Afghan security forces backed by American air power repelled a Taliban assault on the strategic city of Ghazni on Friday, but only after insurgents managed to overrun parts of the city and engage government troops in an extended firefight.
As militants attacked from four directions, Afghan soldiers traded fire in a battle that began in the early morning hours and continued into late afternoon.
The Taliban attackers burned police checkpoints and occupied civilian houses, from where they were able to snipe at security forces that deployed to the area, Reuters reported, citing local security officials.
Afghan forces stopped the Taliban advance toward the city center after calling in support from U.S. attack helicopters and drone aircraft, but it was unclear whether the government had regained full control of the city as of Friday afternoon local time.
Casualty counts for the battle were mixed, but the Afghan defense ministry said that 150 Taliban attackers had been killed or wounded. At least 16 civilians were killed and 40 others wounded in the assault, The New York Times reported, citing the head of the health department in Ghazni province.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement saying that “dozens” of Afghan soldiers had been killed, but U.S. military officials dismissed the claim as insurgent propaganda.
“This is yet another failed Taliban attempt to seize terrain, which will result in yet another eye-catching but strategically inconsequential headline,” Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, told Reuters.
The city of Ghazni is a key gateway to the Afghan capital of Kabul. Located about 100 miles south of the capital, it straddles the Kabul-Kandahar highway, an important corridor that links the country’s northern and southern provinces.
Much of the Ghazni province has been contested by Taliban forces in recent years, but Friday’s assault was the first attempt to seize the provincial capital. It mirrored in many ways a Taliban attack on the western city of Farah in May, when insurgents managed to overrun large sections of the city before being driven off by American special forces commandos, armed drones and A-10 ground attack jets.
The Taliban attacks in Farah, Ghazni and elsewhere are a microcosm of the nationwide insurgency. It is not potent enough to capture and hold major urban areas, but it can attack Afghan government forces at will and then melt into the surrounding countryside.
Aside from being able to wage hit-and-run attacks on government forces, the insurgency has become particularly deadly to Afghanistan’s civilian population: Almost 1,700 civilians were killed from Jan. 1 to June 30. That was a higher total than in any six-month period since 2010, according to the United Nations.
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