Taliban officials announced on Friday that the Sunni Muslim insurgent group had taken control of 85 percent of Afghan territory and that its fighters were tightening their grip on strategic areas.
Government officials have dismissed the claim of a Taliban delegation visiting Moscow as part of a propaganda campaign launched as foreign forces, including the United States, withdraw after nearly 20 years of fighting.
Local Afghan officials said Taliban fighters, emboldened by the withdrawal, captured an important district in Herat province, home to tens of thousands of minority Hazara Shiites.
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Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan, was also captured by the Taliban overnight, Afghan and Taliban officials said. The Taliban insurgents now had full control of the police headquarters, intelligence services, customs operations and the municipal center, they said.
Hundreds of Afghan security personnel and refugees continued to cross the border into neighboring Iran and Tajikistan, raising fears in Moscow and other foreign capitals that radical Islamists could infiltrate Central Asia.
Three visiting Taliban officials sought to address these concerns during their visit to Moscow.
“We will take all measures so that the Islamic State does not act on Afghan territory (…) and that our territory is never used against our neighbors,” said one of the Taliban officials, Shahabuddin Delawar, at a press conference.
He said that “you and the whole world community have probably learned recently that 85% of the territory of Afghanistan has come under the control” of the Taliban.
The same delegation said a day earlier that the group would not attack the Tajikistan-Afghan border, the plight of which is in the center of attention in Russia and Central Asia.
A prominent anti-Taliban commander of a private militia rejected assurances to Moscow and said he would support efforts by Afghan forces to regain control of parts of western Afghanistan, including a post border with Iran.
Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former minister and survivor of a Taliban attack in 2009, was a leading member of the Northern Alliance whose militia helped US forces topple the Taliban in 2001.
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A veteran Tajik commander widely known as the Lion of Herat, Ismail Khan, has urged civilians to join the fight to protect their basic human rights.
He said hundreds of armed civilians from Ghor, Badghis, Nimroz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar provinces had come to his home and were ready to fill the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of foreign forces.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday defended his decision to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan despite large parts of the country being overrun by the insurgent group.
He said the Afghan people must decide for their own future and that they will not send another generation of Americans to the two-decade-old war.
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Biden’s target date is August 31 for the final withdrawal of US forces, minus around 650 troops to provide security for the US embassy in Kabul.
A longtime skSkeptical of the US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan, Biden said the US had long achieved its raison d’être to invade the country in 2001: to root out al-Qaeda militants and prevent another attack on the United States such as the one launched on September 11, 2001.
Osama bin Laden, who led the attacks, was killed by a US military team in neighboring Pakistan in 2011.
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