Residents fear the group could enter Herat, the country’s third largest city, on any day.

On Friday, the road to Khwaja Abdullah Ansari International Airport, 10.5 km (6.5 miles) from the city, has been the scene of intense fighting between Afghan national security forces and the Taliban.

The fighting resulted in the death of a local military commander who was captured by the Taliban and the death of an Afghan security guard outside a United Nations compound near the airport.

Although security forces were able to return to the airport on Saturday afternoon, residents remain nervous.

Sources in Herat said cars full of women and children could be seen heading for the provincial capital from the Pol-e Pashto and Pol-e Malan regions.

These two locations are within 10 km (6.2 miles) of the city. Security sources say the Taliban hoped to use two bridges in the areas to stage attacks from three sides.

A government official told Al Jazeera that Afghan forces have used airstrikes to defend Herat and that the United States, which is preparing to withdraw all of its forces by the end of August, is closely monitoring the situation in the province. .

Musa, a member of a local group of volunteer fighters known as the “Lifting force” in the province, told Al Jazeera that the fighting did not subside on Saturday and people remained fearful, even in the city.

“The Taliban continue to carry out assassinations and throw grenades,” he said, making people afraid to move to a city considered to be one of the economic and cultural centers of Afghanistan. . Other residents said several markets in the city remain closed as many people are too afraid to venture outside.

“The situation is very difficult right now because of the terror ‘from within’,” Musa said, referring to claims that Taliban supporters are providing information to the group from inside the city.

The latest battles in Herat come as the Taliban also tries to move closer to the towns of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south.

The Taliban launched a full-scale offensive across Afghanistan in early May as US-led foreign forces began their final withdrawal.

For many Afghans, the Taliban’s efforts to take control of some of the country’s largest cities contradict their claim that they are in favor of a political settlement to the 20-year conflict.

‘Worse and worse’

For residents of Herat, warning signs of an intensification of the battle have appeared in recent weeks as the Taliban continued to seize neighborhoods near the city.

Shoaib Khan, a local businessman, told Al Jazeera that he and his family left the city for Kabul before the Eid al-Adha festival earlier in July.

“We could see even as the situation got worse and worse,” he said.

Khan’s family businesses in Herat have gone largely unattended for almost two weeks now.

“When we wanted to go and check our things, we couldn’t because the airport was closed,” Khan said. Getting to Herat by road would require a journey of over 14 hours along a road that would leave them vulnerable to being stopped at a number of Taliban checkpoints.

Afghan national security forces, along with local uprising forces, were dispatched to areas near Herat airport in an attempt to prevent the Taliban from reaching the provincial capital. [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Musa, the fighter, says the uprising forces, army and police are fighting a courageous fight, but the sheer number of Taliban fighters is “unbelievable.”

The Ministry of Defense says that dozen Taliban have been killed in Herat over the past two days.

Musa agrees, saying the number of Taliban killed in Herat far exceeds the number of government forces that have been killed in action. Still, Musa said he was surprised by the number of Taliban fighters in the province.

“They are like ants. As soon as you kill them, more appear.

The government official told Al Jazeera that the Taliban may have as many as 1,000 fighters in Herat at the moment. Images shared by uprising forces online claim to show numerous corpses belonging to the Taliban; however, these images could not be verified.

Uprising forces and residents of Herat told Al Jazeera that the Taliban were accused of requisitioning civilian homes on the outskirts of town to stage their attacks. Residents of Kandahar also made similar statements to Al Jazeera last week about the fighting near their town.

“The Taliban entering people’s houses makes it much more difficult for us, we have to be much more careful,” a member of the security forces told Al Jazeera.

The insurgency forces, led by former anti-Soviet commander Ismail Khan, have been fighting alongside the security forces for several weeks now, but say they have not received the support promised by the government in Kabul.

Khan said he was talking Friday to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Ghani, according to Khan, promised to send reinforcements, but Khan said on Saturday that help had not yet arrived.

The Defense Ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for clarification on Khan’s request.

But Musa says Khan is right in his criticism.

“It has been three days and three nights of fighting, but the uprising forces have still not received the weapons and ammunition they need,” Musa said.

Khan’s presence on the battlefield has led to a heated online war of words.

Many have praised the former governor, who was accused of abuse and corruption in the past, for his willingness to defend the city even at the age of seventy.

Other online accounts, apparently belonging to Taliban supporters, claimed Khan was trying to flee to Kabul as the fighting escalated.

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