The Taliban’s capture of two crucial cities in Afghanistan -- Kandahar and Herat -- marks a major turning point in the 20-year war between the internationally backed Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency, observers say.
Kandahar, the nation’s second-largest city, is the economic hub of southern Afghanistan. It also served as the capital of the brutal Taliban regime that ruled the country from 1996-2001.
The ancient city of Herat, the country’s third-biggest urban center, is a major cultural and commercial hub in western Afghanistan.
Analysts say the fall of the cities in the space of just hours on August 12 has decisively shifted the balance of power in Afghanistan in the Taliban’s favor.
After effectively seizing control of Afghanistan’s west, south-central, and most of the north, the insurgents are expected to advance on Kabul, directly threatening the survival of the Western-backed central government.
“The fall of Kandahar feels like a game-changing event,” says Jonathan Schroden, a former adviser to the U.S. military and a security expert with the U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA.
“As a former capital of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan], the Taliban's seizure of it feels like the reestablishment of the emirate inside Afghanistan,” he adds, referring to the official name of Taliban’s regime that ruled from 1996-2001.
‘Balance Of Power In Favor Of The Taliban’
The Taliban had captured 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as of August 13 and seized control of over half of the country’s roughly 400 districts in a blistering offensive since the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops on May 1.
The Taliban seized Kandahar and Herat after weeks of heavy fighting in and around those cities. Regular government troops, special forces, and civilian militias were increasingly overrun in recent days. Many government forces retreated, surrendered, or deserted, with some even joining the militants.
Ismail Khan, one of Afghanistan’s most powerful former warlords, was captured by Taliban fighters on August 13 shortly after the fall of Herat. The elderly Khan had been leading a pro-government civilian militia in defense of Herat.
In another blow, Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of the southern province of Helmand, fell to the Taliban the same day, further consolidating the militant group’s grip on the country’s southern Pashtun heartland.
The region is a stronghold of the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group.
Two other southern provincial capitals, Tarin Kowt, in neighboring Uruzgan Province, and Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, also collapsed on August 13.
Having largely sewn up the south, the Taliban is marching on Kabul, the nation’s capital and home to around 5 million people. Tens of thousands of people fleeing the militants' advance have taken refuge in the overcrowded city in recent weeks.
Closing In On Kabul
On August 12, the insurgents took over Ghazni, a strategic city in southeastern Afghanistan, directly threatening Kabul. The city is located on the main highway connecting Kabul and Kandahar and is located just 150 kilometers from the capital.
In a further sign that the Taliban was turning its focus on Kabul, the militants on August 13 seized Pul-e Alam, the provincial capital of Logar Province. The city is just 70 kilometers from Kabul. Logar is also the home province of President Ashraf Ghani.
“The simultaneous fall of Ghazni, Herat, and Kandahar has definitely shifted the balance of power in favor of the Taliban,” says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.
“Residents of Kabul feel the inevitability of the city being the next possible target,” he adds.
The speed and scale of the Afghan military’s collapse has shocked observers. The Taliban has gained control of 16 provincial capitals in just a single week.
Some observers have likened the capitulation to the Islamic State (IS) extremist group’s capture of large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014, when it declared a so-called “caliphate.”
As of August 13, the government controls only three major cities -- Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e Sharif. The latter is a major commercial hub and the largest city in northern Afghanistan. The city, a rare island of government control in the north, has been under siege for weeks.
Afghan forces are now focused on defending Kabul, where a major Taliban assault could cause a humanitarian disaster. It is unclear if the militants will attempt to forcibly take over the city or try to negotiate its surrender. Afghan officials have vowed to resist the insurgents.
U.S. defense officials say that Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan's capital in a month and possibly take it over within 90 days.
In response to the Taliban's swift advances, the U.S. military said on August 12 that it would send about 3,000 extra troops to Afghanistan within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. Embassy staff from Kabul. Other embassies and aid groups said they also were getting their people out.
Washington has declared August 31 as the date when all of its forces will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan -- nearly 20 years after a U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban government.
“While there is a lot of politicking that could yet take place to save Kabul from Taliban military capture, the deck now appears to be stacked against the government,” says Schroden.