The Taliban have massed on the outskirts of Kandahar in preparation for an all-out assault to recapture a city that was once the movement’s capital and spiritual home.
The militants have infiltrated the suburbs of Afghanistan’s second city, with heavy fighting reported in southern and western neighbourhoods.
“Fighting has intensified, the Taliban are so close and the situation is so bad,” Abduljalil Amin, head of the local peace and development committee, told The Times from inside Kandahar. “The Taliban front line is strong. Last night there were seven airstrikes to push them back. There is no Eid celebration here. People are fleeing to other provinces, but many are trapped in their homes and lack access to food and water.”
Local reports suggest the militants have already sent a wave of more than twenty suicide bombers into Kandahar that was repelled by Afghan forces. With reinforcements said to be arriving on the outskirts, a renewed assault is expected within days.
The US military confirmed it had launched several airstrikes against the Taliban around Kandahar province, the first operations it has carried out since General Scott Miller relinquished his command of American forces and left last week. The Pentagon, which has withdrawn much of its air power from the country, did not disclose what weapons it had used.
Afghan commandos have also arrived to shore up Kandahar’s defences. Crucially, the government still holds the airport, allowing it to target Taliban fighters on the ground. Once dug into built-up areas, however, the insurgents will be tougher to dislodge without house-to-house fighting.
The encircling of Kandahar comes amid a lightning advance by the Taliban that has enabled them to lay siege to at least ten cities across Afghanistan over the past month as the US completes its withdrawal from the country. As the birthplace of the Islamist movement, Kandahar is prized above all except Kabul itself, and defeat there would deal a hammer blow to the government of President Ghani.
The insurgents seized the border crossing into Pakistan at Spin Boldak, southeast of Kandahar, last week, cutting off a vital supply line to the city. Many of Kandahar’s 600,000 residents have already fled, with services breaking down as the fighting edges closer.
Senior Afghan officials acknowledged that Kandahar would represent a serious loss for the government. The insurgents are yet to capture and hold a big city. The northern city of Kunduz was overrun in 2015 and again the following year, but retaken both times by Afghan troops, backed by US and British special forces.
“We’d see that as significant,” a senior source said of the potential loss of Kandahar. “It would give the Taliban not just geography in a territory but some legitimacy inside Afghanistan.”
Beyond its strategic importance, Kandahar holds deep symbolic significance for the Taliban. Kandahar province was the birthplace of the Islamist movement as it emerged from the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Led by the one-eyed cleric Mullah Muhammad Omar, the group seized Kandahar in 1994, imposing its brand of swift and brutal Islamic justice. In one infamous incident, a local warlord who had raped several women was executed by Omar and his men, and his corpse hung in the city from the barrel of a tank as a warning.
Underscoring his power, Omar was presented with Kandahar’s most celebrated religious relic, a cloak believed to have been worn by the Prophet Muhammad. He wore it at a gathering of clerics in the city in 1996, and was declared leader of the faithful, a title claimed by only the most powerful figures in Islamic history.
Within months the Taliban had swept north and seized Kabul. The same year, Omar offered Osama bin Laden shelter in Kandahar, and the province remained a stronghold for al-Qaeda until the invasion in 2001.
Kandahar and the neighbouring province of Helmand proved to be a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency in the 20-year conflict that followed. When Nato forces ended combat operations in late 2014 the insurgents swept back from these southern strongholds, capturing swathes of the countryside.
With the US now dashing for the exit in Afghanistan, the Taliban advance has accelerated as government forces buckle and retreat to the cities. The speed and scale of the Afghan military’s collapse has prompted a recalibration on the battlefield: instead of trying to defend remote districts, it is focusing its efforts on securing strategic locations.
Commanders believe the Taliban are also planning an assault on the eastern city of Ghazni, a place of Islamic cultural significance and dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. As the last stop before Kabul on the road northeast from Kandahar, it could provide a launchpad for attacks on the capital.
“We are trying to consolidate that and use that as a base to strengthen resistance against the Taliban and then push them back,” the senior Afghan source said. “The nature of the war will change because the Taliban are coming out of hiding.”
The fact that Afghan forces will not be able to rely on American air support after the withdrawal is completed next month remains a cause for grave concern.
Washington has expressed its alarm at the deteriorating security situation. General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded this week that the Taliban had “strategic momentum”.
The insurgents have, however, also suffered heavy losses in the battles that have raged from north to south in recent weeks and observers have noted that their checkpoints in Kandahar are now sparsely manned.
Civilians in Kandahar are caught in the middle as the battle for the city rages around them. One man, Yaar Mohammed, said he was injured when a mortar bomb struck his house this week.
His wife and two daughters were killed. “What am I going to do? I have lost my loved ones,” he said. “I’m just a poor man. I sell handkerchiefs on a cart. Where can I seek justice?”