The United States intelligence community estimates that the Afghan government could collapse within six months of the U.S. military withdrawal. President Biden has committed the U.S. to pull all of its remaining troops out of Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021. Over half of the soldiers stationed in the country have been removed, allowing the Taliban to begin reclaiming territory.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban, reported that they are in control of 165 of Afghanistan’s 470 districts. According to American experts, the Taliban now control one-third of the country. While it seems the Taliban are capturing territory very quickly, it is likely they are deliberately slowing down their advancements.
Mujahid claimed that the organization is purposefully refraining from capturing entire provinces because of the 2020 Doha agreement, “We are bound to honor the Doha accord that we signed with the United States in the presence of the international community. We don’t want to capture any province or provincial headquarters anywhere in Afghanistan by September 2021 when the U.S. forces leave our country.”
The territorial gains that the Taliban have taken include many of Afghanistan’s main trade routes. The organization is moving closer to important cities and provincial capitals. These areas have been surrounded and effectively cut off from important roads. These tactics are eerily similar to those that were used to take control of the country in the 1990s.
The removal of U.S. forces has left defense up to Afghan troops. However, some of the government forces are abandoning their stations, leaving behind expensive weapons and vehicles, in what they call ‘tactical retreats.’ Without critical air support, which is usually provided by the U.S. the troops that attempt to fight back are defeated. Recently, at least twenty of the most elite Afghan commandos were killed when they tried to retake the district of Faryab.
Despite the increase in attacks on the Afghan military, the White House continues to support the immediate withdrawal of troops. Press secretary Jen Psaki explained that “Had we not begun to draw down, violence would have increased against us as well… the status quo, in our view, was not an option.”
The Afghan government launched a National Mobilization which armed local volunteers to try to combat the Taliban’s assaults. This initiative will likely only restore the militias from the inter-factional fighting of the 1990s. These militias are loyal to their regional commanders, not President Ashraf Ghani. In the 1990s, it was these groups that led to the destruction of Kabul and the deaths of thousands of civilians. Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that “The fact that the government has put out the call for the militias is a clear admission of the failure of the security forces… [it’s] most certainly an act of desperation.”
The fighting between Afghan and Taliban forces has caused thousands of civilians to flee. According to Al Jazeera, 5000 families fled the city of Kunduz after intense fighting went on for days. The fighting in Kunduz led to the deaths of 29 civilians and left 225 wounded. Additionally, authorities don’t have the resources to provide relief to those displaced by the violence. Particularly at risk are the Afghans who worked with the U.S. during the war. The White House announced a plan to assist with the evacuation of 18,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. Any Afghan associated with the U.S. faces retribution from the Taliban. Hundreds of people have been killed already.
Experts believe that the Taliban have begun targeting critics in preparation for their future rule. Afghanistan has experienced a recent surge in the killings of journalists, activists, clerics, and generally influential members of society. These experts say that the Taliban have been emboldened by the withdrawal to try to get rid of people who would be a problem. However, the Taliban has denied involvement in the killings, calling the accusations ‘false propaganda.’
Under the Doha agreements, the Taliban are committed to engaging in peace negotiations with the Afghan government. However, the negotiations have led nowhere and officials in Kabul aren’t expecting progress to be made until the end of the fighting season in October. The removal of U.S. troops hinged on the assumption that the Taliban’s desire for international recognition would keep them from violating their agreements. Many experts believe that this is likely to be untrue, based on the recent aggression displayed by the militant organization.
“We have won the war and America has lost,” declared Haji Hekmat, the Taliban shadow mayor of the Balkh district, to BBC reporters. The Taliban believes the U.S. troop removal signals that victory is theirs. The organization, which doesn’t identify as a rebel group but a government-in-waiting, is ready to retake control of Afghanistan. Hekmat told the reporters “We want an Islamic government ruled by the Sharia. We will continue our jihad until they accept our demands.”
The U.S. does need to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. However, the rapid evacuation is debilitating. The current assumption is that the Taliban will continue to uphold the agreements it made once U.S. forces leave. Instead, the military withdrawal should be contingent on the terms of the Doha agreement being met. This means that before U.S troops are completely evacuated, the Taliban and the Afghan government must reach an agreement on a political settlement. However, with talks having stalled, this seems incredibly unlikely.
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