In a visible attempt to pour cold water over Afghan hopes for peace, the Taliban have overrun a major city in southeastern Afghanistan.
After four days of intense fighting, Afghan officials are claiming to be slowly regaining control of the historic city of Ghazni, the capital of a province with the same name. But the Taliban say they are controlling the city, which they stormed in a predawn attack on August 10.
“The enemy has fled Ghazni, and our security forces are now engaged in cleanup operations after delivering a heavy blow to the enemy,” the region’s governor, Wahindullah Kalimzai, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They have left behind more than 200 dead fighters.”
Irrespective of the latest battlefield wins and losses, the Taliban appear to have achieved some major political and military objectives by overrunning a vital city home to an estimated 280,000 people. The fighting in Ghazni is expected to loom large over Kabul’s plans for restoring peace and its struggle against an enemy intent on taking territory from government control.
“The fighting in Ghazni is a major blow to the prospects of a ceasefire," Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website while referring to Kabul and Washington’s efforts to end nearly four decades of war in the country through negotiations with the Taliban.
Kabul is reportedly planning to announce a new ceasefire on the occasion of Eid al-Adha later this month. A similar ceasefire marking the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr in June generated considerable good will.
"This strengthens the Taliban and weakens the government’s position," he said.
Yousafzai, who has covered the Taliban for decades, argues that the insurgents launched the assault to prove they can pull off major battlefield victories. “This means Kabul will not be able to negotiate from a position of strength,” he said.
“The Taliban not only captured an important city, but their victory has divided Afghanistan into two,” Yousafzai said, referring to the closure of Afghanistan’s main highway connecting the capital, Kabul, to the country’s second city, Kandahar, through Ghazni.
“They have demonstrated that they can imperil the security of any major Afghan city, including Kabul, which is not far,” he said. Kabul is nearly 150 kilometers or a three-hour drive north of Ghazni.
Strategically located between southeastern, central, and southern Afghanistan, Ghazni borders eight other provinces and is near tribal regions in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. During the past 17 years, Afghan and Western officials have blamed Islamabad for either turning a blind eye or facilitating and bankrolling the Afghan Taliban in these regions.
Afghan Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami said that Pakistani Taliban, Arab, and Chechen fighters were battling alongside the Afghan Taliban in Ghazni. He told journalists that 194 Taliban fighters, including 12 key commanders, were killed in the fighting while some 20 civilians and around 100 security forces were killed.
“The army and police of Afghanistan are young, and we accept we have problems,” he was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal. “If there has been negligence or problems in some of our handling of Ghazni, we accept it.”
Yousafzai, however, says the Afghan government’s problems in Ghazni run deeper than such recent failures. He says that five Taliban commanders -- Mullah Ubais Shaheedkhel, Mullah Idress, Mullah Khair Agha Wardak, Mullah Ismail, and Mullah Hamza were able to amass as many as 2,000 fighters to lead into battle without any hindrance.
“They have been present around Ghazni for ages, but little was done to dislodge them,” he said. “We cannot rule out the presence of individual foreign fighters, but it doesn’t mean we shut our eyes to local problems.”
The Taliban appear to be gloating over their success in Ghazni.
“The victory in Ghazni has a clear message for [U.S. President] Donald Trump and his administration that America’s new strategy has failed here,” read an article on the Taliban’s Voice Of Jihad website. “This strategy aimed to weaken the Taliban by reclaiming territories back from them so that they can be forced to make peace.”
The insurgents also sought to discredit Kabul’s new focus on protecting main population centers by pulling back scattered forces from the remote countryside. “Similar to the Taliban capacity to overrun remote regions and districts, we are now capable of overrunning major cities,” the article said.
Attiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan general turned analyst, however, blamed the lack of coordination between Afghan security forces as the key reason for their debacle. He says several Ghazni lawmakers told him that several pro-government militia commanders responsible for guarding the city’s perimeters had given the Taliban a free pass to enter.
He urged caution in going ahead with the Eid Al-Adha ceasefire. “Before engaging in peace talks, all sides press their military advantage to show they are in a commanding position,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Amarkhel says the Taliban’s assault on Ghazni has muddied prospects for negotiating peace talks in the near term.
“What kind of peace negotiations can take place after hundreds are killed and an entire city demolished?” he asked.