The United States will continue to carry out air raids in support of Afghan forces, a senior US military commander has said, amid an increase in attacks by the Taliban ahead of the withdrawal of US and other international troops from Afghanistan.
The Taliban have won a string of battlefield victories in recent weeks as US-led foreign forces are about to complete their pull-out after 20 years in the country.
US President Joe Biden had earlier pledged that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by September 11 – the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – but later moved the deadline up to the end of August.
“The United States has increased air strikes in support of Afghan forces over the last several days and we’re prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks,” US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie said during a news conference in the capital Kabul on Sunday.
McKenzie, who leads the US Central Command, declined to say whether US forces would continue air raids after the end of their military mission on August 31.
“The government of Afghanistan faces a stern test in the days ahead … The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign,” said McKenzie, adding that a Taliban victory was not inevitable and a political solution remained a possibility.
The Taliban escalated its offensive in recent weeks, taking rural districts and border crossings, and surrounding provincial capitals in what US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley said last week was an attempt “to isolate the major population centres”.
Milley said the group had gained control of about half of the country’s 419 districts and was “putting pressure” on 17 of 34 provincial capitals but had not seized control of them.
Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Washington, DC, said McKenzie on Sunday did not express regret for the US withdrawal, but also did not say exactly how long the increased air support would continue.
“With 95 percent of US troops already having left the country, President Biden is politically committed to having all US boots out of [Afghanistan] by August 31,” she said. “But certainly there is this concern about the Taliban’s latest advances.”
The Afghan government announced on Saturday that it was imposing a night-time curfew across nearly all of the country’s 34 provinces to stem surging violence amid the sweeping Taliban offensive.
“To curb violence and limit the Taliban movements, a night curfew has been imposed in 31 provinces across the country”, except for Kabul, Panjshir and Nangarhar, the interior ministry said in a statement.
Last week, 15 diplomatic missions and the NATO representative in Kabul jointly urged the Taliban to halt military offensives across Afghanistan.
“This Eid al-Adha, the Taliban should lay down their weapons for good and show the world their commitment to the peace process,” their statement read, referring to the Muslim holiday.
The statement was supported by Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the European Union delegation, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Britain and the US and NATO’s senior civilian representative.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have met in the Qatari capital Doha in recent weeks as part of ongoing peace talks, but they failed to reach an agreement after two days of negotiations ended last weekend.
The rival sides said, however, that they were “committed to continue negotiations at a high level until a settlement is reached” and would expedite the process.
McKenzie’s remarks on Sunday came as hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in the recent fighting, and as Afghans fear the country might descend into civil war.
About 22,000 families were displaced by the fighting in the past month in the southern city of Kandahar. “They have all moved from the volatile districts of the city to safer areas,” Dost Mohammad Daryab, head of the provincial refugee department, told the AFP news agency.
On Sunday, fighting continued on the outskirts of Kandahar city. Local resident Hafiz Mohammad Akbar said his house had been taken over by the Taliban after he fled. “They forced us to leave … I am now living with my 20-member family in a compound with no toilet,” said Akbar.
Others also expressed concerns the fighting could increase in the days ahead.
“If they really want to fight, they should go to a desert and fight, not destroy the city,” Khan Mohammad, who moved to a camp with his family, also told AFP. “Even if they win, they can’t rule a ghost town.”