Are the Taliban on a Path to Victory?

Taliban fighters drive an Afghan government security force vehicle through a street in Kandahar on 13 August 2021. AFP
Taliban fighters drive an Afghan government security force vehicle through a street in Kandahar on 13 August 2021. AFP

Have the Taliban won the war?

The war is not over, but the past week’s events have tilted the balance of military power and political momentum very heavily in the Taliban’s favour. It is very unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to turn the tide, let alone recapture all the territory it has lost.

Over the past week, the Taliban overran government forces in two large Afghan cities, Kunduz and Ghazni, that had been besieged by the insurgent group for years. The loss of these cities, prompted by mass surrenders of government forces after the Taliban offered clemency amid fierce fighting, were quickly followed by the Taliban’s resumption of strong assaults on the cities of Herat and Kandahar, two of Afghanistan’s largest, most economically productive and culturally rich urban centres. Kandahar, moreover, holds special significance for the Taliban as their de facto capital in the movement’s earliest years. On 12 and 13 August, the Taliban took control of both cities, forcing a number of government leaders and affiliated powerbrokers to give up as security forces scattered and fled.

Before these cities fell, the Taliban had already captured a handful of provincial capitals cut off from supply lines or military reinforcement. In the hours after news spread about Herat and Kandahar, nine more provincial centres quickly collapsed in similar episodes of capitulation. The Taliban now hold eighteen of 34 provincial capitals. They also control most of the country’s major roads and a majority of its international border crossings.

Early statements from senior officials in Kabul suggest that they will attempt to resist and continue to fight the Taliban. The government seems to have formally empowered two of northern Afghanistan’s most notable strongmen, former Balkh governor Mohammad Atta Noor and former First Vice President Rashid Dostum, to lead the mobilisation and combat operations of uprising forces or militia from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, one of only three large cities in Afghanistan still in government control. But the nationwide performance to date of militias, not to mention regular armed forces, does not bode well for a prolonged defence against a Taliban movement surging with momentum and now able to direct most of its fighters at a dwindling number of government-held locations.

Will the Taliban take Kabul?

The group is almost certain to gather large numbers of its fighters to mass around the country’s capital and to apply intense pressure on the government to surrender. Their military pressure will likely include artillery or rocket attacks, an increase in placement of improvised explosive devices, shootings and suicide attacks, and disruption of routes leading in and out of Kabul.

What is less certain is whether the Taliban will attempt a swift military takeover of the city, by sending fighters into its outskirts and initiating urban warfare that would prove devastating to Kabul’s civilian population of more than five million, plus the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have fled fighting to the capital. The insurgency’s military gains stem from a years-long strategy of encircling and entrenching their fighters around population centres, gradually weakening the government’s position. It could follow the same strategy toward Kabul. Or the group could opt instead to pressure the capital less directly and seek to topple the government by co-opting individual political leaders and elites, applying its recent approach in various parts of the country on a national scale.

But the Taliban’s leadership is likely to encounter a good deal of insistence from the movement’s fighters that they maintain their battlefield momentum all the way to a complete victory. Commanders and fighters on the front lines have expressed a growing sense of ascendancy in media, social media and internal messaging in recent months, a sentiment that has been amplified enormously by the group’s dramatic gains over the past week. The sudden seizure of Herat and Kandahar may well have convinced the Taliban that they could see the same swift success in Kabul.

It is far from certain the Taliban would prevail quickly in Kabul. Military surrenders and political side-switching are likely to continue, and even increase, but the capital is an order of magnitude larger than other Afghan cities and at least some forces, especially those tied to senior levels of the government, might fight with a sense of having no other option, especially if their political leaders choose not to surrender. What is clear is that any military campaign to seize Kabul would prompt a new level of humanitarian catastrophe and suffering among civilians.

Are the talks in Doha dead?

Even now, there are reports that Afghan government representatives plan to meet with the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, with talks maybe even involving Abdullah Abdullah, the chief rival of President Ashraf Ghani and head of the government’s peace efforts. Given the dramatic shift in the balance in power on the ground in Afghanistan, the terms of any agreement at this stage would be largely dictated by the Taliban.

Although a genuine compromise between the Taliban and the Afghan government is unfathomable at this stage, individual Afghan political leaders may explore the potential for reconciliation and accommodation with the Taliban, which events in Herat, Kandahar and elsewhere suggest the Taliban will encourage. The group quickly shared videos featuring the pre-eminent powerbroker in Herat, Ismail Khan – who was taken captive on 12 August after being hailed as a national hero of anti-Taliban resistance less than two weeks prior – conversing with insurgent leaders and reassuring Afghans that peace is possible. In order to defuse potential domestic resistance to their dominance, the Taliban may find it convenient to wrap their military ascendancy in the appearance of a political deal. Doing so might also assuage concerns of foreign powers about an outright military takeover and improve prospects of a Taliban-dominated government winning some foreign recognition.

It is less likely, though not impossible, that discussions in Doha will result in a national ceasefire or a formal capitulation of Ghani’s government. Speculation has grown – based on comments by some Taliban officials – that the Taliban will demand that Ghani step down before agreeing to any ceasefire. Given its current strength, the group is likely to insist on the “lion’s share of power”, as U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad has put it, though it might be prepared to offer some relatively minor government positions to other Afghan leaders outside Ghani’s circle. Kabul officials have offered almost no statements since the major cities’ fall and made no major public addresses – but what has been said has emphasised continued resistance to the Taliban.

How did things get to this point?

The Taliban’s advances can be attributed primarily to the erosion of morale and cohesion among the government’s security forces and political leadership.

