Humvees that belong to Afghan Special Forces are seen destroyed during heavy clashes with Taliban during the rescue mission of a police officer besieged at a check post, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, July 13, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

MOSCOW: The Taliban control 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s borders, a spokesman told Russian media on Thursday, following offensives carried out by the hardline Islamist group as foreign forces withdraw.

“Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, or about 90 per cent of the border, are under our control,” Zabihullah Mujahid told the RIA Novosti news agency, a claim that could not be independently verified.

The militants are pushing across Afghanistan, snapping up territory, seizing border crossings and encircling cities, with the withdrawal of US and Nato troops all but complete.

The resurgent militants now control about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts. Mujahid told RIA Novosti the Taliban would not tolerate the Islamic State (Daesh) terror group, also called ISIS, in Afghanistan.

“We assure you that we will not allow ISIS [Daesh] to become active in the country, in areas under our control,” he said.

“There are no militants from Central Asia or China in the county,” he added.

Mujahid also said that after the withdrawal, the Taliban will not tolerate foreign troops in the country, including from Turkey which has been in talks with Washington about taking over running Kabul airport.

Turkey’s position rejected

“We have already rejected Turkey’s position and said that after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan we will not allow other foreign forces to remain in the country under any pretext,” Mujahid said.

Ex-Soviet Tajikistan, on Afghanistan’s border, held a large-scale military inspection - the first of its kind in the country’s 30-year history.

The Taliban’s offensives in recent weeks have forced Afghan refugees and government troops to make their way across the Tajik border.

Russia, which maintains military bases in Central Asia, said it would stage military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the border with Afghanistan next month.

Glum assessment

Meanwhile, US’s top military officer offered a glum assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan, saying the Taliban had seized “strategic momentum” over Afghan military forces who were falling back to prioritize the protection of important cities, including Kabul, the capital.

The comments by General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed mounting reports from the ground in Afghanistan. But his sober, almost clinical, account of recent Taliban gains hammered home the point.

“There’s a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover, or the possibility of any number of other scenarios,” Milley said. “I don’t think the end game is yet written.”

“Strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban,” he said. “There clearly is a narrative out there that the Taliban are winning. In fact, they are propagating an inevitable victory on their behalf.”

But Milley, who appeared alongside Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in their first joint news conference since May 6, sought to reassure the Afghan government that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian and security assistance from afar.

Both Milley and Austin put responsibility for the country’s fate on Afghans and their leaders, not the Biden administration. Austin said that US airstrikes after August 31, the military withdrawal deadline, would be reserved for Al Qaida and other terrorist targets, not Taliban fighters attacking Afghan forces.

“This is going to be a test now of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan,” Milley said.

In response to the Taliban offensives, hundreds of Afghan troops have surrendered, giving up their US-supplied equipment and fleeing, sometimes into neighbouring countries. Afghan government counterattacks have had limited success.

US House votes to bring in more Afghans

In Washington, the US House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to allow in thousands more of the Afghans who worked alongside Americans in the Afghanistan war, citing the urgency of protecting those on-the-ground allies from Taliban retaliation as the US military withdrawal enters its final weeks.

Florida Republican and Vietnam war veteran Neal Dunn evoked the scenes of the US military withdrawal from Vietnam, which left many Vietnamese who’d worked with American forces fearing — and sometimes meeting — death and detention.

“We cannot do this again. We must not do this again. We must bring back — all the people who were so important to us in combat,’’ Neal said, urging fellow lawmakers to vote for the bill. “Please do not abandon friends of America again.’’

The House passed it 407-16, sending it to the Senate. The bill, by Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger who fought in Afghanistan, allows 8,000 more visas for translators and others who worked with American troops and civilians in Afghanistan. It also eases some requirements for the visas.

Currently, 26,500 of the special Afghan visas are allocated.

President Joe Biden decreed an end to the US military role in Afghanistan by September 11, concluding a US military effort that early on succeeded in its main goal of crushing the Afghanistan-based Al Qaida plotters of the 2001 attacks on the United States, but struggled to quell Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers and stabilise a Kabul-based elected government.

The Pentagon says the US withdrawal is 95% finished and will be completed by August 31.

The last weeks of withdrawal leave the Taliban apparently holding “strategic momentum’’ in the fight for control of Afghanistan as they put increasing pressure on key cities, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday.

The Biden administration says there are 20,000 applicants so far, half of whom have not completed initial stages of review for the visas. The United States is also allowing former Afghan employees to bring in close family members.