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Taliban attack Kabul’s Green Zone as fighting rages in provinces

On Tuesday August 3rd, a Taliban suicide car bomb and gun attack targeted the home of Afghanistan’s acting defence minister and shook the centre of Kabul’s normally secure Green Zone, home to several embassies and government buildings, including the US mission.

Just two hours later, a second car bomb, followed by several smaller explosions and rapid gunfire, struck the edges of the Green Zone. It was the second Taliban attack that night to penetrate what is known as the ‘ring of steel’, a series of 25 checkpoints surrounding the centre of Kabul and one of the country’s most secure areas.

At least eight people were killed in the attacks, 20 wounded and hundreds more evacuated as Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] forces fought Taliban gunmen and stormed resident homes in search of other insurgents.

Such violence is on the rise in a country already painfiully aware of the daily presence of war.

Since the withdrawal of US forces began on May 1st, the Taliban have taken over vast swathes of the countryside across Afghanistan, this week making major advances in the northern province Kunduz, western province Herat, and southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in his statement claiming responsibility for the Kabul Green Zone bombings: “The attack is the beginning of the retaliatory operations against the circles and leaders of the Kabul administration who are ordering attacks and the bombing of different parts of the country.”

The latest execution of the Taliban’s ‘retaliatory operations’ occurred days later. On Thursday August 6th, the head of the Afghan government’s media department, Dawa Khan Minapal, was assassinated in Kabul by Taliban militants.

The Taliban claim to have taken control of 85% of the country, capturing a number of rural checkpoints, border crossings, trading posts and infrastructure projects since May. The government refutes this claim, but Afghan security forces have abandoned most rural outposts in an effort to concentrate their numbers in strategic cities, and the Taliban are now pushing into provincial capitals.

On Thursday August 6th, the group captured their first provincial capital. The city of Zaranj in Nimroz, southwestern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban due to a lack of reinforcements from the government, said the province’s head of police. Across the provinces this month, fierce fighting between the insurgents and Afghan government forces has also overrun two politically and economically important cities in the west and south: Herat and Lashkar Gah.

Herat city in western Afghanistan is a historic anti-Taliban stronghold of veteran warlord and prominent political figure Ismail Khan, whose militia fought against the Russians and assisted US troops in toppling the Taliban in 2001. Insurgents now have gained control of most rural areas in Herat. Khan, the former mujahideen leader, has mobilized hundreds of loyalists alongside ANSF troops to fight against the resurgent Taliban as they advance on the province’s capital city. 

Afghan Air Force and US airstrikes have reportedly killed 200 Taliban insurgents in Herat since August 1st, and hundreds of commandos have been deployed to the capital in an effort to win the city. Across the province this week, at least eight civilians were killed and 43 injured in the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. At least 30 ANSF troops have been killed and 34 injured. Fighting continues to rage throughout the city. Though the Taliban have managed to overrun cities, their ability to hold control of major urban centres, especially in the face of ANSF aerial bombardment, remains unclear. 

In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, there is only one remaining district of the city that has not been captured by the Taliban. The Afghan military has ordered residents to evacuate immediately, ahead of a major ANSF offensive to retake the city. 

Lashkar Gah has a population of 200,000 people, and Al Jazeera reported that the decision to instruct residents to leave is unprecedented, as the surrounding areas are front-line war zones, much of which is controlled by the Taliban. That message came on August 3rd, the third day of heavy fighting that has seen at least 40 civilians killed and 189 wounded in the crossfire between Taliban and Afghan security forces.

Witnesses describe street fighting and bodies lying out in the open. The ANSF tactic of bringing in commando troops and carrying out intense airstrikes poses a significant risk to civilians. The likelihood of a heavy bombardment campaign by the ANSF and further risk to civilians in Lashkar Gah has increased, as Al Jazeera reported on August 6th that the city may fall to the Taliban. This would be a huge blow to the Afghan government, as Lashkar Gah is key in determining political and commercial power across the southern provinces, as one of the most prized strategic locations for the control of trade routes and agricultural land fuelling the opium industry.  

On Monday August 2nd, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security situation on the vacuum caused by the ‘abrupt’ withdrawal of US forces. The withdrawal of US forces has progressed rapidly since May 1st, and the deadline to complete their departure has moved forward to August 31st, from September 11th. 95% of the extraction of troops by the US and NATO has already been completed.

Since May 1st, AOAV has recorded 1,318 civilian casualties from explosive violence in Afghanistan, 428 killed and 890 injured. 77% of these deaths and injuries have been caused by non-State actors. These 1,318 civilian casualties from explosive weapons since May 1st account for 60% of the total civilian casualties in 2021 from such armed violence.