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The Taliban Gain More Ground In Afghanistan Weeks From Planned U.S. Troops Withdrawal

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

With the U.S. just weeks away from a full withdrawal of its military forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban continue to rapidly gain ground. More cities are falling to the militants' control, including Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city. The Taliban now control more than a dozen of the country's 34 provincial capitals. And they're moving toward the capital, Kabul. Aid groups say a humanitarian crisis is unfolding, and now both the U.S. and the U.K. are sending in troops to help evacuate their citizens from the country. To find out more about this rapidly changing situation, we spoke earlier this morning to freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary, who is based in Kabul. Welcome to the program this morning.

BILAL SARWARY: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: What is the situation right now in the cities around Kabul?

SARWARY: Well, we know that there's very heavy fighting in the province of Logar in the provincial capital of Puli-e Alim to the south of Kabul. This is President Ashraf Ghani's home province. We understand that the Taliban have taken over the provincial prison as well as the provincial police headquarters. There's very heavy fighting against the governor's office as well as the headquarters for the Afghan Intelligence Service, NDS. And, you know, these events are unfolding in real time very, very quickly.

The fall of these strategic provinces is having a very destructive impact on the psyche of the Afghan people. It is creating a climate of mistrust, uncertainty. And people's hopes are shattered in the future of this country when you see the mass surrenders of the Afghan National Security Forces, when you see the Afghan governors surrendering entire provinces to the Taliban.

ELLIOTT: Can you describe for us sort of what happens when the Taliban does take control of an area? What is happening to people?

SARWARY: What we have seen has been a very brutal trend. We have seen executions. We have seen Taliban taking people captive who have disappeared. You know, snippets of it has appeared on videos that we have seen. It's a small window into the Taliban's sort of, you know, harsh style of governance. But this morning, the Taliban governor for Kandahar province, Haji Wafa, issued a three-minute audio message on what's up. First, he called on the traffic police to come to this city because the Kandahar city was crowded. A lot of people either returned back to their homes in the city or left the city for the districts. We have to remember there's been, like, a 40-day-plus very intense and heavy fighting within and inside central parts of Kandahar.

The governor has also said that all those members of the Afghan National Security Forces and government employees must remain inside their homes - they should not roam around; they should not leave the city; they should not go to Kabul - and that they should take advantage of the amnesty offered by the Taliban leader, Sher Hibatullah Akhundzada. So it is an incredibly, you know, painful and difficult situation for the Afghan civilians, for women and children. We're talking about more than a million Afghans being displaced. We're talking about millions more who simply can't leave their homes. They're stuck.

ELLIOTT: I'd like to ask you about how Afghans feel about the U.S. withdrawal. We should note that about 3,000 American troops will be deployed now to help evacuate Americans. But President Biden has made clear that, quote, you know, "Afghans have got to fight for themselves." What's the reaction to that there?

SARWARY: Well, it's a deep sense of betrayal because the Americans did announce the withdrawal date in the absence of a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire. They did announce that in the absence of a credible and meaningful peace process - this is what the Americans offered, you know, to the Afghan government when they forced the government to release 6,000 Taliban leaders and commanders in what was clearly a U.S. exit. It was not a peace process. We don't still have a peace process.

But I think there is also a deep sense of betrayal and pain when it comes to the Afghan government. The political bickering in Kabul, the deep divisions, the selfishness, the greed and the lack of creating a united front on the peace process - you know, I think it's all costed the people of Afghanistan quite a lot.

ELLIOTT: Freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary, reporting from Kabul, thank you so much, and please stay safe.

SARWARY: Thank you. It's good to talk to you.

ELLIOTT: He joined us on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.