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How are the Taliban gaining so fast in Afghanistan?

An expert on the Taliban’s sweep and what it means for Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN-LAGHMAN-MILITARY OPERATION
A member of Afghan’s security forces takes part in a military operation against Taliban fighters in the Alishing District of Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan on July 12, 2021.
Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua/Getty Images

Editor’s note, August 15, 1:30 pm: The Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, on Sunday as the country’s president fled and the government collapsed. Read the latest coverage here.


The Taliban are rapidly overrunning large parts of Afghanistan.

Over the past few days, Taliban fighters have reportedly taken over nine provincial capitals. The siege comes after a relentless, monthslong offensive in the country that has stretched Afghan government forces. Since the US began withdrawing its troops from the country at the start of May, the Taliban have swept through about half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts.

It is an unsettling situation as the US ends its 20-year war in Afghanistan. So much is still uncertain about the country’s future, except that the fighting and humanitarian catastrophe will continue.

But the US’s long-advertised departure cannot fully explain how and why the Taliban are gaining so fast, or why Afghan forces are retreating in many areas.

To understand the pace of the Taliban’s advance and what it means for Afghanistan’s future, I spoke to Andrew Watkins, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan. He explained how the Taliban took these provincial capitals, and what missteps by both the US and Afghan governments did — and didn’t — contribute to the Taliban’s advance.

A transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, follows.

Jen Kirby

We’ve seen all these headlines about the Taliban taking provincial capitals. This may be a huge question, but can you give a sense of where things stand on the ground right now?

Andrew Watkins

It is a huge question, but it’s the right question to start with. Where are things right now? It would be a mistake to get caught up in the collapse of provincial capitals because what has happened this week is just the continuation of what we’ve seen over the last three months.

Starting about three months ago, in late May and then June, picking up speed in July, the Taliban launched an offensive campaign that has swept across the country in a way that has been unprecedented since the US intervened in late 2001.

I want to be careful about how I phrase it because everyone nitpicks — and they nitpick correctly — about various measures of which actor is in control of which, or how much, territory. One imperfect measure is the Afghan government’s control of district centers. There are a little over 400 districts across Afghanistan; almost all of them have what’s called a district administrative center. It’s one village covering sometimes crazy square mileage, rivaling that of smaller US states like Rhode Island.

For the longest time, the Afghan government has pointed to this district center map as a means of demonstrating their authority, when in reality, their only presence or assertion of authority might be a district center where they have a couple buildings that are protected by a small military or police force, or sometimes just a militia that’s outfitted and paid by the government. And that’s it. That is the only government that exists in that entire district, for miles around in any direction.

The Taliban has swept across the country through these districts. But it’s not accurate to say the Taliban now controls all of the districts they’ve captured, because in many places they haven’t set up a shadow government. They haven’t left a garrison of their fighters to control the area. In some places, they cause the Afghan troops or police to run away, to surrender, to retreat, to simply go home.

In the end, what we can say is not how much the Taliban controls, but how much the Afghan government has lost. Does that make sense?

Jen Kirby

Yes.

Andrew Watkins

The map could be very misleading if you say every time the government leaves, the Taliban now controls all of that space. But we can measure how much the government has lost. The fact is, the government has either been kicked out of or abandoned more than 200 of the 400 districts in the country. That’s happened in just the last three months.

So when we ask, “How did we get here?” — where all of a sudden in one week, nine out of 34 provincial capitals fall to the Taliban, or seem like they’re on the verge of falling — the answer is, well, half of the country slipped out of the government’s control in the last three months, and it no longer had a buffer protecting those provincial capitals, which were these village outposts and district centers standing in the way.

Jen Kirby

So when we see the Afghanistan map with all the color-coded territory, it’s not so much that the Taliban has full control over those large swaths. It’s just that those little village outposts have fallen one by one, so there’s nobody around to stop the Taliban from closing in on the cities.

Andrew Watkins

That’s exactly it. That’s not only what’s happening, but that’s also the significance of what’s happening. The fewer obstacles that stand in the Taliban’s way in the countryside, the fewer speed bumps they have on their way to the doorsteps of the cities — which is where they are now — around most of the country.

The New York Times ran a piece and got someone to go on the record with something I’ve been told over the last couple of weeks. One Afghan government official told them some of these districts fell when 10 Taliban fighters showed up. A lot of this was just the collapse of government authority, and if it could collapse in the face of 10 Taliban fighters, we have to be honest: It was barely there to begin with.

Jen Kirby

So when the Taliban is reaching these cities or provincial capitals, are they consolidating power and taking control there?

Andrew Watkins

It’s still too fluid to say they’re consolidating anything. What we can say is that they’re amassing huge numbers of their fighters to try and encircle or surround some of these cities. They’re doing it in multiple regions of the country: in the north, in the southwest. In some places, the government is pushing them back more effectively than others.

