KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban captured a police headquarters Thursday in a provincial capital in southern Afghanistan teetering toward being lost to the insurgents as suspected U.S. airstrikes pounded the area, an official said.
Fighting raged in Lashkar Gah, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto the capital after the militants’ weeklong blitz has seen them already seized nine others around the country.
Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated requests for comment over the days of fighting. However, President Ashraf Ghani is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country’s special forces, the militias of warlords and American airpower ahead of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal at the end of the month.
While the capital of Kabul itself has not been directly threatened in the advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the slivers of the country it has left. The government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities as thousands displaced by the fighting fled to Kabul and now live in open fields and parks.
The fighting around Lashkar Gah has raged for weeks. On Wednesday, a suicide car bombing marked the latest wave to target the capital’s regional police headquarters. By Thursday, the Taliban had taken the building, with some police officers surrendering to the militants and others retreating to the nearby governor’s office that’s still held by government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand.
Niazi said she believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded security force members, but she had no casualty breakdown. Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it, she said. The Taliban’s other advances have seen the militants free hundreds of its members over the last week, bolstering their ranks while seizing American-supplied weapons and vehicles.
Niazi criticized ongoing airstrikes targeting the area, saying civilians likely had been wounded and killed.
“The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves, and the government, without paying any attention to civilians, carried out airstrikes,” she said.
With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the U.S. Air Force is believed to be carrying out some series of strikes to support Afghan forces. Aviation tracking data suggested U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting overnight across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.
It’s unclear what casualties the U.S. bombing campaign has caused. The U.S. Air Force’s Central Command, based in Qatar, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Taliban appeared to be pressing into the capital of Ghazni province, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Kabul. Wahidullah Jumazada, a spokesman for the provincial governor in Ghazni, acknowledged the insurgents had launched attacks from several directions on the capital, but insisted the government remained in control.
The Taliban posted videos and photos online purporting to show they had made it inside the provincial capital. Some matched known features of Ghazni.
Ghazni provincial council chief Nesar Ahmad Faqiri said government forces still held an intelligence headquarters in the city. Another provincial council member still in Ghazni, Amanullah Kamrani, said the government also held the governor’s guesthouse.
The success of the Taliban offensive also calls into question whether they would ever rejoin long-stalled peace talks in Qatar aimed at moving Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration as the West hoped. Instead, the Taliban could come to power by force — or the country could splinter into factional fighting like it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
In Doha, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met with diplomats from China, Pakistan and Russia in an effort to as a group warn the Taliban they could again be considered international pariahs if they continue their offensive, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Khalizad also plans to meet with Afghan government and Taliban officials as the fighting goes on without a sign of it abating.
The multiple battle fronts have stretched the government’s special operations forces — while regular troops have often fled the battlefield — and the violence has pushed thousands of civilians to seek safety in the capital.
The latest U.S. military intelligence assessment is that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a couple of months.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Faiez from Istanbul.