The simmering war in Afghanistan, if official accounts are to be accepted, has killed more people last month than in any other month since 2001, when the United States and NATO troops invaded the country.
Battlefield violence between pro-Afghan government forces and the Taliban insurgency have particularly surged since May 1, when the last of the U.S.-led international forces formally began exiting the conflict-torn nation under orders from President Joe Biden.
The Taliban have overrun dozens of districts across Afghanistan, including several more during Thursday’s fighting, as foreign troops leave the country. Local Afghan officials and residents say pro-government forces in many areas are surrendering and abandoning territory without offering any resistance to the Taliban.
Afghan security forces, backed by air power, have retaken some of the lost territory and say they have inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban.
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry said Thursday in a statement that airstrikes had killed nearly 260 insurgent fighters in the past 24 hours.
Each of the Afghan warring sides routinely issues inflated casualty tolls for its opponent, and the numbers are difficult to confirm from independent sources.
On Tuesday, General Ajmal Omar Shinwari, the spokesman for the Afghan security sector, said while briefing reporters about the battlefield activities that hundreds of counteroffensives had killed more than 6,000 insurgents and injured several thousand others in June alone.
The Afghan mainstream TOLOnews said Thursday that Taliban attacks killed close to 700 people, mostly security forces, and wounded at least 1,000 others in June.
The New York Times, which keeps track of monthly casualties for government forces, reported the deaths of more than 700 security personnel and 200 civilians in insurgent attacks in June.
Shinwari and other government officials have declined to say how many districts the Taliban have captured in recent weeks. The TOLOnews said in its report that government forces had retreated from at least 120 districts in the face of the latest insurgent onslaught.
The U.N. Security Council was informed more than a week ago that at least 50 of Afghanistan’s 419 districts had fallen to the Taliban since early May.
On Thursday, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told a news conference in Moscow that “over the last 10 days [Taliban] fighters have gained control over 30 districts.” She said Afghan security forces were struggling to deter the insurgent advances.
This came as U.S. military officials insisted Thursday that they would not abandon the Afghan military, even as the last of the U.S. combat forces prepared to the leave the country.
"I had an excellent call,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tweeted after speaking with Afghan Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, adding the two discussed the Pentagon’s “investment in the security & stability of Afghanistan.”
According to a readout of the call, Austin also “reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the Afghan National Defense & Security Forces (ANDSF) as the withdrawal continues."
Fear of takeover
The Taliban are said to have encircled many Afghan cities and have captured key areas around the capital, Kabul.
The growing Taliban threat has fueled concerns that the insurgents intend to regain control in Afghanistan by force once all foreign forces leave the country by the September 11 deadline set by Biden.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated Thursday that any attempt to install a new government in Kabul by force would not be acceptable to the international community.
“Legitimacy and assistance for any Afghan government can only be possible if that government has the consent of the Afghan people, and critically, I would say, has fundamental respect for human rights,” Price told reporters in Washington.
U.S. commanders have warned that the security situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan in the face of rapid Taliban advances, but they say it is not affecting the military drawdown.
“A civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now. That should be of concern to the world,” General Austin Miller, the U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan, told reporters this week.
Miller is overseeing the U.S. military drawdown, which some reports suggest will largely be completed by early July. But the general refused to comment on when U.S. troops would be out of the country.
Some exits complete
Germany, Poland and Italy have completed their troop pullouts, while other NATO allies are expected to wind up their military missions soon.
Afghans are increasingly criticizing the rapid withdrawal of foreign forces, fearing the return of the Islamist Taliban to power would undermine their freedom and rights.
U.S. officials are reported as saying a small unit of 650 troops will stay on to guard the American Embassy in Kabul.
The foreign troop withdrawal is a product of the February 2020 agreement Washington signed with the Taliban in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees and assurances the insurgent group would negotiate a political settlement to the war with the Afghan government.
But the dialogue, which started in Qatar last September, has stalled for months without making progress. Each Afghan rival blames the other for the deadlock.
Ross Wilson, acting U.S. ambassador in Kabul, on Wednesday criticized the Taliban for stepping up their violent campaign and urged warring parties to ease violence and negotiate a political end to the war.
Wilson noted in his statement that in the past 12 years the war had killed more than 38,000 Afghan civilians and injured at least 70,000 others.
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.