Afghan officials say government forces have repelled a major Taliban attack on a provincial capital in northwestern Afghanistan, although there's been no independent confirmation of the government's success and local residents said fighting was still raging in the area.
Heavy fighting erupted on July 7 in the western city of Qala-e Naw, the capital of Badghis Province, with the militants seizing government buildings including police headquarters and offices of the country's spy agency.
It was the Taliban’s first assault on a provincial capital in Afghanistan since waging a major offensive against Afghan forces, as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country nears completion.
Badghis Governor Hessamuddin Shams told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that Taliban fighters were “driven out of the city once again” and had suffered “heavy casualties.” Both the government and the Taliban usually exaggerate losses caused to their opponents.
“The enemy's attack on the city of Qala-e Naw has been repelled,” said Shams. “The situation is currently under our control. People are slowly going out of their homes."
But some locals said fighting was still raging in the city.
“There is fighting inside the neighborhoods and on the streets,” Abdul Razzaq Siddiqi, a resident of Qala-e Naw, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The fighting is going on and people are worried."
Earlier, in a text message to reporters, Shams said the Taliban had captured all districts of the province, which borders Turkmenistan, in the past two days and had entered the provincial capital.
Afghanistan's Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi said government forces were in a "very sensitive military situation," adding that "the war is raging" with the Taliban.
Authorities in the province told RFE/RL that the chief of security in the police department joined the Taliban along with over 100 security personnel. The Taliban claimed that over 200 members of security forces in the province surrendered to them.
Authorities also said some 30 Afghan government forces had been killed in the clashes.
The attack on Qala-e Naw came as Afghan authorities vowed to retake all districts lost to the Taliban as the Pentagon says the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country is nearing completion.
Hundreds of Afghan commandos and pro-government militiamen were deployed on July 6 to counter the insurgents' offensive in the north, Afghan authorities said.
The U.S. Central Command announced at the same time that the American withdrawal from the country was now more than 90 percent completed.
U.S. forces have handed over seven facilities to the Afghan Defense Ministry since President Joe Biden's decision to pull the military out after almost two decades in the war-torn country.
Late last month, the U.S. government had said it wanted to complete the withdrawal by the end of August, earlier than Biden's original deadline of September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attack on the United States that sparked the American invasion of the country.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on July 6 that U.S. troops were now well on track to complete their pullout by the end of August.
Kirby said that the United States and its international partners would continue to support Afghan security forces in the fight with the Taliban, even if there were no coalition troops on the ground.
"We still have the authority to assist the Afghans in the field if they need it," Kirby said, specifying the possibility of air strikes, but he underscored that U.S. forces were leaving by August.
"We have spent a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of resources in improving the competency and the capability of the Afghan national security forces, and now it's their turn, it's their time, to defend their people," Kirby said.
Fighting has raged in several provinces, but the insurgents have primarily focused on a campaign across the northern countryside, seizing dozens of districts in the past two months.
"There is war, there is pressure. Sometimes things are working our way. Sometimes they don't, but we will continue to defend the Afghan people," National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib told reporters in Kabul.
"We have plans to retake the districts," he added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on July 7 that the situation has tended to "swiftly deteriorate" and that Moscow is ready to defend its regional allies if necessary.
"We will do everything we can, including using the capabilities of the Russian military base on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, to prevent any aggressive impulses toward our allies," Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Laos.
Mohib said more than 1,000 government troops who fled into neighboring Tajikistan earlier this week were returning and rejoining the security forces.
Troops and pro-government militiamen were deployed in the northern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan where the Taliban has captured large swaths of territory, often with little resistance.
Afghan defense officials have said they intend to focus on securing major cities, roads, and border towns in the face of the Taliban advance.
President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban for all the "bloodshed and destruction," adding that his government will not "surrender" to the militants, a palace statement said.