The Taliban on Friday reportedly seized control of its first provincial capital, achieving a key symbolic victory by overrunning Afghan government forces and taking control of Zaranj, capital of the southern province of Nimroz.
The takeover of Zaranj came just hours after Taliban fighters assassinated the Afghan government’s top media officer in Kabul. Taken together, the two developments will provide significant momentum to the insurgent group as it seeks to capitalize on the nearly completed exit of U.S. and NATO military forces.
Sources told regional media that the Taliban now has control of Nimroz governor’s office, police headquarters and other key strategic sites in the area.
A Taliban commander told Reuters it is the first domino to call in what will be the crumbling of Afghan security forces, although the Kabul government has strongly challenged claims it cannot hold the country’s major urban areas.
“This is the beginning and see how other provinces fall in our hands very soon,” the anonymous Taliban commander said, according to Reuters.
Taliban troops and government forces also are battling for control of Lashkar Gah, capital of the strategically vital Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. In the north, Taliban fighters have launched repeated attacks on Sheberghan, capital of the Jowzjan province.
The assaults confirm what many foreign analysts believed would be the Taliban’s strategy as U.S. forces exit. Having seized control of much of rural Afghanistan, the Taliban encircled numerous provincial capitals and waited until the American withdrawal was virtually complete before launching coordinated assaults on cities across the country.
Analysts say that by proving it can successfully run government troops out of a provincial capital, the Taliban is poised for further gains.
“The Taliban takeover of Zaranj is a major victory for the group, which is also battling for control of multiple other provincial capitals,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks the war in Afghanistan, wrote in an analysis Friday.
“Government forces are currently clinging to a cluster of buildings in the center of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, as the Taliban controls the rest of the city,” he said.
U.S. forces have carried out some airstrikes this week to hold off Taliban forces, but those assaults do not appear to have been enough to slow the insurgent advance into major population centers. The Afghan air force also routinely carries out its own bombing campaign using American fighter jets and weapons, but specialists warn such missions will become increasingly difficult with no U.S. troops or defense contractors in the country to advise Afghan troops and help maintain equipment.