A lot of people seem to think that the Taliban advances mean they’re going to take over Kabul [Afghanistan’s capital] imminently, or that that’s going to happen in a matter of days or weeks. That isn’t necessarily true. That might not even necessarily be the Taliban strategy.

What they seem to be doing seems to be something they planned on for quite some time, which is to cut off the government’s ability to resupply other areas of the country, to cut off the government’s ability to move from point A to point B on the country’s roads, and to surround and choke off the country’s cities — not to fight their way through each and every city of the country, but to pressure the government to collapse.

Jen Kirby

I want to talk about Kabul and the Taliban’s strategy, but I want to first step back and get a better sense of exactly why it has seemed so easy for the Taliban to move this swiftly?

Andrew Watkins

Some people will say it’s because of the US withdrawal. And if that is true, it’s based on the psychological impact of that withdrawal, not the military effect that it had. The US had several thousand troops to help cover an area of the size of Texas. The US troops were not what was holding the Taliban back in 200 districts around the country. The US troops weren’t even out there at any of those villages.

Now, since the US-Taliban agreement was signed early last year, the US really scaled back its airstrikes against the Taliban, though they’ve picked them back up as the Taliban has gone on their offensive in the last three months. But for most of 2020, and the early months of this year, the US really wasn’t bombing the Taliban. That gave them a major reprieve from what had been a really intensive bombing campaign in 2018 and in 2019.

The US had almost built up an artificial umbrella of security with the number of planes flying and the number of bombs dropping on the Taliban in the years before now, creating a protective buffer so that Afghan security forces didn’t really need to fight. Whenever the Taliban would approach places, there was always US aircraft there to take them out.

There is an Afghan Air Force, but it’s minuscule in comparison to what the US was flying and the number of munitions the US was dropping in the years before February 2020. The Afghan Air Force can’t close that gap. That means the Taliban had greater freedom to move around the country. They’ve been able to recuperate and to plan and to get ready for this moment over much of the last year.

Jen Kirby

And beyond the US withdrawal?

Andrew Watkins

In addition to the factor of the US leaving, you also have a lot of reports that, in districts where maybe 10 or 20 Taliban fighters would show up, they would have already laid the groundwork with a disinformation campaign.

They’d tell local residents, “There are 2,000 more Taliban fighters, and they’re right behind us. They are on the way, and we’re going to burn down your village, we’re going to kill everybody; it’s hopeless, you’re surrounded, so you may as well just run away.”

In some places, these remote villages and outposts that the Afghan government had been trying to prop up had become surrounded. The Afghan government couldn’t get them ammunition. It couldn’t get them food a lot of the time. A lot of the people at these outposts, they weren’t getting regularly paid. Their families weren’t getting their paychecks consistently from month to month. And so you’re talking about a terrible level of morale among the Afghan government’s security forces.

Finally, you have a lot of political division across Afghanistan among people who oppose the Taliban, but do not agree when it comes to the level of support for President Ashraf Ghani’s government. Especially since 2014, there’s been a history of political struggles and infighting among people who are on the side of the Afghan government, but can’t get along and cooperate with one another.

In every instance of infighting, you’ve seen the Taliban capitalize on the uncertainty and the confusion and the divisions that have cropped up. You see the Taliban moving into places where the central government in Kabul has a disagreement with people who sit in a provincial capital, or local communities who don’t want someone assigned to them as an official because they’re being sent from Kabul and they’re not local to the area.

That’s a pattern that’s played itself out hundreds of times around the country. A lot of people feel disenfranchised or alienated by the central government, which gives them much less reason to fight on behalf of the government to keep the Taliban out.

Now, some people have asked, “Well, but wouldn’t they still want to keep the Taliban out?” And the fact is, they weren’t well-resourced, and they weren’t well provided for in many communities. All of that means they didn’t really have what it would have taken to oppose the Taliban. So a lot of people backed off — not because the Taliban spread a misinformation campaign, not because the US had been previously helping and all of a sudden disappeared, but because of divisive political dynamics.

Jen Kirby

So it’s not as black and white as “Afghan government versus the Taliban.” You’ve got a lot of decentralization and shifting dynamics playing out across the country.

Andrew Watkins

The only asterisk is that the Afghan government is incredibly centralized. The Afghan presidential system is one of the strongest presidential systems in the world. It’s a winner-take-all system. There’s very little space for opposition political parties, or for the runner-up in a presidential election. Under Ghani, that process of centralizing power underneath the presidency has only increased.

Much of Afghan society is still decentralized, and you’ve got a government attempting to centralize, but in a way that isolates or alienates many local communities. The cost of centralization has been the government’s inability to actually establish buy-in and cooperation and support from whole regions of the country.

Jen Kirby

Based on these dynamics, it strikes me that some of this seems pretty predictable, which makes me wonder whether the US really did bungle this exit, by not preparing for or trying to head off some of what we’re seeing now?

