KABUL, Afghanistan — Since international forces began to withdraw from Afghanistan in May, the Taliban have waged a sweeping military campaign, taking control of much of the country’s rural areas. But for months the insurgents failed to capture major cities – until now.
In the past six days, the insurgents have captured nine provincial capitals across the country, most clustered in the north, in a major escalation of their military offensive and a devastating blow to the Afghan government.
The Taliban’s swift victories have put enormous pressure on Afghan political leaders and the country’s beleaguered security forces, who have been overwhelmed by the insurgents’ relentless advance. The collapse of cities, particularly in northern Afghanistan – once at the heart of resistance to the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 – has fueled fears that the insurgents could surround the country’s capital, Kabul, in a full military takeover.
Now the Afghan government must decide whether to restore its troops around the territory it owns – including Kabul – or try to recapture its fallen cities. Here’s what we know so far and what questions need to be answered in the coming days.
What areas do the Taliban control now?
Since the Taliban launched their military offensive in May, the insurgents have claimed more than half of Afghanistan’s 400 counties, according to some assessments. In recent weeks, after raiding much of the Afghan countryside, the insurgents began besieging multiple provincial capitals simultaneously for the first time in the 20-year war.
Then on Friday those front lines broke: The Taliban captured Zaranj, a provincial capital near the border with Iran, after meeting little resistance from Afghan security forces entering the city. A day later, they captured another capital, Sheberghan, the northern stronghold of the warlord Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose militias were overrun.
On Sunday, Taliban forces captured three more northern capitals. They captured Taliqan, the capital of Takhar province, and Sar-i-Pul, the capital of the province of the same name. They also seized Kunduz, the largest city captured to date and a vital commercial center that the group has long coveted as both a strategic and symbolic prize.
Continuing their relentless drive on Monday, the Taliban overran Aybak, the capital of Samangan province, located on the main road connecting Kabul to Afghanistan’s northern provinces. On Tuesday, insurgents seized three more capitals: the city of Farah in the western province of the same name; Pul-i-Khumri, the capital of the northern province of Baghlan; and Faizabad, the capital of the remote and rugged Badakhshan province in the far northeast of the country.
The simultaneous sieges of provincial centers overwhelmed Afghan security forces and made military resources dangerously thin. Supply lines to government forces have been cut. The towns and districts that are still under government control are even more cut off and isolated. And Afghan security forces are exhausted from the brutal offensive
How is the Afghan government reacting?
Amid all the defeat, President Ashraf Ghani’s government refused to recognize the falling capitals. Instead, the Afghan Defense Ministry continued to promote its official talking points that emphasized the death of the Taliban and the strength of the Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government’s strategy to slow the Taliban’s advance aligns with long-standing US recommendations that Afghans consolidate their remaining forces around key roads, cities and border crossings and leave most of the districts already occupied by the Taliban. , according to US and UN diplomats.
But it’s not clear how that plan will tackle the capture of now nine provincial capitals across the country — or explain the depletion of the country’s air force and commandos.
For months, those elite troops have been the backbone of the country’s defense against the Taliban. As the insurgents have besieged cities, they have moved from one vulnerable position to another to drive the Taliban out of urban centers, keep territory under government control and recapture some districts from the Taliban.
But that strategy is only an emergency measure. There simply aren’t enough troops to defend all 34 provincial capitals and 400-odd districts, and after months of non-stop fighting, those troops are battered.
As of Tuesday evening, Afghan security forces had not yet launched any serious operations to recapture the seized capitals. In Kunduz, where military leaders had vowed to launch an operation to retake the strategic center, Taliban forces on Tuesday pushed closer to Kunduz airport, the last part of government control on the outskirts of the city.
Could the Taliban stage a full military takeover?
In particular, the Taliban’s breakthrough victories in northern Afghanistan have fueled fears that the insurgents could envelop the country’s capital, Kabul, opening the possibility for a full military takeover.
After the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, the southern and predominantly ethnic Pashtun insurgency faced fierce resistance from militias in the north, known as the Northern Alliance. Even when the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, the Northern Alliance deprived the group of a full takeover for the duration of their five-year rule.
But now conquering seven northern cities in just five days, experts warn that if the insurgents are able to capture the north — the country’s best hope of a base resistance strong enough to defeat the Taliban — the country could can collapse their hands completely.
“The north is strategic for the Taliban because they believe that if they can conquer these non-Pashtun areas,” said Ramish Salemi, a political analyst in Kabul, “they can easily take control of the south and the capital, Kabul. “
Will the Taliban advance affect US military withdrawal?
The US military presence in Afghanistan will end by the end of the month, and the Taliban’s recent string of military victories has not prompted President Biden to reassess that plan, officials said.
Still, the escalating violence is a predicament for Mr. Biden, who has pushed the line to take the United States out of the war while insisting he will not leave Afghanistan to the Taliban.
The US withdrawal is already 95 percent complete, the official said. But in the past three weeks, as the Taliban pushed their front lines deep into urban areas, the US military has launched several airstrikes in Afghanistan to try to buy time for Afghan security forces to rally a line of defense around the major besieged cities.
Government officials say the Pentagon is likely to seek permission from the president for additional airstrikes in the coming months, should the main southern city of Kandahar or the country’s capital, Kabul, be about to fall.
But on Sunday, when three northern cities fell prey to the insurgents, the US response was muted. It sent a clear message to Afghan leaders: In no uncertain terms, America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan is over and Afghan forces will have to retake the cities on their own, or leave them to the Taliban for good.