Smoke rises after Taliban militants launched an attack on the provincial capital of Ghazni on August 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Smoke rises after Taliban militants launched an attack on the provincial capital of Ghazni on August 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Zakeria Hashimi

The five-day siege of the southern Afghan province of Ghazni officially came to an end on Tuesday afternoon. But while Afghan forces had reportedly started clearance operations, unconfirmed reports suggested there were ongoing battles in some districts.

The attack started last Friday, in the provincial capital Ghazni city, less than 150 kilometers from the Afghan capital of Kabul. More than 100 Afghan security forces have been killed, according to General Tareq Shah Bahrami, the Afghan minister of national defense. The casualties also include nearly 30 civilians killed in the crossfire.

Ghazni resident Mohammad Elham, 28, told Asia Times: “The attacks started around midnight and it seemed that the Taliban were coming in from all directions.” Elham was one of many trapped in the city as the fighting raged around them.

While there are no clear figures available, it is believed that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters entered the provincial capital city on Friday. “They first took control of the checkpoints around the city and by 5am they had entered Ghazni city from the west,” Elham said, adding that fierce exchanges of fire and heavy weapons lasted for six hours. “We didn’t sleep that night, or much after that.

“I saw many people mourning in the last few days. A woman in our neighborhood was killed by a missile that hit their house.”

Elham dismissed reports of the Taliban taking control of the police headquarters, but said the insurgents were less than 50 meters from government offices and firing on the buildings, including the office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s spy agency.

“However, I did see fire and smoke rising from other governmental offices for four days, suggesting they were probably under the Taliban control,” he added.

Several other reports, including a statement by the UN office, corroborated Elham’s account. “Heavy fighting has been reported from the city throughout the past three days. On Monday evening, there were, for the first time, unconfirmed reports from humanitarian sources that fighting had subsided,” a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

The UN agency also reported civilians fleeing the city. “Families are reportedly also trying to leave the city via smaller roads through the mountains. On Monday morning, reports were received from authorities of about 70 displaced people arriving in Gardez, Paktiya,” it said.

Elham escaped to Kabul on Tuesday morning.

On Monday, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, following an emergency meeting with various security agencies, announced reinforcements and an additional 1,000 Afghan army soldiers were going to Ghazi. US forces also deployed air power to support local forces.

However, the fall of another provincial capital, even for a brief period, was a setback for the government as well as foreign forces, who have been attempting to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

In fact, after the relative success of the first ceasefire with the Taliban during Eid ul-Fitr in June, the president suggested another truce this month during Eid ul-Adha. But with growing discontent over the Ghazni siege, it remains to be seen if the government will move forward with the ceasefire.

Meanwhile, the UN report noted the attacks on key government offices caused critical damage to infrastructure as well as communication networks and the electricity supply in Ghazni were down, which resulted in water shortages due to non-functional pumps. Among other services hit were access to basic food and medicines.

“All the bakeries, drug stores and shops were closed. Even the provincial hospital was under the control of Taliban,” Elham said.

Perhaps the most tragic impact was the lack of medical attention, especially for those injured in the fighting. “It is difficult for me to talk about what I witnessed,” Elham said. “We couldn’t take the injured to the hospitals. Most of my injured neighbors remained in their homes fearing further casualties.”

“Reports have been received that residents were unable to safely bring injured persons to the hospital, indicating that the number of people requiring emergency medical treatment may rise over the coming days,” the UN said.

As details of the human tragedy of the Ghazni siege emerge, criticism against the government has mounted. “The government was aware that the situation could get his bad, even the local taxi drivers knew that the Taliban was planning an attack,” Elham said, accusing the government of not doing enough to prevent and later contain the attacks.

With mounting civilian and military casualties, the Ghazni siege stretched Afghan forces, who are already dealing with a steady increase of clashes across the country. However, for many like Elham, the damage inflicted was too much. “I saw so many dead bodies, of civilians, security forces and Taliban. This could have been avoided,” he said.

While Afghanistan was trying to get back to some sort of normalcy after Ghazni, a suicide blast in a school in a Shiite area of Kabul claimed about 37 lives and injured more than 40.