Andrew Watkins

There were bungles on all sides. There were a series of mistakes in the way that the United States extracted itself in a military sense, but also politically. The US did not commence a lot of the planning for what its post-withdrawal support and involvement in Afghanistan would look like until President Biden made his decision in mid-April.

By that point, we had already almost reached the May 1 deadline for US troop withdrawal that the peace deal between the US and the Taliban had mandated. There was a rush against the clock to start the withdrawal in the hopes that the agreement might be preserved with the Taliban.

But the US still hasn’t answered key questions about how it will provide remote support to help maintain the Afghan Air Force, what logistics and supply lines will look like from abroad, whether it will continue air support after the August 31 withdrawal date. Currently, the White House and the Pentagon say “no,” but it seems to be under debate right now in Washington. All of that has sent an alarming message of uncertainty to the Afghans.

On the other hand, the United States began broadcasting — rather seriously — more than two years ago that it was looking to pull its military forces and gradually disengage from supporting the Afghan government.

There are people in Afghanistan, including some of the seniormost advisers in the Afghan government, who at least appear to have been in denial or to not have fully accepted the Americans were really going to leave. This is something other Afghan commentators say.

And it created not just operational dependencies — like what I described about the umbrella of aerial protection that American airstrikes were providing — but also a political atmosphere of protection and of dependency that really precluded a lot of serious planning on the Afghan government’s side for the challenges that would come the day the United States withdrew.

For instance, something that I’ve learned in my research, and it’s been confirmed since in press reports, is that the senior members of the Afghan government last year began telling President Ghani and his top officials that they needed to voluntarily pull troops and government presence from at least 100 districts around the country.

But Ghani and his officials rejected the proposal out of hand; they said, “Absolutely not, that sends the wrong message, that’s weakness, we’re not going to give an inch of our country.” And no one really gave serious thought to what was behind that proposal, which was, you know, a valid assessment that the Afghan government was stretched too thin.

So there were absolutely mistakes made — and are still being made — by the United States in the way it didn’t nail down its planning and its post-withdrawal parameters. But there has also been a state of either denial or negligence on the Afghan government’s part in not throwing itself into a comprehensive plan to steel itself for what was coming.

Jen Kirby

It sounds like there was an understanding that the Afghan government was not capable of controlling all its territory, no matter what, and that it would need to let some of its territory fall to the Taliban for the sake of better protecting capitals and other critical areas.

Andrew Watkins

That’s something that the US and NATO have actually been recommending as early as 2016–2017, and that the Afghan government has long resisted.

At some point in the last three months, the Afghan government seemed to realize that was, in fact, what it needed to do. But it made that realization far too late. If the decision had been made earlier, it could have been explained to the Afghan public in a way that might have mitigated the panic that you see spreading across the country now. It also could have prevented a lot of operational-level losses. Untold amounts of ammunition and military equipment have been left behind in these 200 districts where military forces have picked up and left.

So when the Afghan government decided or realized that it did need to draw down, it did so without wanting to admit weakness in such a sensitive moment. Therefore, it just looked like the government was continuing to collapse, even if what it was doing was belatedly following that “circle the wagons” strategy.

Jen Kirby

Is it even possible at this point for Afghan forces to stop or push back the Taliban, especially without US air support?

Andrew Watkins

It is possible. The Afghan military has the capability to do so. The question is what the psychological impact of losing US air support would be. The complete withdrawal of US air support would be a signal to the Afghan government that they are being left out to dry. That would both deflate morale on the Afghan government’s side and boost it among the Taliban. And it’s difficult to predict what the psychological impact of that would be across the country.

Militarily, the Afghan government has the advantage. It has an air force that is still functioning, for now. It has incredibly capable special forces, even though they’re stretched quite thin and are often the ones sent to do the fighting around the country. In spite of all its challenges, they do have the technical military capacity. The question is about political leadership and a sense of unity — or not.

Jen Kirby

That brings us to Kabul, where the Afghan government is located. What kind of threat is Kabul under right now?

Andrew Watkins

At this point, Kabul is not under direct military threat, not in the way that many cities around the country are being surrounded and harassed by the Taliban.

It’s not clear if the Taliban will, in the next weeks or months, start to move closer to Kabul and attempt to put pressure on the government directly by attacking Kabul, which would obviously result in a mass panic, in civilian casualties, in turning the population of Kabul against the Taliban — perhaps even more than the majority already are, according to public opinion polling.

It’s not clear if that will happen, or if the Taliban will continue to squeeze other cities in the hopes of pressuring the government in Kabul, demonstrating the weakness of the Afghan government and challenging its sovereignty around the country.

Something that’s important here — as important as the Taliban capturing provincial capitals — is that the Taliban has begun to capture large, commercial cross-border customs points, and they’ve done so for several Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan, as well as at crossing points into Iran and Pakistan.

