BAGRAM, Afghanistan: An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier take a selfie with his mobile phone inside the Bagram US air base after all US and NATO troops left, some 70 Kms north of Kabul. - AFP

KABUL, Afghanistan: Afghan authorities yesterday vowed to retake all the districts lost to the Taleban and deployed hundreds of commandos to counter the insurgents' blistering offensive in the north, a day after more than 1,000 government troops fled into neighboring Tajikistan.

Fighting has raged across several provinces, but the insurgents have primarily focused on a devastating campaign across the northern countryside, seizing dozens of districts in the past two months. Last week, all US and NATO forces left Bagram Air Base near Kabul-the command center for anti-Taleban operations-effectively wrapping up their exit after 20 years of military involvement that began in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

"There is war, there is pressure. Sometimes things are working our way. Sometimes they don't, but we will continue to defend the Afghan people," National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib told reporters. "We have plans to retake the districts," he added. Troops and pro-government militiamen were deployed in the northern provinces of Takhar and Badakshan where the Taleban has captured large swathes of territory at lightning speed, often with little resistance.

Afghan defense officials have said they intend to focus on securing major cities, roads and border towns in the face of the Taleban onslaught, launched as US and NATO troops pressed ahead with their final withdrawal in early May. The militants' rapid gains have spurred fears that Afghan forces are facing a spiraling crisis, particularly now that vital US air support has been massively curtailed by the handover of Bagram Air Base.

Afghan forces flee

Mohib acknowledged that the Afghan air force was stretched and largely unable to support bases that were in remote districts. But he said the air force was now being reorganized and would offer the needed backup to troops on the ground. "We had some glitches as a result of the (US) retrograde... (that put) additional pressure on the Afghan air force, he said. "Next week we will receive seven Black Hawks" as part of Washington's continued support of Afghan forces, he said.

President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taleban for all the "bloodshed and destruction", adding that his government will not "surrender" to the militants, a palace statement said. On Monday, more than 1,000 Afghan troops fled into Tajikistan, forcing the neighboring country to bolster the frontier with its own soldiers. Several hundred Afghan troops had already crossed into Tajikistan in recent weeks, in the face of an advancing Taleban. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has ordered "the mobilization of 20,000 reserve troops to further strengthen the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan", a statement from the presidency said late on Monday.

"We had to abandon our base because there was no coordination or interest among our commanders to counter the attack," said Mohammad Musa, a soldier who had fled to Tajikistan after his base in Kunduz province fell to the Taleban last week. The fighting in the north has also forced Moscow to close its consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province and one of Afghanistan's largest urban centres near the border with Uzbekistan.

"The situation is changing rapidly. The Afghan forces, as they say, have abandoned too many districts. This logically creates nervousness," Moscow's envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told the state-run TASS news agency on Monday. Mohib said the soldiers who fled were returning and rejoining the security forces. "They may have abandoned their posts because they ran out of ammunition or they ran out of supplies, but by no means has anyone defected to the Taleban," he said.

'Trying our best'

The speed and ease of the Taleban's effective takeover of areas in Takhar, Badakhshan and Kunduz represent a massive psychological blow to the Afghan government. The area once served as the stronghold for the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance during the gruesome civil war in the 1990s and was never routed by the militants. A psychological war has also been taking shape online. The Taleban has marshalled its forces on social media, with insurgent-affiliated accounts providing live updates of the fall of districts and posting numerous videos of Afghan soldiers surrendering and handing over weapons caches and equipment to the group.

The Afghan government in turn has been releasing its own footage on social media-mostly grainy black and white videos of air strikes obliterating alleged Taleban positions, while boasting of inflicting heavy casualties on the jihadist group. Back on the ground, Afghan commander General Mirassadullah Kohistani, who is now in charge of Bagram Air Base following the US exit last week, put on a brave face when asked about the insurgents' rapid advances. "We are trying to do the best and as much as possible secure and serve all the people," he said. - AFP