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The Afghan government has replaced its army chief for the third time in just over a year, highlighting the disarray in the country as the Taliban sweeps aside the government’s security forces.
General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, who was only appointed army chief in June, was replaced on Wednesday by General Hibatullah Alizai as the Taliban pushed closer to encircling Kabul and forcing the surrender of President Ashraf Ghani’s government
As the US prepares to withdraw the last of its troops, the Islamist rebels have captured nine provincial capitals and seized control of Kunduz airport.
Fighting is raging around the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, once a bastion of anti-Taliban resistance, and the city of Ghazni, which is strategically located on the highway from western Afghanistan to Kabul.
Many analysts were sceptical that leadership changes in the armed forces would do much to bolster Afghan troops, many of whom appear to have melted away in the face of the insurgents’ onslaught.
“It’s really late in the day for something like this to make a difference,” a senior Pakistani official told the Financial Times.
Afghans fleeing the heavy fighting as well as punishments meted out by the Taliban have sparked warnings from the UN of an imminent humanitarian crisis. The UN estimated in late July that 270,000 people had been displaced this year by the conflict.
Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, warned that “the already atrocious situation for so many Afghans will become so much worse” if hostilities do not cease.
Critics have blamed the US decision to withdraw from Bagram air base and pull out its troops for the Taliban’s rapid gains.
But diplomats said the insurgent group had been gaining ground slowly on Afghan security forces even when the national army enjoyed the full logistic support of US troops and air cover.
“Are we surprised that a force that was just about keeping up with the Taliban starts to crumble? Obviously not,” said a western diplomat.
The US has been pressing Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban to broker a peace deal. But Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has deteriorated.
Last week, Imran Khan’s security adviser complained that Joe Biden had not bothered to phone Pakistan’s prime minister.
On Wednesday, Khan said the US considered his country useful only “in the context of somehow settling this mess which has been left behind after 20 years of trying to find a military solution when there was not one”.
Pakistan has long played an ambiguous role in Afghanistan. Washington and the Afghan government believe Islamabad has covertly supported the Taliban, even while publicly claiming its support for a US-backed peace process.
Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s information minister, told reporters: “The people of Afghanistan and the United States must ask their governments exactly what use came from over $1tn that the US spent on the Afghan war. Why is the Afghan army coming apart like leaves?”
Biden said this week he did not regret his decision to withdraw US troops and that Afghans should unite to fight the Taliban, who are moving to reinstate strict Islamic law in areas they have captured.
Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad