Yesterday morning, the Taliban moved into and overran the bustling city of Ghazni, in Ghazni province in southeastern Afghanistan — the tenth of the 18 provincial capitals that have fallen to the militant group in less than a week. Located about 80 miles southwest of Kabul, Ghazni sits on the major Kabul-Kandahar highway and is now the closest major city to the Afghan capital captured by the Taliban.
One resident of Ghazni, who does not wish to be named for security reasons, is hiding in the city with 17 of his family members. He tells Intelligencer that Taliban attacks on the city had been ongoing since late June, “but the fighting of the last two days has been intense. The Taliban have been attacking Afghan army outposts west and south of Ghazni city. In return, government forces have been mostly relying on air strikes,” he says.
“They arrived in the city at around 7 a.m. Fighting started south of the city near the provincial prison, and just two hours later it was overrun, prisoners released, and the Taliban proceeded inside the city.”
The resident says that because of the fighting, most people, including journalists, were hiding inside their homes when the Taliban entered the city from the south and west.
“We only heard sporadic fire exchanged, and then found out the Taliban had occupied all government buildings. They captured the governor’s compound, police headquarters, and [National Directorate of Security] departments without any tangible resistance,” he says. “There really wasn’t any fight at all.”
Afghan government authorities arrested the governor and his deputy in neighboring Maidan Wardak province after they fled Ghazni Thursday morning, following a deal with Taliban fighters in which they handed over the city in exchange for their safe passage out of it, according to the Ministry of Interior. Other reports say Ghazni’s police chief was also granted a deal.
Reports of hundreds of government officials and military forces surrendering to the Taliban or fleeing to other provinces have been increasing over the last few days. “The officials have abandoned the city and the people,” explained the resident. “They are cowards — we have lost trust in the officials,” noting that he believes that officials and soldiers in Ghazni were demoralized by the fall of other districts and provinces.”
“There really is only one positive in them abandoning the city,” he adds, “and that is that Ghazni didn’t get destroyed like Lashkar Gah is from fighting inside the city … Air strikes falling on cities only harm civilians.”
He says hundreds of Taliban are roaming Ghazni. “Many people were displaced because of fighting and others are hiding in their homes, panicking. No one knows what comes next.
“One of the Taliban commanders gathered people in the city center today and told us to return to our homes and to open the bazaar and shops again. He announced that the Taliban have created a unit to secure people’s properties and goods from looting.”
Ghazni is home to Hazaras, Pashtuns, and Tajiks. “The Hazara fear sectarian violence from the group. Pashtuns and Tajiks of the city are also worried because they heard stories of Taliban massacres in Kandahar province and Malistan district and think the same scenario will be repeated in Ghazni. The Taliban will target anyone they think is a supporter of the government and security forces.”
“It’s strange to say and to understand: I now live in Taliban-controlled territory,” the resident said. “Today is a very different day [from] yesterday, and we are not prepared for what this all means.”
The same day, the Taliban also captured Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities, after Kabul. The group also entered the heart of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, after weeks of heavy fighting and air strikes had killed many civilians there. Although American-trained Afghan Special Forces have been effective at combating the Taliban, regular Afghan military and police have proved incapable of maintaining control of secured areas. The U.N. has reported at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in the last month.
Lashkar Gah ultimately fell, followed by Qala-e Naw, the capital of Badghis province; Firoz Koh, the capital of Ghor province; Pul-e-Alam in Logar province; Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province; and Qalat in Zabul province, after Afghan officials and security forces reportedly surrendered. Fighting rages on in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province. The Taliban has now taken 18 of 34 provincial capitals, releasing prisoners as they go.
A resident in Qalat told Intelligencer “not a single bullet was fired. We were abandoned.” He is hiding at home and preparing his documents. He says that the Taliban told everyone to stay at home. “They will make rounds, asking people what they do, so I need to be ready … I am trying to keep a low profile. Just pray.”
A resident in Logar province says he doesn’t know if he is safe or not. “People don’t know who to turn to for answers, all the officials have fled,” he said.
The U.S. has essentially pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan, except those staying to protect the U.S. embassy and airport in Kabul. The U.S. military mission is set to end on August 31.
But U.S. intelligence officials have now estimated that the Taliban could isolate Kabul in just 30 days, and potentially take it over in 90 days, a U.S. defense official, citing a U.S. intelligence assessment, told Reuters on Wednesday. The official said that assessment is not a foregone conclusion, adding that Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance against the insurgent group. Following yesterday’s surge, U.S. officials say there is increasing concern that the Taliban could make a move on Kabul in a matter of days.
A day earlier, President Biden said that he did not regret his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after more than 20 years, saying the Afghan troops outnumber the Taliban and must want to fight.
On Thursday night, the U.S. State Department announced that 3,000 troops would go back to Afghanistan to provide security for an evacuation of some personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. An additional 3,500 will deploy to Kuwait, to be on standby next week. Meanwhile, a government source told Al Jazeera that the Afghan government has offered the Taliban a share in power so long as the rising violence in the country comes to a halt.
The Taliban is now squeezing Kabul, approaching from the south and northwest. The final gate to Kabul is Maidan Shahr, the capital of Maidan Wardak province, but Ghazi’s capture is a strategic move for the Taliban as they advance.
Osama bin Laden once dubbed Ghazni province as a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Asfandyar Mir, a political analyst, emphasized to Intelligencer that “the loss of Ghazni — which has had substantial al-Qaeda activity over the years — is a massive blow, only exacerbated by the loss of Kandahar and Herat.” He says it will trigger a scramble among diplomats, elites, and civilians to flee the country. “The deal-making and surrender of Ghazni’s governor is especially bad news, indicating that major political realignments in favor of the Taliban are underway. The days of the Republic now appear to be numbered and Kabul is well within reach of the Taliban.”
A local journalist — who has been writing about Afghans hiding in their homes as neighboring provinces were overrun — is now in hiding also. He told Intelligencer that yesterday, an Afghan army and NDS base located about six kilometers east of Ghazni city were the only two remaining positions under Afghan National Defense and Security Forces control in Ghazni, as well as the province’s Nawar and Jaghori districts. “The Taliban will have to deal with these bases and contested districts before moving on, but the road to Kabul is now open.”
While the provinces have been mostly left to fend for themselves, it’s not clear if Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has a strategic military plan to secure Kabul. “It’s a house of cards and we are past the tipping point now,” explained the journalist.
Fighting continues in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and what happens in the coming hours will be critical.
“It is quiet now. I can’t hear the sounds of firing or war planes above. There is no fighting tonight,” says the Ghazni resident. “The city is lost now.”