Taliban overrun parts of Afghan city of Farah in major offensive

Washington Post

Taliban fighters overran parts of western Farah city early Tuesday but were reportedly repelled by late evening as Afghan ground troops and reinforcements, backed by U.S. and Afghan airstrikes, fought for hours to prevent the insurgents from capturing a second city since they were driven from power in 2001.

Residents hid from explosions and gunfire, some government buildings were seized, and the provincial governor fled the city during the day, Afghan media and local officials reported. A spokesman for the Taliban said in an online message that the insurgents had taken most of the provincial capital. The group also posted images on social media that seemed to show them inside the city.

But as the hours passed, residents and officials told news agencies by phone that local security forces were still in control of police headquarters and the national intelligence agency facility.

By late evening, Afghan officials said the insurgents were confined to isolated pockets. Some were said to be hiding in local homes, making it harder to flush them out. Officials reported a small number of casualties during the day, and there was no official update by evening.

Farah has only about 50,000 residents, and the surrounding province, also called Farah, is a remote and poor rural region known mostly for growing opium poppies. But if the city were to fall to the Taliban, even briefly, it would give the insurgents a major psychological victory.

The Taliban recently announced that it was launching a new spring offensive, shortly after Afghan officials offered to restart peace talks, and the attack on Farah was its most ambitious assault since then in rural areas of the country. Both the Taliban and Islamic State forces have staged shooting and suicide bombing attacks in Kabul and several other cities.

Only one city, Kunduz in the north, has previously fallen to the Taliban. The insurgents captured it in 2015 and again in 2016, but in both cases it was retaken by government forces after only a few days amid heavy fighting and airstrikes. The insurgents have not overrun any other city, a fact that U.S. military officials often point to as a sign of fatal weakness.

The insurgents have been pounding at Farah for months, taking over numerous villages and sparsely populated areas. During 2017, they failed three times to seize the city. This time, they appear to have been pushed back by a concerted joint military effort that included American A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft and elite security units from the western border city of Herat and southern Kandahar province.

American troops have been working intensively for the past several months to bolster the fighting capacity of Afghan defense forces. They also have worked to expand the Afghan special operations forces and air force, both of which participated in the fight for Farah.

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