Four days of ferocious fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban over a key provincial capital has claimed the lives of about 100 Afghan policemen and soldiers and at least 20 civilians, the defense minister said Monday.
The staggering numbers provided by Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami were the first official casualty toll since the Taliban launched a massive assault on Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province, last Friday.
The multi-pronged assault overwhelmed the city’s defenses and allowed insurgents to capture several parts of it. It was a major show of force by the Taliban, who infiltrated deep into this strategic city barely 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the capital, Kabul.
The United States has sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces.
The fall of Ghazni, a city of 270,000 people, would mark an important victory for the Taliban. It would also cut off a key highway linking Kabul to the southern provinces, the Taliban’s traditional heartland.
Bahrami, the defense minister, spoke to reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Monday. He said the casualty figures are not yet definite and that the numbers might change. He didn’t offer a breakdown of the casualties but Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said nearly 70 policemen were among those killed.
Bahrami said about 1,000 additional troops have been sent to Ghazni and helped prevent the city from falling into Taliban hands. He also said 194 insurgents, including 12 leaders, were killed — with Pakistani, Chechen and Arabs foreign fighters among the dead.
The Taliban have inflicted huge damages on the city, especially Ghazni’s historic parts and cultural heritage, Bahrami said, adding that he believes the next 24 hours would turn the tide in the battle.
Barmak, the interior minister, said top security and government officials, as well as the military chief of staff were now in Ghazni, leading the “clearing up operations” in different parts of the city.”
The attack began on Friday, with insurgents infiltrating people’s homes and slipping out into the night to attack Afghan forces in Ghazni.
The Taliban also destroyed a telecommunications tower on Ghazni’s outskirts, cutting off all landline and cellphone links to the city and making it difficult to confirm details of the fighting.
Afghan authorities have insisted that the city would not fall to the Taliban and that Afghan forces remained in control of key government positions and other institutions there.
Col. Fared Mashal, the province’s police chief, said the majority of the insurgents fighting in Ghazni are foreigners, including Pakistanis and Chechens. “The Taliban have failed in reaching their goal,” Mashal added.
Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians have fled from the city.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is said to be considering a cease-fire offer to the Taliban for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which starts Aug. 21. A three-day holiday cease-fire in June brought rare quiet to much of the country, but the insurgents rejected a government request to extend it.
Instead, the Taliban appear intent on seeking a position of strength ahead of expected talks with the United States, which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years.
The Taliban say they met with Alice Wells, the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, in Qatar last month for preliminary talks. Washington neither confirmed nor denied the meeting, but acknowledged Wells was in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an office. The Taliban said they expect another round of talks.
Story by The Associated Press