Authorities in Afghanistan said Sunday that national security forces were locked in fierce battles with Taliban insurgents to keep them from overrunning an eastern provincial center as U.S.-led foreign troops continue to withdraw from the country.
The Taliban came close to , the capital of the embattled Laghman province, after capturing key security outposts around the city earlier in the day. The insurgents have made important territorial gains in the province recently, seizing control of the Dawlat Shah district on Friday, which paved the way for assault on Mehtarlam.
The Defense Ministry confirmed late Sunday that the Afghan army chief Mohammad Yasin Zia, who is also the country’s acting defense minister, had arrived in Laghman along with other top security officials and is leading the counter-Taliban operations.
Residents and security sources reported heavy fighting raging near the main provincial prison and in parts of Mehtarlam. Both sides reportedly suffered casualties, but no details were available immediately.
Afghan media reported that intense fighting was also taking place in several districts of northern Baghlan province and around its capital, Pul-e-Khumri.
Violence has escalated across many Afghan provinces after the United States along with NATO allies began withdrawing their last remaining troops from the country on May 1.
The Taliban has since made battlefield advances, threatened several provincial capitals, and captured four districts, with two of them in a province 70 kilometers from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Hundreds of combatants on both sides and Afghan civilians have reportedly been killed since the start of this month.
The Afghan government and the Taliban observed a temporary cease-fire during the three-day Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr earlier this month before resuming battlefield attacks.
Around 2,500 American and roughly 7,000 allied troops are set to withdraw from the country by September 11 under a directive U.S. President Joe Biden announced last month to close nearly 20 years of the Afghan war, America’s longest.
The military drawdown stems from a landmark deal Washington signed with the Taliban in February 2020. The insurgents declared a cease-fire with international forces after negotiating the deal, but they have ignored persistent U.S. calls for easing battlefield attacks.
U.S. officials have dismissed concerns that Afghan forces will not be able to resist the Taliban for long once all international forces leave the country and that the insurgents will regain power in Kabul.
The Afghan army and its air force have heavily relied on the U.S. for maintenance, training and combat air support in battles against the Taliban.
Washington has intensified diplomatic efforts to try to persuade the Afghan warring sides to urgently negotiate a peace arrangement that would end the country’s long war.
But the so-called intra-Afghan negotiations, which started in Qatar last September, have been slow and failed to deliver any breakthroughs. Both sides accuse each other of using delaying tactics to obstruct the peace process.