KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban forces on Friday penetrated Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, in a new phase of a sweeping insurgent offensive that has captured territory across the country since May 1, when U.S. forces began withdrawing.
The insurgents had been encroaching on Kandahar city, the capital of the province of the same name, for several weeks, capturing surrounding districts, before entering the city for the first time Friday.
Taliban fighters entered Kandahar’s Seventh Police District Friday, seizing houses and engaging with security forces in the area, said Bahir Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Kandahar governor. Commandos and other special forces units were battling the insurgents well into the evening, proceeding cautiously because the area is heavily populated, Mr. Ahmadi said.
The Afghan Air Force struck a number of Taliban positions in neighboring districts, as the insurgents attempted to push their way into the city.
The attack comes less than 24 hours after President Biden defended his decision to end American involvement in Afghanistan, asserting that the United States can no longer afford the human cost or strategic distraction of a 20-year conflict that he said had strayed far from its initial mission.
In a nod to the ongoing instability, Mr. Biden said the United States would remain engaged in diplomatic efforts and continue to support the Afghan government with money and supplies even after all U.S. troops withdraw.
The president also affirmed that he did not believe a Taliban takeover of the whole country was inevitable, calling the Afghan security forces “better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.”
Despite Mr. Biden’s affirmations, the Afghan security forces have struggled to defend themselves against the Taliban, who in the span of just over two months have managed to seize at least 150 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.
Kandahar Province, the main city in Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun heartland in the south, was the birthplace of the Taliban during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. And it has been a focus of the insurgents’ push in recent days. In the last week alone, insurgents captured Panjwai and Zharey, two districts that neighbor Kandahar city. They have also carried out a series of attacks on police outposts on the outskirts of the city.
Elsewhere in Kandahar Province, the Afghan security forces have been embroiled in fighting in Arghandab, another district bordering the provincial capital, and near the Pakistan border crossing of Spin Boldak.
In the western part of the country, Taliban militants captured two major border crossings his week, Islam Qala at the Iran border and Torghundi bordering Turkmenistan, local officials said. The loss of the border posts, both in the province of Herat, could prove costly, as they are the country’s largest, collecting a quarter of the country’s annual customs revenue, about $281 million.
While much of the country’s customs collection takes place in Herat, duties on oil, gas and fresh produce continue to be collected at the Iran border posts, now in the hands of the Taliban, officials said.
Iran’s customs spokesman said Thursday all trade with Afghanistan was suspended at the border crossings under the control of Taliban. The reaction has been different in another of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Tajikistan, where dozens of trucks continue to pour across the northern border every day at the Sher Khan Bandar post in Kunduz Province, even though it was seized by insurgents three weeks ago.
Around Herat Province, nearly a dozen districts have fallen in the last few days. A powerful local warlord, Ismail Khan, who has played a key role in Afghan politics for decades, vowed to deploy 1,500 armed fighters around the city to defend it against the Taliban.
In a news conference in Moscow on Friday, Taliban officials claimed that the group now controls 85 percent of Afghanistan, though other assessments put the group’s control at closer to one-third to one-half the national territory.
But the boast reflected the insurgent group’s increasing self-confidence as government troops continue to abandon district centers. The Taliban have been trying to rebrand themselves as capable governors while pursuing their ruthless, land-grabbing offensive. The combination is a stark signal that the insurgents fully intend to try for all-out dominance of Afghanistan once the American withdrawal is completed.
Russian officials said the Taliban now control two-thirds of Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan, across which more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled last week.
“We want all representatives of Afghan society” to participate in the country’s future, Shahabuddin Dilawar, a Taliban negotiator, said in a translation provided by Russian television on Friday.
“Whatever their beliefs, they can participate,” he said. “Our stance is: for Afghan traditions, and the rights of all Afghan citizens to get an education in our country — men and women,” Mr. Dilawar said.
On Wednesday, Taliban forces entered another provincial capital, Qala-e-Naw, freeing more than 100 prisoners there and nearly taking the capital of Badghis Province. Afghan commandos and air support eventually pushed the insurgents to its periphery.
Other provincial capitals in the country’s north — long known as an anti-Taliban stronghold — are also under siege, with insurgent fighters on the periphery of at least three other important cities.
The Taliban’s recent offensive has killed hundreds of Afghan troops in recent weeks, and hundreds of others have surrendered, forfeiting vast amounts of weapons, equipment and territory. The fighting has also displaced thousands of Afghan civilians.
In June, at least 703 Afghan security forces and 208 civilians were killed in Afghanistan, the highest count among security forces since The Times began independently tracking casualties in September 2018.
Forty miles east of Kabul, the capital, the Taliban captured a string of villages in the Sarobi district this week. Government outposts in several of these villages were abandoned, said Abdul Wahid Wahdat, a local tribal elder. He said Taliban and residents had then looted the outposts.
“The Americans trained these forces for 20 years, but they were not capable of keeping their outposts for four days,” Mr. Wahdat said. “There was no fighting between security forces and the Taliban. These areas were abandoned without the firing of a single shot.”
Reporting was contributed by Taimoor Shah from Kandahar; Farnaz Fassihi from New York; Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; and Fahim Abed and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul.
Taliban Enter Kandahar City and Seize Border Posts is written by Adam Nossiter for www.nytimes.com