Could the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan? Here’s What We Know.

Could the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan? Here’s What We Know.
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Could the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan? Here’s What We Know.

Could the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan? Here’s What We Know.

KABUL, Afghanistan – Since international troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan in May, the Taliban have waged a massive military campaign and taken control of much of the country’s rural areas. But for months the insurgents failed to take over the big cities – until now.

In the past six days, insurgents have invaded nine provincial capitals across the country, most clustered in the north, in a major escalation of their military offensive and a devastating setback for the Afghan government.

The Taliban’s swift victories put enormous pressure on Afghan political leaders and the country’s besieged security forces, which were overtaken by the relentless advance of insurgents. The collapse of towns especially in northern Afghanistan – once the heart of resistance to the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 – fueled fears that insurgents might surround the country’s capital, Kabul, during a full military takeover.

Now the Afghan government must decide whether to replenish its forces around the territory it holds – including Kabul – or try to take back its fallen cities. Here’s what we know so far and the questions that will need to be answered in the coming days.

Since the Taliban launched their military offensive in May, insurgents have captured more than half of Afghanistan’s some 400 districts, according to some estimates. In recent weeks, after sweeping away much of the Afghan countryside, insurgents have started besieging multiple provincial capitals simultaneously for the first time in the 20 Years War.

Then on Friday, those front lines broke: the Taliban captured Zaranj, a provincial capital near the border with Iran, after encountering little resistance from Afghan security forces upon entering the city. A day later, they captured another capital, Sheberghan, the northern stronghold of warlord Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose militia forces were overrun.

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On Sunday, Taliban forces captured three other 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 took over Kunduz, the largest city captured to date and a vital trading hub the group has long coveted as both a strategic and a symbolic prize.

The Taliban continued their relentless campaign on Monday, invading Aybak, the capital of Samangan province, located on the main highway that connects Kabul to the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Then on Tuesday, the insurgents seized three other capitals: the town 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 on provincial centers overwhelmed Afghan security forces and stretched dangerously thin military resources. The supply lines of government forces are cut. Cities and neighborhoods still under government control are even more cut off and isolated. And Afghan security forces are exhausted from the brutal offensive

Amid all the defeat, President Ashraf Ghani’s administration refused to recognize the fall of the capitals. Instead, the Afghan Defense Ministry continued to promote its official talking points which focused on Taliban deaths and the strength of the Afghan security forces.

The Afghan government’s strategy to slow the advance of the Taliban aligns with long-standing US recommendations that Afghans should consolidate their remaining forces around key roads, towns and border crossings, and abandon most districts already. taken by the Taliban, according to US and UN diplomats.

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But it’s unclear how this plan approaches the capture of now nine provincial capitals across the country – or explains the exhaustion of the country’s air force and commandos.

For months, these elite forces have been the backbone of the country’s defense against the Taliban. As the insurgents besieged towns, they shuttled from one vulnerable position to another to drive the Taliban out of urban centers, hold the territory under government control and recapture certain neighborhoods from the Taliban.

But this strategy is only a stopgap. There are simply not enough troops to defend the country’s 34 provincial capitals and some 400 districts, and after months of non-stop fighting these forces have been defeated.

As of Tuesday evening, the Afghan security forces had not carried out any serious operation to retake the seized capitals. In Kunduz, where military leaders had promised to launch an operation to take over the strategic hub, Taliban forces approached Kunduz airport on Tuesday, the last pocket of government control on the outskirts of the city.

The Taliban’s decisive victories in northern Afghanistan, in particular, fueled fears that insurgents could envelop the country’s capital, Kabul – opening up the possibility of a full military takeover.

After the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s, the southern and predominantly ethnic Pashtun insurgency met fierce resistance from militia groups 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 during their five-year reign.

But now, capturing seven northern cities in just five days, experts warn that if the insurgents are able to conquer the north – crushing the country’s best hope of popular resistance strong enough to confront the Taliban – the country could. completely fall into their hands.

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“The north is strategic for the Taliban because they think that if they can capture these non-Pashtun areas,” said Ramish Salemi, political analyst in Kabul, “then they can easily take control of the south and the capital, Kabul. “.

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is expected to end by the end of the month, and the Taliban’s recent streak of military victories has not prompted President Biden to reassess the plan, officials said.

Yet escalating violence is a difficult situation for Mr Biden, who has stepped between extracting the United States from the war while insisting that he is not abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban.

The US withdrawal is already 95% complete, according to an official. But over the past three weeks, as the Taliban pushed its front lines deep into urban areas, the US military carried out airstrikes in Afghanistan in an attempt to buy time for Afghan security forces to mobilize a defense. around large cities under siege.

Administration officials have said the Pentagon will likely seek the president’s permission for additional airstrikes in the coming months if the key southern city of Kandahar or the nation’s capital, Kabul, appears on the verge of to fall.

But on Sunday, as three northern towns fell to insurgents, the American response fell silent. This sent a clear message to the Afghan leadership: in clear terms, the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan is over and Afghan forces will have to take the cities back on their own or leave them to the Taliban for good.

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