As we woke up here in the U.S. yesterday on a hot, lazy Sunday summer morning, reports were coming in real-time that the Taliban had captured another district capital. The city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan has fallen. This is the fourth district or provincial capital to fall in only three days. Kunduz is one of the largest cities in the country and one of the biggest gains of the Taliban so far this year.
On Friday, the southern city of Zaranj in the Nimroz province fell to the Taliban. Local government officials had been asking the central government for support, after an extended Taliban threat. The BBC reported that “Nimroz’s Deputy Governor Roh Gul Khairzad told reporters that Zaranj had fallen ‘without a fight.’ ‘The city was under threat for a while, but no one from the central government listened to us, Ms. Khairzad said.'”
Will the Afghan National Army Fight?
As another district capital has fallen, it’s extremely clear that the Taliban are not slowing down. This summer offensive was clearly planned and coordinated in advance. On Friday, a Taliban commander told the Reuters news agency, “This is the beginning, and see how other provinces fall in our hands very soon.” This weekend, they have already made good on that promise.
The Taliban’s rapid advance fits a long and troubling pattern of events in Afghanistan: Without U.S. or Coalition support, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and other government forces too often do not stand and fight the Taliban. This has been going on for years without a solution. We continue to see government forces surrender, and now — which is even worse — also surrender American weapons and equipment to the Taliban.
The Taliban have known that without U.S. support the ANA will often surrender or retreat without much of a fight. In fact, for years, the Taliban were targeting American and NATO advisors first, over the ANA. As advisors, we had bounties on our heads for our kill our capture, adding to the incentive to take us out of the fight.
For example, two- and four-man teams of U.S. and NATO advisors could keep ANA units in the fight, even when outnumbered. But without their support, that was not the case. We can clearly see this happening now, and we should have known better. We knew this would happen, and so did the Taliban.
An Urban Fight Will Create More Chaos
As the Taliban continue to capture more cities and district and provincial centers, the conflict will escalate. Urban fighting changes the nature and pace of the conflict and will add to more civilian casualties. There are tens or hundreds of thousands of people living in many of these contested Afghan cities. Kunduz, for example, has a population of 270,000 people.
Capturing cities, and especially district capitals, also increases the Taliban’s power and influence. This allows them to re-assert political control and establish their own de facto government. This will bolster their self-perceived legitimacy and cause people to fear them. In turn, this fear will continue to undermine the Afghan government and cause people to chose not to fight. It will likely create a domino effect whereby resistance withers and the situation spirals out of control.
Urban fighting will also create more refugees and intensify the coming humanitarian crisis. The conflict will continue to escalate into full-scale civil war.
As the Taliban insurgency continues, civilian militias keep entering the fight. This could increase atrocities, as these militias play by a different set of rules and work for the interests of their leaders and warlords, not necessarily the people. However, these militias might just help slow down the Taliban, as Afghan Army units are defeated or surrender.
The Taliban Strategy Looks to Be a Large-scale Siege
Looking at the situation on the ground, the Taliban appear to be choking out the centers of power. The large cities and districts that the government controls are now surrounded on all sides. In the west, Herat is surrounded and the fighting is intensifying. Attacks are still happening in the capital of Kabul, as the Taliban make good on threats.
In the south, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah are surrounded right in the Taliban heartland. The districts around Kabul are now contested, as well. This strategy allows the Taliban to control the movements of supplies and resources. And capturing cities, like Kunduz, allows them to access resources and financial support, as well. Thus, they can continue to finance their campaign and push to retake the country.
As of April 13, the Taliban controlled 77 districts. At that time, the government controlled 127 provinces and 194 were contested. As of August 7, the Taliban control 223 districts. However, the government now controls only 69 provinces, and 115 are contested. In the last four months, the Taliban have tripled their territorial control. Contested areas are now falling to the Taliban daily.
In April, we predicted that the Taliban will take it all in Afghanistan. In Mid-July, we predicted their momentum and that the Taliban will have retaken the country by January. At the current pace, and barring any huge stroke of luck, this looks to be the case.
The Taliban are gaining ground and the Afghan government seems unwilling or incapable of stopping them.