Since May, the insurgents drove security forces from more than 200 of the country’s roughly 400 districts, in many instances without much fighting. The first districts to fall were home to poorly resourced and surrounded small bands of government forces, and the Taliban reached out to many via local elders, persuading them to leave their posts without fighting. With each new advance, a sense of momentum grew among the insurgents’ own rank and file but also among local communities. Over recent months, the Taliban actively engaged local communities throughout the country with a mixture of disinformation, threats, targeted violence and promises of clemency, even in some cases for troops and civilian officials.

In rural districts, the surrender of small numbers of government forces could be attributed to longstanding challenges in supplying, reinforcing or even paying troops there, along with a host of chronic leadership issues in the security institutions. The cumulative effect of Taliban advances has snowballed, and the surrender of so many troops, their equipment and their provincial-level leadership in major cities has severely fractured the government’s authority and capacity, both military and political.

In a number of areas, local security forces and their leaders have expressed grievances with the central government for years. These frustrations have been illustrated by protests against Kabul’s perceived overreach and mismanagement of local affairs in more than a half-dozen provincial capitals countrywide in the past year, as well as power struggles between Kabul and regional powerbrokers even after the U.S. announced its intent to withdraw. The surrender of so many districts and urban centres does not necessarily reveal domestic support for the Taliban as much as it underscores the deep alienation of many local communities from a highly centralised government often influenced by the priorities of its foreign donors.

How will the Taliban treat the population?

The Taliban have demonstrated a dizzying variety of approaches to civilian and government-affiliated populations in areas they have recently captured.

The Taliban have offered a fairly sweeping amnesty in many areas they have overrun, permitting security personnel to flee or return home when surrounded after handing over weapons. Their extensive outreach to political officials already prompted notable instances of surrender and side-switching. As they have moved into towns and cities, the Taliban have called for local government employees to continue to show up to work, promising they will be paid. Over the longer term, the Taliban’s ability to govern almost certainly depends on persuading existing civil servants to continue their duties – the group does not possess any of the technical capacities required to deliver even basic services.

A critical question is whether this outreach and amnesty signals an openness to inclusive governance, or whether it is a more temporary tactic to divide and conquer wartime opponents, potentially with retribution to come.

Either way, there are credible reports of serious abuses by Taliban fighters, from the enforcement of harsh social restrictions to detentions, summary executions and abductions of young, unmarried women. Some of these acts appear rooted in local disputes or motivated by cycles of revenge violence; others seem to vary according to local commanders and their relations with community leaders. It is not clear whether the Taliban’s leadership will hold its own members accountable for crimes and abuses; to date, the group has most often denied and rejected accusations of such conduct, even when well documented. It is also unclear how the Taliban’s policies toward women will unfold on a national scale, or if their leadership will even enforce a uniform policy. Regardless, anecdotal reports of their first days in urban areas (and the large numbers of families fleeing areas recently take over) indicate a potential wave of repressive practices.

More broadly, the Taliban have never put forward a clear political vision for Afghanistan under their rule. Some of their leaders claim to have learned lessons from mistakes made during their rule in the 1990s. But they movement has not laid out in any detail what it would do differently. In a 2020 report, Crisis Group concluded that the movement had not even reached consensus on a number of basic questions about governance and politics; even if members of the Taliban have begun debating such issues in earnest, in public the group continues to largely use the same vague language to describe its vision of an Islamic government.

What should outside powers do now?

After the Taliban’s seizure of much of Afghanistan and the likelihood of a siege of or advance on Kabul looming, one of the top priorities for governments that have influence must be to prevent mass killing, minimising as much as possible the war’s human cost. Governments that have diplomatic and other communications with the Taliban should insist that the group refrain from a potentially bloody campaign to seize Kabul by force. They should also emphasise the need for the group to prevent and punish reprisal killings and other abuses by its fighters. This should be a priority especially for Afghanistan’s neighbours and other governments in the region whose political acceptance the Taliban has cultivated, most importantly including Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia.

For much of 2021, the U.S and other Western countries have attempted to leverage future political legitimacy and economic assistance in exchange for the Taliban’s abandonment of a military path to power. The past several months have demonstrated starkly the futility of this appeal. At the same time, the Taliban’s diplomatic engagement has shifted to a regionally focused approach, emphasising dialogue with Iran, Russia, Central Asian states and China – countries that are likely to be less concerned about the manner in which the Taliban governs than Western states would be. Regional states therefore now possess greater potential influence over the Taliban’s behaviour than do the U.S. and other Western states. This is especially true for Pakistan, which has provided sanctuary for the movement’s leadership throughout their insurgency.

These states all agree that a peaceful settlement to end the war is in their collective interest. None of them has an interest in the Taliban launching an assault on Kabul or cracking down brutally on rivals across the country. The country is already in the grips of a humanitarian catastrophe, as the past months of conflict and fears of a Taliban takeover have displaced hundreds of thousands inside Afghanistan and compelled countless thousands more to attempt to flee the country. The UN reports that civilian casualties have risen more than 50 per cent already in the first half of the year, and the conflict’s impact is compounded by the continued public health crisis of COVID-19 and a severe drought.

Western powers are best placed to ameliorate this suffering by prioritising emergency aid relief, including robust funding increases for UN agencies and other humanitarian response actors. The 12 August announcement that the U.S. will relocate and drastically downsize its embassy has already prompted a flurry of evacuation planning among other powers, but the U.S. and Afghanistan’s donor states should not waver in their commitment to humanitarian aid for Afghan civilians.

Laurel Miller, Program Director, Asia, Washington, D.C. and Andrew Watkins, Senior Analyst, Afghanistan.

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