Kabul: It was a warm Tuesday in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, when the Indian consulate there announced it will temporarily shut down the premises as Taliban insurgents were closing in, and a fierce battle continued on the outskirts.
The air was thick with the tension, fear, desperation, and in some cases even hope, of the residents of the city, which is also the capital of Afghanistan’s Balkh Province.
Just four days later, on Saturday night, as the US began sending its troops back to Afghanistan for the evacuation of its diplomatic staff and others, the Taliban was rejoicing their victory over Mazar, one of the country’s major commercial hubs.
Claiming their victory, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah tweeted, “The city of Mazar, the capital of Balkh province, was also conquered … A large number of vehicles, weapons and equipment fell into the hands of the Mojahedin.”
Although much of the city had been gripped with a sense of hopelessness, some sections of the people, especially those who are regarded as the caretakers of the iconic Blue Mosque, or the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, told ThePrint that they are “not scared” of the Taliban coming into the city because “they are one of us, not enemies”.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint earlier this week at his plush residence, former Balkh governor Ata Mohammad Noor had accused the US of acting in haste and “behaving irresponsibly”.
Dressed in army fatigue, as were his two sons, Noor, leader of Afghanistan’s Jamiat-e-Islami party, had sounded not just confident that he and his militia along with the Afghan forces would be able to push the Taliban back, but were also sure that Mazar would never fall.
The city had been alive and active then, people were running their small shops as usual, while sipping tea on the roadside near the main city centre, questioning why the media was roaming around when the city was “safe”.
At the city’s popular Buzkashi Chowk, men had gathered in one corner, as they do daily, talking about what could happen to them if the Taliban came in.
On 11 August President Ashraf Ghani had visited Mazar in an effort to support the rebellion in the north against the Taliban.
The fall of Mazar
On Saturday, as Mazar fell to the Taliban, Noor alleged in a series of social media posts that the city fell due to an “organised conspiracy” and that the same conspiracy will now unfold in Kabul.
He wrote in his Facebook posts that “Regrettably, in a big, organized and unworthy manly conspiracy, all government facilities and government forces were given to Taliban”. He said not just him, but even Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former vice-president, who had once been a key leader of the Northern Alliance that had fought the Taliban back in the 1990s, was also “trapped”.
Noor and Dostum are now believed to have left for Uzbekistan while their men who comprised their militia are headed towards the Uzbek borders by road, even as the border gates remained closed.
With the fall of Mazar, the imminent threat staring at Kabul has become clearer now.
Sensing an impending crisis and with the clamour of Taliban taking over the Afghan capital, US President Joe Biden authorised mobilisation of 5,000 American troops Saturday, instead of the 3,000 decided earlier, for an “orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.”
“I have ordered our Armed Forces and our Intelligence Community to ensure that we will maintain the capability and the vigilance to address future terrorist threats from Afghanistan,” he said in a statement.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)