The Taliban has claimed to have taken a important trade crossing into Pakistan, in the latest seizure of an apparent campaign to strangle the Afghan government by cutting off border revenue.
The insurgent movement and officials in neighbouring Pakistan said fighters had taken the Spin Boldak crossing in Kandahar province, days after taking crossings in Herat and Kunduz.
Afghan officials denied the claims and said government forces remained in control, while residents said clashes were ongoing. Unconfirmed pictures on social media appeared to show militants looking relaxed in the frontier town.
"I went to my shop this morning and saw that the Taliban are everywhere. They are in the bazaar, in police HQ and custom areas. I can also hear the sound of fighting nearby," Raz Mohammad, a shopkeeper who works near the border, told AFP.
The strategic crossing links landlocked Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea, but has had extra symbolic and logistical significance during the Taliban insurgency.
The crossing into Balochistan province is only 75 miles from the Pakistani city of Quetta and also gives access to Karachi, which are both thought to hold much of the Taliban’s leadership. The militants have long been able to get rest and medical care in Balochistan, though Islamabad denies supporting them and claims it has little influence.
Taliban border Afghanistan
Hours after the crossing fell, an AFP reporter on the Pakistani side saw around 150 Taliban fighters riding on motorcycles, waving insurgent flags, as they demanded to be allowed to cross into Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s ministry of interior said the border would be closed for at least three days because of the fighting.
The Taliban has yet to take any significant city since their latest offensive began two months ago as American and Nato troops began their final departure. Nato military sources have questioned whether the Taliban has overstretched itself with a sweep through rural districts in the north and whether it had the numbers and firepower to attack the country’s main cities.
People wave a Taliban flag as they drove through the Pakistani border town of Chaman
But analysts said the capture of so many border crossings appeared a deliberate strategy. Taking lucrative border posts and controlling trade passing through them could severely weaken the government.
David Mansfield, an academic at LSE who has studied trade and smuggling into Afghanistan, said: “Is there any need to attack the cities when you control the goods and services they receive, deprive Kabul of funds and sabotage the bargains between Kabul and the those with power and influence over key choke points?”
Taliban takes control of vital income
The Taliban has said it will continue to operate border crossings, potentially bringing millions of dollars a month of customs revenue into their coffers.
"Income has started to go to the Taliban," said Shafiqullah Attai, chairman of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment.
Traders in northern Afghanistan have complained that the militants have appeared clueless over how to run a border post and overwhelmed by their new duties. At the captured Sher Khan Bandar crossing into Tajikistan, the insurgents were reported to have appealed for border staff to return to work, but they were too scared to turn up.
As the Afghan government’s grip over the country appeared to further loosen, former US president George W Bush criticised Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops.
“This is a mistake… They’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart," he said.
Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, this week assured citizens that "the Taliban’s backbone will be broken" and said government forces would soon retake all of the areas lost to the militants.
Meanwhile, nine Chinese workers were among 13 killed when a blast sent their shuttle bus into a ravine in north western Pakistan. The Chinese government at first condemned an “attack” and demanded Islamabad catch the culprits, but officials later said the explosion had been caused by "a mechanical failure, resulting in leakage of gas that caused a blast".