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As Taliban Fight for Ghazni City in Afghanistan, Nearby Districts Fall

KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have taken over most of the rural areas in Ghazni province, even as they continue to battle the government for control of the provincial capital, according to local officials and residents.

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Rod Nordland
Jawad Sukhanyar, New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have taken over most of the rural areas in Ghazni province, even as they continue to battle the government for control of the provincial capital, according to local officials and residents.

While attention in the past four days has focused primarily on the fight for Ghazni city, where the Taliban appear to control most neighborhoods, the insurgents have also taken over at least four more rural districts in the province, mostly without much of a fight. They have also consolidated their authority in other districts, as local government officials fled.

By Monday, only two of the province’s 18 rural districts were confirmed to be completely in government control. That raised the prospect that if the insurgents did fully take the city, they might also be in a position to control an entire province for the first time in the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

In the city, government forces, supported by U.S. military airstrikes and some U.S. ground forces, continued Monday to hold government buildings, the police headquarters and prison, and military bases. Officials and residents disputed Taliban claims that those facilities had fallen Monday, but residents said the government buildings were under constant attack, and Taliban fighters were in apparent charge of most neighborhoods throughout the city.

Some residents fled, but most remained in their homes. “For three days now, our home has been the battlefield of the Taliban and we are living amid smoke and gunfire,” said Mohammad Halim, whose house is close to the city center, with its government buildings. “Many times we tried to escape our own home, but moving is so difficult. If we stay here, we will starve.”

Shops and businesses were closed Monday and the United Nations’ acting humanitarian coordinator in Kabul, Rik Peeperkorn, warned of an approaching crisis. “Vital telecommunications networks and the electricity supply are down in the city of 270,000 people, which has impacted on the water supply, and food is also reportedly running low,” he said.

On Sunday, the director of the hospital in Ghazni, Baz Mohammad Hemat, said that 113 bodies had been brought there over the three days since the fighting started, mostly uniformed members of security forces, as well as 142 wounded.

Hemat could not be reached Monday. At a news conference in Kabul, the capital, Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said that 70 police officers had been killed in the past four days.

Peeperkorn said there were reports of civilian casualties and that caring for them would be increasingly challenging.

“Medication at the main hospital is reportedly becoming scarce and people are unable to safely bring casualties for treatment,” he said. “Main access roads both north and south of the city to larger cities where medical facilities are available are contested and unsafe for people to travel.”

While government officials insisted that they had the city under control and were carrying out “clearance operations” against Taliban hiding places, local residents said there were no signs of a serious counterattack from the Afghan military.

Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, the army chief of staff, said “the reason for slow operations is to prevent civilian casualties and financial losses to the residents.” He added that roads would be reopened and that the city would return to full government control by Tuesday.

The insurgents have been busy in rural districts throughout the province. On Friday, a devastating attack on an Afghan commando base in the district of Ajristan, 90 miles west of Ghazni city, sent officials and defenders fleeing, with as many as 100 commandos and police officers killed, according to a senior Afghan official.

The next day, Saturday, a New York Times reporter saw insurgents taking over government facilities in Khwaja Omari district, just north of Ghazni,. Insurgents have since taken over two additional provinces, local officials said.

Seven of Ghazni’s districts had effectively already been under insurgent control before the current fighting, with the Taliban controlling so much territory in those areas that government officials could not remain. But to avoid having those districts counted as having fallen to the Taliban, the district governments moved their offices, including police and other administrative headquarters, to safer areas in other districts. The seven districts with only a virtual local government presence are not listed in U.S. military reports as controlled by the Taliban. The most recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, for instance, quoted the military as saying, “Insurgent control or influence of Afghanistan’s districts declined for the first time since August 2016.”

Afghanistan’s 407 districts are the basic units of local government. The military estimated in May 2018 that 11 were controlled by the Taliban and 45 influenced by them — a decline of three districts overall from the previous quarter. None of the seven Ghazni districts, however, are listed as under Taliban control.

And since most of the governments of those seven districts have moved to Ghazni city, they have essentially ceased to exist for now, their offices abandoned, Afghan officials said.

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