KABUL, Afghanistan - The battle for the strategic city of Ghazni in Afghanistan continued to rage into its third day, after Taliban insurgents, on Friday, launched a massive assault on the city in the dead of the night.
In its 17-year-long insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul, Taliban has attacked Ghazni several times, often staging vehicle bombings and suicide attacks, targeting government officials and Afghan security forces in the key province.
In 2017, the group began using U.S.-made Humvees in their suicide attacks in Ghazni more often.
At the time, security official explained that the bulky off-road vehicles used in these attacks had been taken from Afghan army bases by the insurgents during previous attacks and were being used since they create more shrapnel when they explode.
Taliban’s repeated attacks and specific interest in Ghazni city is due to the fact that the province in which it is located, lies on the key highway between Kabul and Kandahar.
Ghazni is also some 150 kilometers southeast of the Afghanistan capital, Kabul.
Further, Friday’s attack came merely days after the insurgents used the same modus operandi to storm Azra district in Logar Province but failed.
Logar Province is about 50 miles south of Kabul and Taliban militants were met with strong resistance from Afghan Security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes.
On Friday, several heavily armed Taliban militants launched an assault on Ghazni, leaving civilians terrified and Afghan forces baffled.
Officials said that hundreds of militants, armed with heavy weapons, stormed Ghazi city, trying to overrun the provincial capital by overthrowing security forces.
However, security forces soon engaged in clashes to push back the insurgents and hours into the fight, militants killed at least 14 Afghan security forces in the city and left 20 soldiers injured.
Further, with Afghan forces engaging militants in a battle on ground, U.S. warplanes, drones and helicopters targeted groups of Taliban fighters and launched airstrikes from above.
Government officials claimed that they had managed to curtail the attack and said that later in the day, police conducted house-to-house searches for any remaining Taliban fighters.
Taliban immediately issued a statement contradicting the Afghan government, with the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claiming that parts of Ghazni had been seized and scores of people had been killed.
By Saturday, with the battle raging for two whole days, Baz Mohammad Hemat, the administrator of the Ghazni city hospital confirmed that at least 20 members of the security forces had been wounded.
Further, provincial police chief Farid Ahmad Mashal said that heavy fighting was ongoing in several areas of Ghazni city.
Mashal also noted that there were more than 100 casualties and pointed out that most of the casualties were militants.
In a separate statement, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish said that the army helped the police bring the city back under the control of government forces.
The government also said that U.S. warplanes, drones, and helicopters came to the aid of the Afghan forces before they managed to repulse the Taliban assault.
Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said in a TOLO news report, "U.S. forces responded with close-air support (U.S. attack helicopters) and conducted one strike (drone). In addition, U.S. aircraft conducted a show of presence.”
Yet contradictions emerged since O'Donnell said fighting had ceased at around 8 am Kabul time, and residents reported that sporadic gunfire could be heard by mid-morning.
According to local reports, the intense fighting prompted authorities to close the highway linking Ghazni to Kabul, and police special forces helped block the Taliban advance on the city.
Afghan officials they were conducting an investigation into how the insurgents managed to infiltrate so deep into the city.
On Sunday, a hospital official reportedly claimed that 100 police officers and soldiers have been killed in the southeastern Afghan city in three days of fighting.
Further, Taliban insurgents were said to have seized control of most neighbourhoods in the strategic city.
Reports from local residents and Afghan officials also stated that the insurgents had begun spreading into districts outside Ghazni city, two of which fell to them overnight.
A report quoted Baz Mohammad Hemat, the director of the Ghazni Hospital as saying that 113 bodies had been taken to the hospital, along with 142 wounded.
Other officials said that an additional 100 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed in fighting in other parts of the country over the past two days.
According to experts, the fall of Ghazni would be the Taliban’s most important victory yet.
Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, a member of the provincial council was quoted as saying, “Heavy fighting is ongoing around the governor’s office, the Police Headquarters and the compound of the intelligence agency. The forces in Ghazni have resisted well, but naturally they have fought so long. The reinforcements have not done anything effective, all they have done is establish a base for themselves. Bodies are lying around, they have decomposed, and no one is doing anything to evacuate them.”
Meanwhile, Ferozuddin Feroz, the Afghan Minister of Public Health, said he had asked the International Committee of the Red Cross for “urgent help” in transporting the wounded out of Ghazni.
The conflict, which has grown increasingly bloody over the years, has so far, led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghans and scores of soldiers, especially since the government managed to topple Taliban in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
In the last year alone, official records show that over 10,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and injured.
Adding to tensions, in August last year, the U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes, aimed at forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table under the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.
According to Afghan security forces, the impact of this has been significant.
In the meantime, the Taliban has managed to extend its influence over huge swaths of the country and the areas that were previously taken from the group are now back under its control.
Currently, there are 15,600 foreign troops in the country compared with 140,000 in 2014 when foreign combat forces withdrew from Afghanistan.
Taliban has long demanded that foreign forces be completely withdrawn from the country as a pre-condition for peace talks to begin.
The recent attacks, however, come at a time when the war-ravaged country is said to be witnessing one of its bloodiest periods since the start of the war.
Afghanistan is not only facing an increasing number of attacks by both Taliban and ISIS, but the country is also preparing to hold elections in October, which have already been delayed several times.
However, in the run up to the election, the deterioration of the country’s security is said to have emboldened militants.
Afghan forces, that are now facing Taliban attacks in their defensive positions, is engaged in a multi-pronged war, even as American and Afghan forces, both increase airstrikes in the country.
According to official figures, U.S. forces have dropped nearly 3,000 bombs across Afghanistan in the first six months of 2018.
This is said to be nearly double the number recorded during the same period last year and more than five times the number for the first half of 2016.
The United Nations has warned that as a result of the aggressive offensive against militants in the country, civilian casualties from aerial bombardments have increased considerably.
According to the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, airstrikes have killed 149 civilians and left 204 injured in the first six months of this year - which it said is a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.