The Afghan army has abandoned nearly 200 checkpoints in Kandahar since December. The collapse of some military bases this past fall afforded the Taliban to move in and take troves of military equipment and ammunition, including several heavy artillery pieces.
“When the trees turn green, the situation will get worse,” said Haji Mahmood Noor, the district mayor for Panjwai, referring to the spring when the Taliban can move more at ease under cover of blooming foliage.
The Taliban’s offensive pressure has put the Biden administration into a political bind. Under President Donald J. Trump’s deal with the Taliban in 2020, all foreign troops, including the remaining 2,500 American service embers who support Afghanistan military and security forces, are scheduled to withdraw by May 1, 2021, leaving the country in an especially precarious state.
If the Biden administration honors the withdrawal date, the Taliban could overwhelm what’s left of the Afghan security forces and take control of major cities like Kandahar. They then could push for a complete military victory or a broad surrender by the Afghan government through ongoing negotiations.
But time is more critical now more than ever. The new administration and Congress have only a couple of months remaining to decide whether the United States will withdraw the troops by the specified date.
Congress recently imposed detailed conditions for a further reduction in troop levels in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The act was passed on January 1, 2021.
The Taliban aim to force the Afghan government into agreeing with their terms. The Taliban leaders have also demanded the release of around 7,000 more prisoners and the establishment of an interim government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused these two requests.
“The Taliban seem to believe that applying this pressure, staging their fighters to strike Kandahar and other urban centers potentially, will pressure the U.S. to withdraw, or else,” Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group said. “The strategic logic might have the opposite effect.”
To prepare for a possible multi-pronged attack should the United States stay beyond the May 1 deadline, the Pentagon has requested additional military options — including an increase of U.S. troops or a commitment of more air support from U.S. Central Command, according to two U.S. officials. U.S. Central Command oversees operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Whether or not these requests will be granted depends on the Biden administration’s next move which is supposed to be announced in the coming weeks upon completion of a review of the current agreement with the Taliban.
The unrest has already delayed Kandahar Airfield’s handover — the American base east of the capital — to Afghan forces.
For now, a small detachment of U.S. and NATO troops remains to support the struggling Afghan forces, according to a U.S. military official.
With the Afghan police force primarily in ruin, the Afghan army and commandos have moved into Kandahar. The Taliban Commando officers said their forces had been exhausted by frequent orders to fill in for their police counterparts. In November they began operations to retake territory from the Taliban, nevertheless, this has mostly been unsuccessful.
In the nearby Arghandab District, the site of the Taliban’s northern offensive on Kandahar city, army leaders and police officers say they’re severely understaffed. Their pleas for support have gone unheeded by officials in Kabul.
As the new U.S. administration and Congress start to deal with the thorny Afghanistan issues, they should be aware that many risks persist. These include the continuing decline in U.S. oversight capability in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic and other pressures on the Afghan economy, and the potential disruptions of a post-peace government that could weave former insurgents into the security apparatus and positions of authority.
Therefore, broader concerns start to rise on whether the Afghan state itself is sustainable without continued international engagement.
At the same time, President Biden is reviewing the state of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with the hope of shutting down the notorious lockup housing about 40 suspected terrorists, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was the “goal” and “intention” of the Biden administration to close the facility, Reuters reported. This is a promise that President Obama had made when he assumed office in January 2009.