Afghans Flee as Taliban Makes Deeper Inroads Amid U.S. Exit
(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of Afghan families are fleeing to escape the Taliban’s rapid advance into the country’s northern region, part of a larger refugee crisis that is brewing as the U.S speeds up its troop withdrawal after two decades of war.
The militants have burned down farmland and forced citizens to leave their towns and villages, Mohammad Amiri, a deputy spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said by phone on Monday. “The Taliban prefers violence over talks and has accelerated its violence nationwide in order to achieve its own political agenda,” Amiri said.
The fresh wave of internal displacement -- largely across the provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, Balkh, Baghlan and Takhar -- comes as the Taliban has captured large swathes of rural territory in the region after harsh battles with Afghan forces. At least 1,000 Afghan troops have also been forced to retreat to neighboring Tajikistan after brutal attacks, according to TASS news agency.
Two Central Asian nations neighboring Afghanistan on Monday raised the alarm with Russia over the Taliban's moves, with President Vladimir Putin holding phone talks with his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan about the escalation, the Kremlin said. The Russian leader pledged help for the Tajik authorities to deal with the increased fighting on the border area, it said on its website.
The Taliban have taken over most of Kunduz province and are now pushing toward the capital, Kunduz city, Mohammad Yousuf Ayubi, the head of the provincial council, said by phone. In recent weeks, hundreds of residents left the city to take refuge in neighboring Mazar-e-Sharif or the capital, Kabul.
The group now controls about half of the country’s 400 districts, 130 of which it’s taken since April.
Afghanistan Ministry of Defense said in a statement yesterday it’s developing a military plan to retake the fallen districts in the north and protect the provincial capitals and border towns from the Taliban advance. It said in the past month hundreds of Taliban militants were killed or wounded in airstrikes or during ground operations.
The deepening crisis follows the U.S. announcement that it was withdrawing troops from the country in mid-April. Last week U.S. forces handed the Bagram Airfield -- their largest military base -- to the Afghan government as part of its plan to completely exit the country by Sept. 11.
The Biden administration has also asked three Central Asian nations to temporarily house at least 9,000 Afghan civilians who worked with American forces and could be targeted by the Taliban as U.S. and NATO troops look to withdraw after nearly two decades.
In a phone call Sunday, Ghani thanked Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon for providing shelter and cash to Afghans who fled the “Taliban onslaught and oppression” in the past month, Amiri said. Ghani said Kabul would send an aircraft to help bring the refugees back to Afghanistan, the spokesman added.
“There’ve been Afghan refugee crises for years, but we’re on the cusp of a particularly large one,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, said in a tweet Monday. “It will most impact Iran and especially Pakistan, the two countries with the largest number of Afghan refugees, but also Europe, a more recent destination for those fleeing Afghanistan.”
About five million Afghans were internally displaced between 2012 and 2020 and over three million left the country in the same period, according to data from the International Organization for Migration.
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