KABUL, Afghanistan — Fighting began in earnest inside the last major city standing in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, in the beginning of a battle that could very well define the fate of the country as the Taliban near the verge of a complete military takeover.
The Taliban siege on Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province and one of the last three major cities under government control, comes just a day after two key cities in southern and western Afghanistan collapsed to the Taliban.
“During the fighting, the western entrance of the city fell to the Taliban 30 minutes ago, but we are resisting,” said Hajji Khan, a pro-government militia commander in the city’s west.
The insurgents are almost entirely in control of the southern, western and northern regions of the country — just about encircling Kabul as they press on in their rapid military offensive. The Taliban blitz began in May, but the insurgents have managed to seize more than half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in just over a week.
The collapse of cities in the north to the Taliban — once the heart of resistance to the insurgents’ rise to power in 1996 — offered a devastating blow to morale for a country gripped with panic.
In the late 1990s, Mazar-i-Sharif was the sight of pitched battles between the Taliban and northern militia groups that managed to push back the hard-line insurgents before the group took over the city in 1998. The victory followed infighting and defections among the militias and culminated with the Taliban’s ethnically charged massacre of hundreds of militia fighters who had surrendered.
Now Mazar’s defense is almost completely reliant on the reincarnations of some of those very same militias that have all but failed to old their territory elsewhere in the north. Some are led by Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, an infamous warlord and a former Afghan vice president who has survived the past 40 years of war by cutting deals and switching sides.
Others are behind Atta Muhammad Noor, a longtime power broker and warlord in the Balkh Province who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. During the civil war, he was a commander in Jamiat-i-Islami, an Islamist party in the country’s north, and he was a leading figure in the Northern Alliance that supported the American invasion in 2001. Shortly afterward, he became Balkh’s governor, deeply entrenched as the singular authority in the province. He refused to leave his position after President Ashraf Ghani fired him in 2017.
“The army is not fighting. It is only Atta Noor and Dostum’s militias defending the city,” said Mohammad Ibrahim Khairandesh, a former provincial council member who now lives in the city. “The situation is critical, and it’s getting worse.”
Following the U.S. invasion in 2001, which more or less began with the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif by the Northern Alliance on the heels of a heavy American bombing campaign, Balkh Province became one of the most stable provinces in the country.
Its position along the border with Uzbekistan and on a key trade route from Turkmenistan lifted the local economy. But in recent years, stability there has steadily declined as the government in Kabul has struggled with controlling provincial leadership and supplying the north with a sufficient number of security forces.
By Saturday night, the Taliban controlled around 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces after Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province in the country’s east, fell to the insurgents. The province was the site of some of the heaviest battles of the U.S. war, and its unforgiving terrain has long been home to foreign fighters who came across the nearby Pakistani border.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fahim Abed contributed reporting.