The Taliban seized a sixth Afghan provincial capital on Monday following a weekend blitz in the north that saw urban centers fall in rapid succession and the government struggling to keep militants at bay.
Insurgents entered Aibak without a fight after community elders pleaded with authorities to spare the town from further violence after weeks of clashes on the outskirts, said Sefatullah Samangani, vice-governor of the province of Samangan.
“The governor accepted and withdrew all forces from the city,” Samangani added, saying the Taliban now controlled “full control”.
A Taliban spokesperson confirmed that the city had been taken.
Insurgents have invaded five provincial capitals in the north, raising fears that the government will quickly lose control of the region.
They also took Zaranj, capital of the province of Nimroz, in the southwest.
Earlier Monday, the Taliban said they were settling on Mazar-i-Sharif – the largest city in the north and a pillar of government control over the region – after capturing Sheberghan in the west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to the east. .
A spokesperson said Taliban fighters had entered the city, but officials – and residents contacted by phone – said the group was exaggerating, with clashes confined to surrounding neighborhoods.
“The enemy is trying to distort public opinion and create anxiety among the civilian population through its propaganda,” said a statement from the Balkh Provincial Police, of which Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital.
Longtime Mazar strongman Atta Mohammad Noor vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be “resistance to the last drop of my blood.”
“I’d rather die with dignity than die in despair,” he tweeted.
The loss of the city, steeped in history and long an economic hub, would signal Kabul’s collapse of control over the north and likely raise major questions about the government’s future.
In nearby Kunduz, the second largest city in the north that fell to the Taliban on Sunday, residents said insurgents were all over the city, occupying government offices and institutions.
“The security situation is not good and we fled to save our lives,” Rahmatullah, a 28-year-old resident, told AFP.
“It’s like a horror movie,” he added.
Another resident, Abdul Qudoos, said fears were growing that Kunduz would face food and water shortages.
Fight in the south
As the Taliban advanced in the north, fighting raged also in the south, where Afghan forces were locked into heavy street fighting with the Taliban.
The insurgents have been trying for weeks to capture Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, both predominantly Pashtun, from which the Taliban draw their strength.
“We are cleaning houses, roads and buildings occupied by the Taliban,” General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215th corps of the Afghan army, told AFP from Lashkar Gah.
The Defense Ministry said hundreds of Taliban fighters have been killed or injured in the past 24 hours.
Both sides regularly exaggerate the death toll which is virtually impossible to verify.
The claims come a day after the fall of Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul and Taloqan in the north within hours of each other.
Northern Afghanistan has long been seen as an anti-Taliban stronghold that experienced some of the strongest resistance to the militant regime in the 1990s.
The region is still home to several militias and is also a fertile recruiting ground for the country’s armed forces.
Fighting in the long-running conflict in Afghanistan has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition entered the final stage of a withdrawal that is expected to be completed before the end of the month.
The withdrawal of foreign forces is expected to be completed at the end of this month before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The US-led invasion triggered by 9/11 overthrew the first Taliban regime in 2001.