Taliban Take 10th Afghan Provincial Capital, Squeezing Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The Taliban captured a strategic provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, the 10th the insurgents have taken in a weeklong sweep across Afghanistan just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.

Seizing Ghazni cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country's southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after the foreign troops arrived to oust the Taliban government.

While Kabul itself isn't directly under threat, the loss of Ghazni tightens the grip of a resurgent Taliban estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation, and thousands of people have fled their homes.

The latest U.S. military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months. The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities.

The onslaught represented a stunning collapse of Afghan forces and renews questions about where the over $830 billion spent by the U.S. Defense Department on fighting, training those troops, and reconstruction efforts went -- especially as Taliban fighters ride on American-made Humvees and pickup trucks with M-16s slung across their shoulders.

It also raised fears that the Taliban would turn back the clock on the country and reimpose a brutal regime. Already there are reports of repressive restrictions on women and revenge killings.

Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated requests for comment over the days of fighting. President Ashraf Ghani is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country's special forces, the militias of warlords and American airpower ahead of the U.S. and NATO pullout at the end of the month.

On Thursday, the militants raised their white flags imprinted with an Islamic proclamation of faith over the city of Ghazni, just 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Kabul. Mohammad Arif Rahmani, a lawmaker from Ghazni, said the city had fallen to the insurgents. Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani also told the AP that but added that the two bases outside of the city remain held by government forces.

Kamrani alleged that Ghazni's provincial governor and police chief made a deal with the Taliban to flee after their surrender. Taliban video and photos purported to show the governor's convoy passing by Taliban fighters unstopped as part of the deal.

Later Thursday, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said the governor and his deputies had been arrested over that alleged deal. The officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Militants crowded onto one seized Humvee and drove down one main road in Ghazni, with the golden dome of a mosque near the governor's office visible behind them, yelling: "God is great!" The insurgents, cradling their rifles, later gathered at one roundabout for an impromptu speech by a commander. One militant carried a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. They smiled as children and the curious gathered around them.

The loss of Ghazni -- which sits along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway that connects the Afghan capital to the southern provinces -- could complicate resupply and movement for government forces, as well as squeeze the capital from the south.

Already, the Taliban's weeklong blitz has seen the militants seize nine other provincial capitals around the country. Many are in the country's northeast corner, pressuring Kabul from that direction as well.

Angry at pan-Arab satellite news network Al-Jazeera for reporting on troops earlier surrendering in Kunduz, Gen. Ajmal Omar Shinwari said the channel would be investigated by authorities. Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar where the Taliban has a diplomatic office, said as it didn't "have a correspondent currently in Kunduz, we rely on reputed international news agencies" and used that material in its reports on the surrenders.

Fighting meanwhile raged in Lashkar Gah, one of Afghanistan's largest cities in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto that provincial capital.

On Wednesday, a suicide car bombing marked the latest wave of violence to target the capital's regional police headquarters. By Thursday, the Taliban had taken the building, with some police officers surrendering to the militants and others retreating to the nearby governor's office that's still held by government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand.

Niazi said she believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded security force members, but she had no numbers. Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it, she said. The Taliban's other advances have seen the militants free hundreds of its members over the last week, bolstering their ranks while seizing American-supplied weapons and vehicles.

Niazi criticized ongoing airstrikes targeting the area, saying civilians likely had been wounded and killed.

"The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves, and the government, without paying any attention to civilians, carried out airstrikes," she said.

With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the U.S. Air Force is believed to be carrying out strikes to support Afghan forces. Aviation tracking data suggested U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting overnight across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.

The U.S. Air Force's Central Command, based in Qatar, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The success of the Taliban offensive also calls into question whether they would ever rejoin long-stalled peace talks in Qatar aimed at moving Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration as the West hoped. Instead, the Taliban could come to power by force -- or the country could splinter into factional fighting like it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Ross Wilson, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, criticized the Taliban in a tweet Thursday.

"The Taliban's statements in Doha do not resemble their actions in Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand & Kandahar," the diplomat wrote, mentioning provinces seeing heavy fighting. "Attempts to monopolize power through violence, fear, & war will only lead to international isolation."

In Doha, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met with diplomats from China, Pakistan and Russia in an effort to build a united front that would ensure the Taliban would again be considered international pariahs if they continue their offensive, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Khalilzad also plans to meet with Afghan government and Taliban officials as the fighting goes on without a sign of it abating.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned the Taliban not to try to take power by force and impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law that severely limits rights. Maas told German public TV ZDF that if the Taliban did so the country would no longer receive "a cent" of development aid from Germany, which is currently estimated to be around 430 million euros ($504 million) annually.

The multiple battle fronts have stretched the government's special operations forces -- while regular troops have often fled the battlefield.