Taliban forces have taken a provincial capital near the border of Afghanistan and Iran, delivering the militants a milestone urban victory that brings control of an important link in regional trade routes.
"Residents of the city spent the night in fear and panic, and this morning, 40% of Zaranj's residents crossed the border into Iran via the Pul-e Abrisham, [an Iranian-built bridge] which borders the Islamic Republic of Iran,” a provincial official told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Gandhara, a outlet backed by the United States that is focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The rest of the city is under Taliban control.”
Most of the government security forces failed to fight, according to local reports that also suggest the Taliban tortured captives who did attempt to defend the city. U.S. and European officials are calling for the Taliban to return to the peace talks with the central government, but the militants have escalated their offensive in recent weeks, pairing assaults on cities with targeted assassination operations, following President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“This is the first provincial capital to fall to Taliban, which is significant symbolism,” an Indo-Pacific intelligence officer who has served in Afghanistan told the Washington Examiner on condition of anonymity. “However, it is more appropriate to see this in context of Taliban steadily taking over border crossings. It is a remote city, but a trade hub and strategically located.”
The border crossings provide the Taliban with new financial resources in the form of customs revenue, which is all the more valuable for the fact that it simultaneously deprives the government in Kabul of those resources. Zaranj, in particular, is the transit point for trade from Afghanistan to India through an Iranian seaport that India finances and controls.
Afghan forces are fighting to defend other cities, such as Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah. U.S. airstrikes have proven valuable in those battles, but Taliban leaders say they intend to continue. "The operations in Kandahar and Herat are very much important to us, and our priority is to capture the two crucial airports or air bases in Kandahar and Herat,” a Taliban official told Reuters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s point man for the Afghanistan peace process has been arguing that the Taliban have to negotiate with the government in Kabul.
“Both sides must understand that there is no military solution in Afghanistan,” State Department special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi this week. “The Taliban is a reality that the government cannot eliminate. Likewise, the Taliban cannot establish by force a government that would be accepted by the majority of Afghans and the international community.”
The fighting in Zaranj has provided the latest installment of accounts of Taliban brutality. “There are casualties and fatalities among ANDSF,” Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary reported. “A number of soldiers who fought and were taken captive by the Taliban were later on executed, eyes gouged. Photos shared with me are too grotesque and graphic to share.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke