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Taliban rockets target presidential palace in Kabul


Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul came under rocket attack on Tuesday as President Ashraf Ghani attended prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha.

The assault came as the resurgent Taliban tightens its grip on the country with the US preparing to close its military mission to Afghanistan at the end of next month.

The Islamist group has already captured swaths of territory and taken control of key border posts, depriving Kabul of a crucial source of revenue and leaving it almost exclusively dependent on foreign aid.

The Taliban flag was last week raised alongside that of Pakistan at Spin Boldak border crossing in Kandahar province, one of seven international border crossings the Islamist insurgents claim to have seized since June.

The loss of Spin Boldak and Torghundi, a border crossing with Turkmenistan in Herat province in north-east Afghanistan, are a severe setback for Ghani’s besieged government as it struggles to get the Taliban to return to stalled peace talks.

People wave Taliban flags in the Pakistani border town of Chaman after the Taliban claimed they had captured the border crossing of Spin Boldak on the Afghan side © Asghar Achakzai/AFP/Getty

“This is a very comprehensive strategy that we have never seen from the Taliban to lay siege to cities, cut off roads, and close international border crossing points,” said Ahmed Rashid, an author of books on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban. “What is keeping the Taliban together right now is the prospect of capturing Kabul, it’s not the prospect of having a peace agreement with Kabul.”

Despite a concerted push from the US and its allies, talks in Doha between Kabul and the Taliban at the weekend ended without a ceasefire agreement, highlighting the Taliban’s indifference to a political settlement as it gains momentum.

The worsening violence has triggered an exodus of people fleeing rural areas under Taliban control where repressive rules have been reimposed. The insurgents have also laid waste to vital infrastructure in towns at a time when the country is facing a food crisis as it reels from its second drought in four years.

Asfandyar Mir, a south Asia analyst at Stanford University, said the Taliban was “looking for the government to become unviable and to get a soft surrender”.

“Some political leaders see no path of reversing or even stalling the military slide to the Taliban. They are ready to bend the knee, he said.

Ghani and his vice-president Amrullah Saleh have publicly hit out at Pakistan, which has reportedly given the Taliban’s leadership sanctuary within its borders and is desperate to secure its strategic interests in the region as protection against arch-rival India.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, right, with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, left, at a summit in Uzbekistan last week
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, right, with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, left, at a summit in Uzbekistan last week © Reuters

At a regional conference in Uzbekistan last week, Ghani alleged that Islamabad had sent “10,000 jihadi fighters” over the border in the past month. Standing just a few feet away from Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, the Afghan president said Islamabad had failed to get the Taliban to take peace talks “seriously”. Khan called Ghani’s remarks “extremely unfair,” adding: “Peace in Afghanistan is our foremost priority.”

Ghani withdrew Afghanistan’s envoy to Pakistan after the ambassador’s daughter was briefly kidnapped and “severely tortured” at the weekend.

Pakistani officials say Afghanistan is trying to deflect blame for its own security failures. A senior government official said: “The Taliban are pushing ahead with offensive after offensive due to the sudden departure of US troops from Afghanistan. This has nothing to do with Pakistan.”

The question is whether the Afghan security forces have the strength and international support to take back lost districts and crossings in the absence of US forces.

David Mansfield, an Afghanistan analyst consulting for the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think-tank, said taking over the border crossings “is a way of not going after cities and holding Kabul ransom. Why lose soldiers taking cities when you can create this financial crisis?”

The border takeover will also force neighbouring countries, including Iran and Turkmenistan, to engage with the Taliban, analysts say, giving it more legitimacy as it tests its capacity to govern.

The strategy is a gamble. By disrupting trade, the Taliban could anger its own followers who count on the flow of goods between countries to make their living.

“It’s a question of who blinks first,” said Mansfield. “It’s risky but the border points are critical. This is another way of strangling cities.”



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