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After a brief offensive, the Taliban invade important cities in northern Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban invaded two provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan on Sunday.

In the city of Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name, the Taliban captured the entrance to the city before dispersing in their neighborhoods. Kunduz was briefly captured by the Taliban in 2015 and 2016 before being pushed back by American air strikes, special forces and Afghan security forces.

“At the moment I hear the sound of bullets,” said Amruddin Wali, a member of the Kunduz provincial council. “The Taliban have appeared in the alleys and back alleys of Kunduz, and there is panic all over the city.”

The setbacks come at a harrowing moment for Afghanistan. American and international troops, now stationed mainly in Kabul, the capital, and at Bagram Airfield, are due to leave the country in weeks.

To the west of Kunduz in Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, Taliban fighters appeared at the entrance to the city before penetrating the outskirts of the city. After a series of power takeovers in the surrounding districts of the capital in the past few days, the Taliban clashed with security forces until Sunday night. In one such battle, the Taliban recently killed more than 20 of the government’s most elite forces. In another, dozens of government forces surrendered after running out of ammunition.

The looming US withdrawal means Afghan troops will be left without the kind of combat support that has halted such Taliban offensives in the past.

“If reinforcements come from Kabul and planes support the security forces, the Taliban cannot enter the city,” said Sebghatullah Selab, the MP for the provincial capital Faryab. On Sunday, fighting also broke out near the entrance to Taliqan, the capital of Takhar, a neighboring province of Kunduz.

US air support has been significantly reduced in recent weeks due to restrictive operational rules, and many American military aircraft are now stationed outside of Afghanistan. The Afghan Air Force is fighting to make up the difference.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will meet with President Biden at the White House on Friday to discuss US troop withdrawal.

In the past 24 hours, around a dozen districts have fallen to the Taliban – mostly in the north of the country. On May 28th, when US forces officially began their withdrawal from the country, the Taliban captured more than 50 districts – through local mediation, military offensives and government withdrawal – according to the New York Times.

Only a small number of districts have been recaptured by government forces as the defeats have forced Afghan commanders to consider what territory to hold after the Americans have withdrawn.

But Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the defense ministry, told Al Jazeera on Saturday: “There is a new, robust and effective plan to recapture areas from which we have withdrawn our troops.”

There are around 400 districts in the country, many of which have been contested and controlled by the Taliban for some time. But before the US withdrawal began, only a handful of districts had changed hands in the past year. In the past, many such takeovers took place with the Taliban occupying territories that were later recaptured by the government.

In May, Taliban troops entered Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in the south of the country. Afghan forces and US air strikes succeeded in pushing back the insurgents.

The current situation does not bode well for government forces and militias under the command of northern Afghanistan’s power brokers, some of whom are notorious warlords who have been in power since the country’s civil war in the 1990s and the 2001 US invasion.

Often composed mainly of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, these militias have long viewed the north as their stronghold of the Taliban, a mainly Pashtun group that rose in the south.

Even with neighboring militias, the morale of the government troops is low and they are often besieged in isolated outposts and bases that can only be supplied by the Afghan air force. The small group of pilots and aircraft face their own problems as international forces and maintenance companies leave the country.

As a clear sign of the deteriorating security situation, the Afghan government appointed a new incumbent defense, interior minister and army chief on Saturday.

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