World News

Afghan Forces Battle Taliban for Control of Western City, Farah

Posted May 15, 2018 10:07 a.m. EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents entered the capital of the western province of Farah on Tuesday, as the governor fled and Afghan security forces rushed in reinforcements, vowing to retake control, according to accounts from both government officials and insurgents.

The city of 50,000, which is the capital of the province of the same name, was on the verge of becoming the second Afghan city to fall to the insurgents since the war began. The northern city of Kunduz fell twice to the Taliban, in 2015 and 2016, but was retaken by the government both times.

According to a senior Afghan official, Gov. Basir Salangi fled the city after the attack by the insurgents began around 2 a.m., but he remained in Farah province. The official asked to speak on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the news media.

The fighting in Farah was part of a recent increase in the tempo of attacks by the insurgents, since their announcement of a spring offensive late in April and their explicit rejection of Afghan government peace initiatives.

Late in the afternoon, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, issued a statement on WhatsApp messaging groups claiming that insurgents had taken “most parts of Farah city.” He said that three senior Afghan security officers were among dozens killed in the insurgents’ assault, but he also acknowledged that fighting continued at police headquarters and government offices in the city.

In Kabul, Afghan officials said they would expel the Taliban from Farah. “We are hoping to get control of the fighting in the city by today,” Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said in a news conference. “Our reinforcements are trying to use their capabilities to overcome the situation.”

The Ministry of the Interior spokesman Najib Danish said the elite 444 Special Forces police unit was being deployed from Kandahar in the south. “We have the people of Farah by our side, they are backing us.”

Local officials in Farah, however, were less confident.

“The Taliban are in the city now,” said Mohammad Sarwar Osmani, a member of Parliament from Farah. “The city is closed, people are panicked and in a state of fear. Some people left their homes and fled the city, some are trapped. The fighting is ongoing in the city. The Taliban took control of some government buildings but some are contested right now.”

“I don’t know where the governor is,” Osmani added. “But I know the police chief might be in the front line fighting off the Taliban.”

Fareed Bakhtawar, head of the Farah provincial council, said that he had joined volunteers to fight the Taliban but that the insurgents had taken large areas of the city. “There is no extra force to help us and the situation is getting worse,” Bakhtawar said.

Fighting has been intense for months in the western province — much of which, outside of military bases, has already fallen to Taliban control — with hundreds of police officers and soldiers killed. The fighting has increased in Farah because of Taliban reinforcements sent from neighboring Helmand province, where the insurgents have fared less well in recent months, according to Afghan officials.

The Taliban posted numerous videos on their Facebook account and on unofficial Twitter accounts showing checkpoints and government buildings purportedly falling to their control in rapid succession throughout the day.

A Farah resident reached by telephone, Abdul Halem, said the insurgents were telling people to stay off the streets. “They told the residents to stay inside their homes and they are only targeting government buildings and military bases,” he said.

An Afghan air force general said that helicopter gunships from Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan were joining the fight, targeting Taliban positions in the city. The general, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said the air force was hampered by the need to avoid bombing residential dwellings.

The videos posted on the Taliban’s social media accounts showed Afghan army vehicles and weaponry that they claimed to have seized in Farah. In one Facebook post, the insurgents showed an Afghan police officer, his hands bound behind his back, while an argument ensued between them over whether to kill him. It was unclear what happened to the officer.