By Ramya DilipKumar
By 31 August 2021, all United States (US) troops will withdraw from Afghanistan while other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces will also leave by 11 September. US President Joe Biden cited the defeat of al Qaeda, the US$1 trillion cost of war and death of around 2,448 US soldiers as reasons for ending the 20-year mission. The complete withdrawal of foreign forces was also one of the demands the Taliban made at the Doha peace talks that started in October 2018 to end the conflict. Some Taliban leaders committed to prevent extremist and militant groups from operating in their strongholds in exchange for the withdrawal of foreign forces. At the same time, however, the Taliban launched its annual spring offensive against the government in Kabul, taking control of large swathes of territory, including strategic posts at the international borders with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan since May. In the coming weeks and months, Taliban insurgents will be emboldened to increase their attacks and gain control of territory, which will further deteriorate the security environment in and around Afghanistan.
Between May and July, it is estimated that Taliban militants seized at least one-third of Afghanistan’s 400 districts, including the Islam Qala and Torghundi border crossings with Iran and Turkmenistan, Shir Khan Bandar crossing with Tajikistan, Spin Boldak crossing with Pakistan and large portions of Badakhshan, Badghis, Baghlan, Balkh, Bamyan, Farah, Faryab, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Herat, Jowzjan, Kandahar, Kapisa, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktia, Parwan, Samangan, Sar-e Pol, Takhar, Urozgan, Wardak and Zabul provinces. May and June saw the highest fatalities so far this year, with around 405 pro-government forces and 260 civilians killed amid clashes between insurgents and security personnel. (Taliban casualties are also estimated to be in the low to mid-hundreds.) The insurgents’ spring offensive has continued unabated as Taliban commanders leading these offensives do not want to participate in the talks. While a section of the Taliban involved in negotiations with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government want political recognition, the others want a total takeover of territory.
The government in Kabul until June refused to withdraw garrisons from isolated districts and concentrate them elsewhere. The determination to hold onto as much territory as possible without the capacity to do so proved to be disastrous. The Afghan Armed Forces, with around 175,000 active personnel out of an on-paper strength of at least twice that many, were incapable of defending outlying areas from the Taliban under this strategy. The Afghans have since July revised this strategy to deploy all forces to major cities to retain as much control. Corruption within the armed forces has led to some commanders ceding territory in exchange for a bribe. The Taliban promise of safe passage for those who surrender has also proven attractive, with soldiers and police surrendering to avoid further bloodshed. The collapse has not been universal, however. Just as many pro-government units have instead fought to destruction, unable to break out due to lack of ammunition and air support. The government cannot supply either in sufficient quantity and much of it has been diverted to the black market. In northern and southern provinces surrounding Kabul where government control remains weak, ethnic Pashtun tribes have pledged allegiance to the Taliban. The government in Kabul has increasingly turned to local militias to bolster the ranks of the defenders. By seizing strategic international border areas, cutting off the government’s access to food supplies and revenues from cross-border trade, and bribing pro-government forces, the Taliban, with an estimated 85,000 highly trained fighters, is well-poised to launch further offensives into major cities, in a bid to seize the entire country, should they choose to do so.
As the Taliban offensive to seize remaining districts increases, terror attacks on security forces and civilians suspected to be in favour of the Ghani government will also worsen. Taliban tactics include suicide bombings and gun assaults on hard targets like government buildings, including air bases and soft targets like public squares, bus stops and markets, and assassination campaigns against “collaborators” and civil society leaders. The Turkish and US governments have been in talks with Ghani’s government to maintain a significant troop presence to defend Kabul Airport, a measure that will be seen as a violation of the Doha peace talks by the Taliban and an excuse to resume attacks on foreign nationals. In the coming days, cross-border clashes between Taliban fighters and security forces in other parts of South and Central Asia are also likely to escalate. Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have deployed hundreds of security personnel near the Afghanistan border and are conducting military drills in anticipation of a full resurgence of the Taliban and a potential incursion into their respective territories. The US has also committed to maintaining the air war against the Taliban from bases outside Afghanistan.
The potential for a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government diminishes as the Taliban gain more territorial control in the near-term. Even if a peace deal were to be achieved, or the Taliban offensive stalemates against more easily defended urban areas held by pro-government forces, due to high levels of factionalism within the Taliban, a complete cessation of insurgent attacks on civilians and security forces is unlikely and the security instability in and around Afghanistan will persist for a foreseeable future. This factionalism also makes it extremely unlikely the Taliban will actually prevent extremist and militant groups from operating in areas under their control.
Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst covering South Asia.