This presents not only a domestic political challenge to the Afghan government’s authority, but also a geopolitical challenge because it forces neighboring countries to decide whether or not they want to de facto recognize and cooperate with the Taliban on the other side of the border, instead of with the Afghan government.

The Taliban’s approach has been to demonstrate Kabul’s weaknesses and to try to pressure it to collapse. The question is going to be whether or not they continue to squeeze from the outside in, or whether they move to squeeze Kabul directly. It’s not obvious yet which they’re going to opt for.

Jen Kirby

Obviously, it’s impossible to make predictions, but what is the possible endgame if the Taliban continues to squeeze the Afghan government from the inside out?

Andrew Watkins

It’s too early to see the outcome. What is clear is that if the Afghan government is able to mount a strong defense of cities, if it is able to take back some of these border crossing points and maybe other strategic stretches of the country’s major roads and highways, if the Afghan government can put a stop to the Taliban’s advance and can stand firm — then it might be able to fight its way back to a stalemate, a military situation where there’s no clear winner, at least in the foreseeable future.

If that happens, you will very likely see both parties trying to claim control over Afghanistan. The hope is that they would then potentially move to peace talks if they don’t see a military solution to the war. The concern is that if the Afghan government cannot fight its way to a stalemate, the momentum may gradually but consistently slide in the Taliban’s favor.

Jen Kirby

What I’m getting from this conversation is that as bleak as it is, it is not yet a foregone conclusion that the Taliban will “win.”

Andrew Watkins

That is absolutely true. I do not have any optimism for the situation. But this is not a foregone conclusion. It’s not inevitable.

Unfortunately for Afghans, even in the best-case scenario for the Afghan government, harsh government counterattacks are just going to increase harm to civilians. The harder the government is able to fight back, the more people will want to flee the fighting. So even in what many people would say would be the best-case scenario of the state surviving and holding the Taliban off, it’s an absolute humanitarian catastrophe.

I think that’s where, speaking as a political analyst, I can say what is a foregone conclusion is that more Afghans will suffer this year than they have even in past years. And this was already one of the worst conflict zones on Earth.

Jen Kirby

What’s the humanitarian situation right now as the Taliban advances?

Andrew Watkins

It’s absolutely atrocious. Civilian deaths are on the rise quite steeply. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan tracks this comprehensively, and its numbers are staggering. Over 10,000 civilians have already been killed and injured in most of the last few years in Afghanistan. [According to its latest report, civilian casualties are up nearly 50 percent in the first six months of 2021, compared with the same period in 2020.]

It’s going from the worst place on Earth for civilians stuck in conflict to much worse. Displacement is largely internal to date, but it’s hundreds of thousands of people. It’s going to hit more than a million people displaced internally.

Jen Kirby

One thing I’m struggling with is that all of this horror is coming after the US spent 20 years in Afghanistan. This may be an impossible question, but I’m trying to understand whether the same dynamics would have played out if the US had left in, say, 2010, or at any other time. In other words, was it staying there this long, was it the decisions of the past few years, that helped push Afghanistan to this place?

Andrew Watkins

A lot of people would like to put the blame on various decisions made under the Trump administration, or the terms of the US-Taliban deal, or the mere fact that the US started negotiating with the Taliban at all.

What everyone seems to leave out — which really gives a pass to far too many people involved in policymaking on Afghanistan for the last decade, maybe two decades — is that since the Obama administration, there was an acknowledgment among senior policymakers that the war was already unwinnable.

That was why the earliest attempts to try and probe the Taliban, to see what their appetite for peace talks was, started as early as 2009. It’s very easy to forget that. It took 10 hard years just to get to the point where they would actually sit down and negotiate with US in any substantive sense.

The real issues today come from the US and NATO partner decision to draw down force levels but basically make up for it with airstrikes, rather than the Afghan government being forced to grapple with its weaknesses and adapt to a landscape where the US was no longer involved.

For instance, the first time the Afghan government lost control of a provincial capital was in 2015. And then it happened again in 2016, to the same provincial capital. And then the government almost lost another major capital in 2018, etc., etc.

What we’ve seen in recent years was a situation that was clearly slipping out of the Afghan government’s control. And for much of that time, the US solution was to ramp up airstrikes to help keep the scales leveled out. But with the US’s thumb on the scale, that meant the years went by and nobody really wanted to acknowledge how much they had tilted out of the government’s favor.

Jen Kirby

And now we may be fully taking our thumb off the scale, no matter the outcome.

Andrew Watkins

Even in Biden’s remarks in mid-April, there was the suggestion that this withdrawal decision was made based on how hopeless the situation seemed. It was not the withdrawal that created an unwinnable situation. The withdrawal decision was made because in Biden’s assessment, the situation already was unwinnable.

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