The Taliban seized two provincial capitals in Afghanistan on Sunday, according to Afghan officials, the latest to be overtaken by the insurgents since the start of a sweeping military offensive in May.
With the capture of Taleqan, the capital of the northeastern province of Takhar, and the strategically important city Kunduz just hours earlier, the Taliban now have a hold on four provincial capitals across the country.
In Kunduz, fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghanistan’s government forces took place Sunday near the governor’s office and police headquarters, provincial council member Ghulam Rabani Rabani told The Associated Press.
Rabani said the Taliban was now in control of the two buildings. They also seized a prison building in Kunduz, according to Rabani.
With a population of about 375,000, Kunduz is considered a major hub for economics and culture. Its location — roughly 200 miles from the capital of Kabul — also makes the city a significant military prize.
Takhar also has particular significance to an alliance of northern anti-Taliban fighters, who joined the U.S.-led coalition to oust the Taliban at the start of the war in 2001. Two Afghan lawmakers told the AP that the capital fell to the Taliban earlier Sunday.
The U.S. withdrawal is getting closer
The Taliban offensive comes as the U.S. nears a deadline set earlier this year to end its military mission in the country by the end of August — just shy of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. About 650 U.S. troops remain in the country — down from a peak of 98,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Just this past week, the Taliban captured two other provincial capitals — one in southwestern Afghanistan, the other in the north. It killed the director of the nation’s government media center in Kabul and tried to assassinate the acting defense minister.
“What we are seeing in Kunduz right now is very similar to what’s been happening in Zaranj and Sheberghan — the other two provincial capitals the Taliban took,” Kabul-based journalist Ali Latifi told NPR.
The Afghan government denies the Taliban’s gains
While the Taliban has released photos, videos and other materials claiming a takeover of major government compounds, prisons and other key locations in Kunduz, the Afghan government in Kabul denies that Taliban forces had taken the city, according to The Associated Press.
“It’s really, at this point, a war of words,” Latifi told NPR on Weekend Edition Sunday.
The U.S. State Department says it’s not ready to give up on peace talks that started last year in the Qatari capital of Doha. But U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad says the Taliban are feeling emboldened.
“At this point, they are demanding that they take the lion’s share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it,” Khalilzad said.
As of late July, the Taliban had secured half of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told reporters last month, according to Reuters.
The continued violence across the nation shows increased momentum for the Taliban, as Milley reported in June that 81 districts had been overtaken by the insurgent group.