Taliban stages show of force in Ghazni ahead of possible peace talks
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The Taliban’s dramatic overrunning of Ghazni, which lasted five days before Afghan forces, backed by US troops, moved into the strategic city Tuesday, was aimed to be a show of force ahead of the next round of peace talks.
The Afghan government on Tuesday said Ghazni was under government control, but residents told reporters the insurgents remain entrenched in the city.
But even as Afghan troops, backed by US forces, gradually regained control of the southeastern Afghan city, the Taliban overran an Afghan army base in the restive northern province of Faryab on Tuesday, killing 17 soldiers, according to Afghan defense ministry officials.
In Ghazni, the UN said unverified reports put civilian casualties at more than 100.
NATO has dismissed the Taliban assault as an "eye-catching, but inconsequential headline", yet the demoralised Afghan security forces struggled to overpower the insurgents despite backing from US airpower.
“The Taliban got near the city in a step-by-step way. They started by taking checkpoints near the city, then military outposts, then military barracks, and then they entered the city and they controlled up to seven districts inside the city,” explained Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on Islamist militant groups.
The Taliban on Tuesday released a 12-minute video showing footage of the group inside the city. The video, released by the group’s official El Emara media wing, featured a compilation of footage shot inside and on the outskirts of the city.
“Images issued by the Taliban showed them inside the city in one of the squares inside the town,” explained Nasr. “We see how they took the region, in a step-by-step way, despite residents saying days earlier that the Taliban were closing in on the city and even collecting taxes from villages on outskirts of the city.”
Ghazni is barely two hours drive from Kabul, and straddles the Kabul-Kandahar highway, effectively acting as the main artery to the insurgents' strongholds in the south.
“Ghazni located near Kabul and the implications are important,” said Nasr. “Ghazni is close to the tribal areas in [neighbouring] Pakistan, which will enable insurgents to move more freely into those districts.”
Like other cities the Taliban have stormed in the past -- such as the western city of Farah in May, and Kunduz in the north in 2015 -- Ghazni is also a provincial capital, which are typically bigger and higher-value targets.
"Ghazni has always been a contested province, with a heavy Taliban presence" in most districts, said Kabul-based military analyst Jawed Kohistani, in an interview with AFP.
The Taliban, analysts said, are demonstrating strength amid tentative signs that diplomatic efforts to kick-start peace negotiations are starting to bear fruit.
"A major military and territorial victory on the eve of perhaps important and direct talks can win the Taliban even more political weight," Kohistani told AFP.
In June, Washington indicated a shift in its longstanding policy that negotiations must be Afghan-led. Last month Taliban representatives met US officials for talks in Qatar, militant sources reported.
The meetings come as the government and the Taliban declared a brief, unprecedented, and widely celebrated ceasefire in June.
Anticipation had been mounting about the possibility of a second government ceasefire announcement for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, which will be celebrated in Afghanistan on August 21.
Talks about talks have been held many times, but the only direct negotiations with the Taliban for peace took place in Pakistan in 2015. They were derailed by the confirmation that Taliban leader Mullah Omar was dead.
Afghan officials caught off guard?
The Taliban’s latest Ghazni operation has raised questions about the ability of Afghan security forces three years after NATO combat troops pulled out, and the political leadership in Kabul, analysts said.
Afghan forces have taken staggering losses since they took over security for the country at the end of 2014.
As parliamentary and district elections approach in October, Ghani, for his part, has appeared more focused on the campaign trail than confronting the Taliban.
On Sunday, the third day of fighting in Ghazni, Ghani delivered a wide-ranging speech to mark International Youth Day. In the nearly hour-long address he did not refer to the fighting once.
"The successful Taliban onslaught in Ghazni will definitely raise a lot of questions about the management of Afghan security and military leadership and increase calls for reform," said Kohistani.
US-led forces in Afghanistan have been offering regular statements, but downplayed the fighting, branding it a "failure" by the Taliban to take the city.
What happens now?
According to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Taliban and regional expert, the Ghazni operation was a show of force by the Taliban.
"The strategy is to launch big attacks, to show their power, hold the city or town for some days, get their prisoners released, capture some weapons, get some money, create fear -- and then leave," said Yusufzai.
Kunduz, which briefly fell to the Taliban in September 2015, was later recaptured by Afghan forces backed by US aircraft and NATO soldiers.
The militants launched a major attempt to take over Farah in May this year, triggering intense fighting with US and Afghan forces, who forced the Taliban fighters to the outskirts of the city after a day-long battle.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)