A sustained push by Taliban forces on 31 July has seen widespread fighting around the cities of Herat, Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar. Taliban fighters have made rapid gains within the rural areas of the country since the announcement that American troops would leave by August, but are only now targeting these major cities. The Islamic fundamentalist group is thought to have already captured up to one half of the country’s territory, including key areas such as the Iran and Pakistan border crossing.
Despite the use of air-strikes by remaining United States forces and attempted counter attacks by pro-government troops, Taliban forces are advancing rapidly. Some reports appeared to indicate their soldiers were just a few hundred yards from the governor’s residence in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
“[T]hey are in the city centre, and it seems only a matter of time before they take over. They seem more organized than before and they keep going forward despite bombing by planes,” said Walid Mir Mohammed, a 48-year-old businessman. He added that “we are surrounded, there is fighting everywhere, everyone is very frightened.”
Sustained violence across Kandahar, the ideological birthplace of the Taliban, is also widespread, with firefights throughout the city. Roughly 15,000 people have fled into the centre to escape the gunfights, but that security looks set to disappear. Lashkar Gah and Kandahar are two of the biggest cities in the South of the country and, if taken, would provide an invaluable and unshakable foothold in the South for the Taliban. Afghan officials have imposed a month-long nightly curfew across most of the country to try to halt the Taliban advance.
2021 appears to be one of the bloodiest years throughout this conflict. A new report by the United Nations says that Afghan civilians were killed or injured in record numbers in the first half of this year, with more than 1,600 dead. Civilian fatalities in the region have risen 47% since last year and show no signs of slowing.
American forces are due to leave the country by 31 August, but the speed of the Taliban’s advance has left many concerned about what might happen after the withdrawal. On the 24th of July U.S. commander, Gen Kenneth McKenzie said forces would continue air strikes to support Afghan troops, emphasizing that a Taliban victory was not inevitable. He was, however, unclear whether the air support would still be used in the region after the withdrawal. Despite Gen McKenzie’s comments, doubts about the security situation within Afghanistan have been vocalized from the heart of the U.S. military. Earlier in June, General Scott Miller, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan admitted that “civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.”
It is clear that U.S. forces should remain after the 31st of August, in order to assist government forces in holding back the Taliban advance, while meaningful peace talks can resume. If this doesn’t happen, it seems almost certain that within the next few months, the Taliban will regain control over the entire region. Condemnation of the Taliban attacks on these cities and the UN building in the west of the country was marred by a passivity from nations like the U.K. and U.S., who are responsible for the power transfer within the country.
Bordering nations such as Pakistan and Iran should also act and recognize the danger of a Taliban led government; the Pakistan Taliban would most likely attempt a similar rebellion while Iran would also be threatened by a hard-line Sunni regime next door. Aid and military support should therefore be provided by these countries, in order to provide peace to a region which, for the last two decades, has only known war.