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Afghanistan has imposed a night curfew across most of the country as the government struggles to curb a relentless offensive by Taliban forces, who have captured territory and critical border posts.
“To curb violence and limit the Taliban movements, a night curfew has been imposed in 31 provinces across the country,” excluding Kabul, Panjshir and Nangarhar, the interior ministry said on Saturday.
As the US winds down its 20-year military mission in Afghanistan, with troops due to leave by the end of August, the Taliban has made rapid gains across the country. Most of those victories have come in unpopulated, rural territory, while the Afghan security forces have focused on protecting Kabul and provincial capitals.
Power-sharing talks between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban to reach a political solution and end the “forever war” have failed to achieve peace, despite concerted international pressure on the Islamist insurgents to lay down arms for a ceasefire. The Taliban has said it will continue fighting until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and Ghani is removed from power.
After a call with Ghani on Friday, US president Joe Biden said the Taliban offensive was in “direct contradiction to the movement’s claim to support a negotiated settlement of the conflict”. Biden pledged to continue supporting Afghan forces, including apportioning $1bn to Afghanistan’s air force and delivering additional Black Hawk helicopters.
In recent weeks, the Taliban has seized border crossings, threatening to deprive the government in Kabul of a crucial source of revenue and make them dependent on foreign aid.
Pakistan has replaced paramilitary units along its border with Afghanistan with regular army troops, a senior government official told the Financial Times on Sunday, raising concerns that the effects of the Taliban offensive could spill over. More than 1,000 Afghan soldiers were reported to have fled to Tajikistan this month after clashes with Taliban militants.
“We don’t want that repeated in Pakistan,” the official said.
A provincial official in Peshawar said the introduction of the night-time curfew in particular increased the risk of refugees flowing over the border. “People with [financial] means are trying to leave, especially from the cities,” the official said. “The population is very nervous. People fear bloodshed.”
There are an estimated 3m Afghan refugees in Pakistan, of which half are registered, according to the UN.
Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, said on Saturday that the overstretched Afghan forces were “consolidating” to protect the most important population areas, border crossings and infrastructure. “In terms of whether or not it will stop the Taliban, I think the first thing to do is to make sure that [the Afghan government] can slow the momentum,” Austin told reporters in Alaska ahead of a weeklong Indo-Pacific trip.
The US has carried out air strikes across the country over the past week to support Afghan security forces, according to Pentagon officials. The US Central Command, which is in charge of military operations in Afghanistan, said on Tuesday that the withdrawal was more than 95 per cent complete, and that it had handed over seven facilities to the Afghan defence ministry.