American air support was called in to help fight off an audacious assault by the Taliban on the Afghan city of Ghazni on Friday, just 80 miles south of the capital Kabul.
Militants launched a night assault on the provincial capital, taking control of several parts of the city. American helicopters and drones were deployed to help push the Taliban back, the BBC reported, with multiple homes and government buildings reportedly destroyed by the fighting.
Ghazni sits on the vital highway connecting Kabul to the second largest city, Kandahar, in the south. Ghazni’s location and population of around 150,000 people make it an attractive target for the Taliban. The attempt to capture it speaks to the confidence among the militants, even after 17 years of guerrilla warfare.
The city’s health director told the BBC that at least 16 people had been killed and another 40 wounded. Most were believed to have been security forces personnel. The Afghan government claims to have killed dozens of Taliban fighters. The extent of civilian casualties is not yet known.
Earlier on Friday, residents told the Associated Press that Taliban fighters were freely roaming the streets of the city. Militants destroyed a telecommunications tower outside the city, cutting all cellphone and landline access to Ghazni.
Afghan special operations forces were deployed alongside regular troops to fight the Taliban back. Above them, American helicopters and drones buzzed across the sky, hitting Taliban positions and attempting to halt their advance. Gunfire could still be heard late on Friday as government forces tried to force the fighters back into the countryside. An Afghan military helicopter crash-landed amid the fighting, though it was not clear if the aircraft was shot down or went down for other reasons, the AP reported.
The picture on the front line is still muddled. Afghan officials admitted the Taliban had advanced to within 300 yards of the governor’s office and police headquarters, but denied the city had fallen. “Fighting is ongoing, but the whole city has not been taken by the Taliban,” Mohammad Arif Noori, the spokesman for Ghazni’s governor, told The New York Times by telephone. “We will not allow them to take the city.”
Brigadier General Mohammad Radmanish, an Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman, dismissed reports that Ghazni was in danger of being overrun. “It is just propaganda by the Taliban,” he claimed. Colonel Farid Ahmad Mashal, the local police chief, posted photos of dead Taliban fighters on Facebook, claiming, “All areas are in our control.”
A Taliban spokesman named as Zabihullah Mujahid posted images of the assault to Twitter, in which homes could be seen aflame. The Wall Street Journal’s Ehsanullah Amiri said that 15 hours after the attack began, the city still hadn’t been cleared of Taliban fighters.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, told reporters that initial reports suggested “minimal” casualties among Afghan forces. He confirmed Taliban attacks on “multiple government centers” and noted the involvement of U.S. aircraft in support of Afghan troops, who he said were holding their ground.
For all the talk of peace negotiations, the Taliban have stepped up attacks on provincial centers and the capital Kabul this year, demonstrating their continued ability to hit the U.S.-supported forces. Both sides are simultaneously battling encroaching ISIS influence in the country.
Earlier this year, Taliban fighters launched a large attack on the western city of Farah, briefly overrunning the provincial capital before being pushed out the following day. U.S. air support was also used to help Afghan troops retake Farah. Just this week, American Special Forces were deployed to the city to help train local forces and guard against renewed attacks.
The Taliban have only managed to capture one major city since being forced from power in 2001. In 2015, militants held the northern city of Kunduz for 15 days before retreating back into the countryside. While in control of the city, fighters destroyed multiple government facilities, seized military equipment, executed opponents and freed prisoners from the city’s jails.