KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban fighters on Monday took control of a key district in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province and surrounded the provincial capital, police said, as the insurgent group added to his recent victories on the battlefield as the peace talks stalled.
The Taliban’s gains came when the Pentagon reaffirmed that the US troop withdrawal was still on track to end in early September.
Fighting around Imam Sahib district began on Sunday evening and by noon on Monday as the Taliban had invaded the district headquarters and controlled the police headquarters, provincial police spokesman Inamuddin Rahmani said.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
Taliban militants were within a kilometer (0.6 mile) of Kunduz, the provincial capital, but had not entered the city, he said, although there was information reporting small Taliban bands near the outskirts and residents trying to leave for Kabul.
Dozens of districts have fallen to the Taliban since May 1, when US and NATO troops began their final departure from Afghanistan. Like Imam Sahib district in northern Kunduz, their importance often lies in their proximity to roads and major cities.
Imam Sahib is strategically located near Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, a key supply route from Central Asia.
Rahmani said police and Afghan National Army soldiers jointly attempted to defend the district. He said it was still not clear how many casualties the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces suffered in the protracted battle or how many Taliban were killed or injured.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed confirmed that Imam Sahib district was in Taliban hands.
Several other districts of Kunduz also fell to the insurgent group in the latest round of fighting, including Dasht-e-Archi, neighbor of Imam Sahib, Rahmani said, further consolidating local transport links in the area. region.
Syed Mohammad Mousavi drove his family to the relative safety of Kabul on Sunday from northern Mazar-e-Sharif, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Kunduz.
He said people were trying to leave the town of Kunduz for Kabul, fearing more fighting. “The Taliban were all over the road, checking the cars. We were very scared, ”he said after reaching the capital.
In recent days, the Taliban have taken several districts in the three northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan and Balkh, Mousavi said. Significantly, witnesses said that Doshi district in Baghlan province was in Taliban hands, which, if true, gives the insurgent group control of the only road that connects five provinces of the north to the capital Kabul.
The Taliban have posted videos to their website and to WhatsApp groups which they claim show government soldiers who have surrendered returning home and receiving money from the Taliban. On Sunday, Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a statement ordering his soldiers to “treat those who surrender well and be of good behavior with them.”
But fighting was fierce in some districts, with both sides claiming casualties. A senior police official speaking on condition of not being identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media said the police officers fighting in the neighborhoods are mostly from poor families. These families have remained poor despite the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. “They haven’t seen any changes in their lives and are indifferent, so they don’t see any difference. … They want to save their lives just for today. “
The Taliban’s gains and the gradual withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 US troops and 7,000 NATO forces have made efforts to find a negotiated end to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan urgent.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has regularly reviewed the US withdrawal, which he said is “on track” and will be completed in early September. “It’s a dynamic situation, and we’ve said it from the very beginning,” Kirby said.
Austin “looks at the situation every day with fresh eyes to see if, you know, the pace we’re setting is the appropriate pace.” Among the uncertainties, officials said, are the State Department’s embassy security needs and decisions about removing interpreters and other Afghans who have worked with the Americans out of the country.
Talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar are deadlocked. While Taliban leaders say they are ready to negotiate, observers familiar with the talks say the insurgent movement appears more concerned with securing military gains in the hope of strengthening their negotiating position.
Later this week, President Joe Biden will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, which oversees the government’s negotiating team.
Friday’s meeting in Washington, according to a White House statement, aims to reaffirm America’s financial and humanitarian aid “to support the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday their conversation “would continue to discuss how we can work together to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups that constitute a threat to the American homeland “.