Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (AFP)

Afghanistan replaces army chief as Taliban advances continue

The fired army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, had only been appointed by Mr. Ghani in June. Since then, much of Afghanistan’s regular military surrendered to the Taliban or melted away, allowing the insurgents to seize nine of the country’s 34 provincial capitals and most of the countryside.

Special-operations commando units were the only part of Afghanistan’s U.S.-funded national security forces, theoretically numbering some 350,000 men, to consistently fight against the Taliban in recent weeks. The head of the Afghan National Army’s special-operations command, Maj. Gen. Haibatullah Alizai, took command as the new overall army chief.

The Taliban pressed ahead with their offensive on Wednesday, pushing into the southern city of Kandahar and the eastern city of Ghazni, and mopping up the pockets of routed government forces in the country’s north.

Mazar-e-Sharif, with a population of half a million, is the only remaining part of northern Afghanistan still under government control, and its fall would allow the Taliban to gather their forces for a march on Kabul. Leading warlords from the so-called Northern Alliance who battled the Taliban before the 2001 U.S. invasion assembled with Mr. Ghani in Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday, promising to roll back recent Taliban gains.

“The Taliban came to the north in the past, and got trapped,” said Uzbek warlord Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose own hometown of Sheberghan was captured by the Taliban over the weekend. “You will witness that all the people will stand up against them. They should not complain that Marshal Dostum did this or that to them, or that he killed captives,” he said.

During his Wednesday meetings in Mazar-e-Sharif, Mr. Ghani promised to end months of bureaucratic delays in supporting the so-called uprising militias raised against the Taliban, and to issue bank cards through which these fighters’ salaries would be paid, said Mohammad Afzal Hadid, the head of the provincial council.

“But this is like medicine after death,” Mr. Hadid added. “If he had listened to our advice two months ago, we would not have faced the current situation. We have lost all chances and opportunities.”

Some Mazar-e-Sharif residents appeared to be more optimistic. “The people’s morale has improved because Marshal Dostum has come to Mazar to defeat the Taliban,” said Hamid Sadra, an artist in the city. “There is no optimism about Ghani’s travel because people don’t trust him. He fired security officials in Mazar many times before, but the situation just kept getting worse.”

The Taliban made further gains on Wednesday, taking over the airport of the northern city Kunduz after the surrender of army and police troops who had fled there once the city collapsed over the weekend. Videos released by the insurgents showed militants on motorcycles inspecting a Russian-made helicopter parked there, missing its main rotor blades. A small unit of special-forces troops refused to surrender and escaped into the countryside. Its immediate fate was unknown.

Hundreds of government soldiers from Taliban-conquered provinces in northern Afghanistan have been flocking in recent days to Warsaj, a southern district of the Takhar province that adjoins the anti-Taliban stronghold of the Panjshir Valley.

Ahmad Massoud, a son of the late Panjshir commander Ahmad Shah Massoud who led the anti-Taliban resistance until his assassination in 2001, said his men were providing food to these troops, but couldn’t do it for long. Commanders of the former Northern Alliance needed the level of resources that only a government could provide to beat back the Taliban, he said.

“We are ready to play an important role, we are ready to fight. But we have been disarmed,” said Mr. Massoud. “This is a critical time in Afghanistan’s history. Everything we achieved is at stake. We only have weeks.”

Khaliullah, a resident of Kandahar, said the Taliban surrounded the city’s main prison Wednesday but haven’t been able to take over and free the inmates. Shops and markets in the city center were closed, he said, and the sound of occasional airstrikes rang through the empty streets.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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