Another 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled into neighboring Tajikistan early Monday to escape clashes with Taliban insurgents who have mounted an offensive as NATO forces withdraw, according to Tajik border officials.
Citing a statement from Tajikistan's border authority, the state-run news agency Khovar said Monday that 1,037 Afghan servicemen crossed the border from Afghanistan's Badakhshan province "to save the lives of their personnel."
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon later Monday ordered the mobilization of 20,000 reserve troops to the border, according to a statement on the presidential website. Tajik authorities have repeatedly said they will not interfere in internal Afghan matters.
The influx was the third wave of Afghan soldiers to flee into Tajikistan in recent days and the fifth in two weeks, bringing the total to nearly 1,600, according to the BBC.
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The Afghan Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement on Twitter, Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said "vast areas" of Badakhshan province were cleared of Taliban fighters.
But Ahmad Javed, a member of Badakhshan's provincial council, said that the "situation is unfortunately not good."
Javed said all but one of Badakhshan's 28 districts have fallen into Taliban control and that Faizabad, the provincial capital, is surrounded.
People "worry Taliban may enter the city at any moment," though Afghan reinforcements arrived in Faizabad on Sunday night, he said.
The Taliban have been rapidly retaking territory across northern Afghanistan, including areas along the 500-mile border with Tajikistan. Thousands of militia members -- including ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan -- and armed citizens have rushed to join Afghan forces to fight the insurgents.
U.S. intelligence analysts have warned that the Afghan government could fall swiftly after U.S. troops completely pull out. President Joe Biden set Sept. 11 as the withdrawal deadline, though hundreds of troops have already departed. The U.S. military last week handed control of Bagram air base, its most important airfield in the country, to the Afghan forces.
Afghan officials have insisted they are prepared to retain control and beat back the Taliban.
But many Afghans are looking to leave the country amid fears of a return to the Taliban's repressive rule.
Some 200,000 Afghans have been internally displaced this year, said Indrika Ratwatte, Asia-Pacific bureau director for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Aid agencies are bracing for an influx of refugees into nearby countries -- such as Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey -- that for decades have hosted several million Afghan refugees and that are warning they are not equipped to take in more.
Tajikistan, the poorest country in Central Asia, shares many linguistic and ethnic ties with Afghanistan. But the country, which is aligned with Russia, imposes restrictions on Afghan refugees, such as banning them from living in the capital, Dushanbe, and forbidding them from working in certain sectors.
On Monday, Reuters reported that Tajikistan is considering setting up camps for Afghan refugees fleeing the expected rise in violence. Since April, about 1,000 Afghans who can afford the cost of tickets have flown to Dushanbe each month to seek asylum, Ratwatte said.
In recent days, Uzbekistan has set up a tent area to house an expected flow of Afghan refugees, Eurasia Net reported.
SLOWING THE PACE
When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened his military brain trust last week on a classified videoconference for an update on Afghanistan, commanders had reason to feel positive.
The U.S. troop drawdown was complete -- two months ahead of schedule. The last combat forces would exit the military's hub at Bagram air base overnight, leaving just 650 troops to help secure the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and Kabul International Airport. There was even talk that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Miller, would leave for good within a few days.
But reality steadily intruded in the days leading up to Austin's meeting with Miller; Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of the military's Central Command.
The Afghan army was reeling from a series of defeats in battles against the Taliban. The Afghan air force faced grounding without contractor support that was scheduled to end. And Biden's plan to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with U.S. forces in an effort to keep them safe had stalled.
With the White House's blessing, Austin, a retired four-star Army general who oversaw the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, ordered a series of steps to slow the pace of the final withdrawal from America's longest war. The measures would buy some time to soften the drawdown's psychological shock to the Afghans and to extend at least through August a U.S. security umbrella that no longer had any combat troops, equipment or bases in the country.
Miller will remain in Afghanistan for "at least a couple more weeks," John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. Miller will help transition the U.S. military mission from war to two new objectives -- protecting a continuing U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul and maintaining liaison with the Afghan military.
Miller will turn over his command to McKenzie, who will assume at least through August the authority that Miller had to carry out airstrikes against al-Qaida, the Islamic State militant group and, in very limited circumstances, Taliban fighters, Pentagon officials said.
"Our leaving does not end the war. It just ends the American involvement," said John Allen, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who commanded U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. "The war will continue."
The U.S. left Bagram after nearly 20 years by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without notifying the base's new Afghan commander, who discovered the Americans' departure more than two hours after they left, Afghan military officials said.
Afghanistan's army showed off the sprawling air base Monday, providing a rare glimpse of what had been the epicenter of America's war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
The U.S. announced Friday that it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of the final withdrawal.
"We [heard] some rumor that the Americans had left Bagram ... and finally by seven o'clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left," said Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the base's new commander.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett did not address the specific complaints of many Afghan soldiers who inherited the airfield, instead referring to a statement last week.
The statement said the handover process began soon after Biden's mid-April announcement that America was withdrawing the last of its forces. Leggett said in the statement that the U.S. had coordinated the departure with Afghanistan's leaders.
Before the Afghan army could take control of the airfield about an hour's drive from Kabul, it was invaded by a small army of looters, who ransacked barrack after barrack and rummaged through giant storage tents before being evicted, according to Afghan military officials.
"At first we thought maybe they were Taliban," said Abdul Raouf, a soldier of 10 years. He said the U.S. called and said, "We are here at the airport in Kabul."
Kohistani insisted the Afghan National Security and Defense Force could hold on to the heavily fortified base despite a string of Taliban wins on the battlefield. The airfield also includes a prison with about 5,000 detainees, many of them said to be Taliban members.
Referring to recent lost ground to the Taliban, Kohistani said, "In battle it is sometimes one step forward and some steps back."
He said the Afghan military is changing its strategy to focus on the strategic districts, insisting it would retake them in the coming days without saying how that would be accomplished.
On display Monday was a large facility, the size of a small city, that had been used exclusively by the U.S. and NATO. Roadways weave through barracks and past hangar-like buildings.
There are two runways and more than 100 parking spots for fighter jets known as revetments because of the blast walls that protect each aircraft. One of the runways, built in 2006, is 12,000 feet long. There's a passenger lounge, a 50-bed hospital and giant hangar-size tents filled with supplies such as furniture.
Kohistani said the U.S. left behind 3.5 million items, all itemized by the departing military. They include tens of thousands of bottles of water, energy drinks and military ready-made meals.
The big-ticket items left behind include thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys, and hundreds of armored vehicles. Kohistani said the U.S. also left behind small weapons and the ammunition for them, but no heavy weapons.
Afghan soldiers who wandered throughout the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 U.S. troops were critical of how the U.S. left Bagram, leaving in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers tasked with patrolling the perimeter.
"In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area," said Naematullah, an Afghan soldier who asked that only his one name be used.
Within 20 minutes of the U.S.' silent departure Friday, the electricity was shut down and the base was plunged into darkness, said Raouf, the soldier of 10 years who has served in the Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Kohistani said the nearly 20 years of U.S. and NATO involvement in Afghanistan was appreciated, but now it is time for Afghans to step up.
"We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Miriam Berger and Sharif Hassan of The Washington Post; by Eric Schmitt of The New York Times; and by Kathy Gannon and Tameem Akhgar of The Associated Press.