By Rahimullah Yousufzai
After five days of intense fighting for control of Ghazni, President Ashraf Ghani visited the strategic southeastern city on Saturday to signal the return of calm following the big Taliban attack.
Taliban fighters retreated from Ghazni in the face of airstrikes by the US and Afghan air forces. The reason the Taliban gave for the pullout was the rise in civilian casualties due to the airstrikes. There were, however, reports of scattered fighting in the outskirts of the city. The Taliban had earlier captured a number of district centers in Ghazni province, making it easier to launch an assault on the provincial capital.
A Taliban retreat from Ghazni city isn’t unusual. In the past, the group preferred to withdraw from Kunduz, the sixth-biggest city in the country, after briefly capturing it twice in 2015 and 2016. Taliban fighters also withdrew from Farah in western Afghanistan after capturing the city in May 2018. Capturing a city and holding it has in the past proved costly for the Taliban, which is largely a guerilla force, in terms of casualties suffered and resources spent. The Taliban usually raids a city to secure the release of imprisoned fighters and seize weapons and military vehicles before retreating.
The Taliban does not presently control any city or one complete province of the total of 34 in Afghanistan. However, Taliban fighters are in control of scores of towns across rural Afghanistan and are able to block highways and strike at will in most of the cities, including Kabul. Running and defending a captured city and meeting the needs of residents would require committing significant manpower and resources.
Ghazni, with an estimated population of 270,000, is sited on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway about 120 kilometers from the Afghan capital. It is a trading and transit hub in central Afghanistan. Ghazni is an ancient city known for its historic sites and cultural heritage. In 2013, UNESCO declared it that year’s Asian Capital of Islamic Culture. It has been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt a number of times. Prior to the Taliban attack, which reportedly inflicted heavy damage on the city, the Afghan government had made plans to rebuild Ghazni in memory of the Ghaznavid and Timurid eras, when it was a major center of Islamic civilization.
During his visit to Ghazni, President Ghani promised to rebuild the city by allocating $20 million and also strengthen its defenses to prevent further Taliban attacks. However, there is skepticism as to whether that will be fulfilled in view of unfulfilled past promises. Ghazni’s famed carpet market suffered significant damage and rebuilding it is important to revive livelihoods.
The Taliban assault on Ghazni began during the night of August 10. It appears that security forces were caught unawares when Taliban fighters, many wearing Afghan Army uniform, entered the city from four sides and quickly made gains on the ground. Abdul Jabbar Shalgari, a former member of parliament from Ghazni, claimed that people living in areas surrounding the city were aware of Taliban plans to attack, but the government didn’t take steps to see off the threat.
Communication links were soon broken and there was no credible information available about the situation in the city. The Taliban faced accusations of closing down all media outlets, including two television and nine radio channels and two newspapers. The Taliban alleged that the “Shariat Ghag” (voice of Shariah) radio channel run by the group was bombed.
Afghan officials claimed Pakistani and Chechen fighters had taken part in the attack on Ghazni alongside the Taliban and many were killed, with their bodies being taken to Pakistan. The Pakistan government denied the charge. This could revive the blame game between the two countries that had almost stopped since early 2018, when they agreed to discuss their complaints and misgivings about each other in bilateral meetings under the newly formed Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). A Taliban spokesman said the allegations were part of Afghan government propaganda “to hide its shame” after failing to stop the fall of Ghazni.
Various official and non-official sources put the death toll in the five-day battle at 270, including more than 100 security forces personnel. Civilians bore the brunt of the fighting, as many were killed and injured, and water and electricity supplies were also disrupted. Reports said 11 members of one family were killed when the house they were in was bombed. The Taliban also suffered casualties, but exact figures were unavailable.
Though Ghani has said he will continue to strive for peace, the Ghazni battle will affect the nascent peace process, which was creating hope after the recent meeting between US and Taliban officials in Doha. Talks aimed at reaching another cease-fire agreement for the Eid Al-Adha festival, following the successful cessation of hostilities in June for Eid Al-Fitr, have also been pushed into the background. The Ghazni attack has also caused concern about the government’s ability to provide security for the much-delayed parliamentary polls that are due in October.
(Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst of Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1. Article – courtesy Arab News)