KABUL: Taliban fighters tightened their grip on captured territory in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday as residents hid in their homes and a pro-government commander vowed to fight to the death to defend Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in the north.
President Ashraf Ghani called on strongmen in the region to support his beleaguered government after an impressive series of advances by the Taliban and, as the United States said, Ghani’s forces had to defend themselves.
In the city of Aibak, capital of Samangan province, on the main road between Mazar-i-Sharif and the national capital, Kabul, Taliban fighters were consolidating their control, moving into government buildings, residents said.
Most members of the government security forces appeared to have withdrawn from the city, residents said, as they stayed off the streets.
“The only way is self-imposed house arrest or finding a way to go to Kabul,” Sher Mohamed Abbas, a provincial prosecutor’s office, said when asked about living conditions in the city.
“But even Kabul is no longer a safe option,” said Abbas, a father of four and sole breadwinner in a family of nine.
Abbas said the Taliban had come to his office and told the workers to go home. He and other residents said they had seen or heard no fighting Tuesday.
The Taliban, fighting to defeat the US-backed government and re-enforce strict Islamic law, invaded Aibak on Monday and met little resistance.
The Taliban and government officials have confirmed that Islamists have invaded six provincial capitals in recent days in the north, west and south.
The militants, toppled in the weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, are in a position to advance from different directions towards the region’s largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif. Its fall would deal a devastating blow to the Ghani government in Kabul.
Atta Mohammad Noor, a commander of the northern militia, vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be “resistance to the last drop of my blood.”
“I’d rather die with dignity than die in despair,” he said on Twitter.
In Kabul, Ghani’s aides said he was seeking help from regional militias with whom he has fought over the years to unite in defense of his government. He also called on civilians to defend the “democratic fabric” of the country, attendees said.
The United States will complete the withdrawal of its forces later this month under an agreement with the Taliban, which included the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for promises by the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from being used for international terrorism.
Under the agreement, the Taliban were destined to seek peace with the Ghani government, but months of intermittent talks have been unsuccessful.
Government officials have called for pressure on neighboring Pakistan to halt reinforcements and supplies from the Taliban flowing through the porous border. Pakistan denies backing the Taliban.
The United States has said that it is up to Afghan security forces to defend their country.
“It is your country to defend now. It is your fight,” John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Monday.