The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan has not ruled out conducting air strikes against the Taliban if the insurgents press on with their campaign to seize territory across the war-torn country.
The Taliban has taken control of dozens of districts from government forces in recent weeks, raising concerns that the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Afghan security forces may collapse after U.S.-led international forces complete their withdrawals by September 11.
U.S. General Austin Miller said at a news conference in Kabul on June 29 that he has informed the Taliban that air strikes are linked to the militant group’s actions.
"The best way to stop [U.S. air strikes] -- and I've actually told the Taliban -- is to stop the offensive operations and air strikes go zero as we go forward. I still have the authority to support and defend the Afghan security forces and certainly defend ourselves as well," Miller said.
Miller’s comments drew a warning from the Taliban, with spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid telling RFE/RL that U.S. forces “have no right to bomb Afghanistan after May.”
He was referring to a May 1 deadline the previous U.S. administration had agreed with the Taliban to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan.
“If they bomb, they will face dangerous consequences. Then they will be responsible for starting the war," Mujahid said.
Fighting has surged across Afghanistan since early May when the U.S. military began its final withdrawal of troops, with the Pentagon estimating the Taliban now controls 81 of the country’s roughly 400 districts.
Miller described the overall security situation as "not good.”
“That's something that's recognized by the Afghan security forces and they are making appropriate adjustments as we move forward."
Afghan government forces have launched offensives to regain ground lost to the Taliban, with the Defense Ministry saying on June 29 that three districts in the northern provinces of Faryab and Balkh provinces were retaken by government forces following days of heavy fighting with insurgents.
According to the statement, the army was also making progress in retaking two other districts in the central province of Ghazni and in Parwan Province, north of Kabul, while operations against militants continued in Balkh.
Officials and other sources said that Afghan forces also made advances in Kunduz and Takhar provinces, in the north.
On June 28, four districts in the Ghazni and Paktika provinces fell under Taliban control.
“From 18 districts in Ghazni, I think seven districts in total have fallen to the Taliban,” Khoddad Irfani, a local lawmaker, told TOLOnews.
Officials were also quoted as saying that Taliban fighters launched an overnight attack on the provincial capital, also called Ghazni.
"The situation in Ghazni is changing. Most of the lost areas in the outskirts are being taken back by the Afghan forces," said Abdul Jami, a provincial council member in Ghazni.
The city lies on a highway linking Kabul with the southern province of Kandahar.