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Risk Of 'Taliban Momentum' As Dozens Of Afghan Districts Fall Since Foreign Withdrawal Began

Afghan soldiers patrol outside their military base on the outskirts of Kabul on May 9.

The Taliban has captured dozens of districts across Afghanistan in a lightning offensive since the start of the international military withdrawal on May 1.

Afghan security forces have retreated or been forced from at least 30 districts in rural areas, the most territory the internationally recognized Afghan government has lost to the militant group since it launched an insurgency after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The Taliban’s considerable gains on the battlefield have fueled fears that it could topple the government and overrun the country's much-maligned security forces, which will lose crucial U.S. air support once all foreign troops depart by September.

Afghan officials claim government forces have retreated from some districts to prevent civilian casualties and vowed to retake them.

Officials also say the Taliban has failed to capture any provincial capitals or provinces despite major offensives across the country.

“The seizures appear to stem from a combination of the Taliban pushing to consolidate its control in some rural areas in which it was already in a strong position and Afghan forces repositioning some of their forces to more defensible locations,” says Jonathan Schroden, a security expert with the U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA.

Districts Fall

The militants have launched major offensives in rural areas in eastern, southern, northern, and western Afghanistan. There has also been a stark increase in deadly suicide bombings striking urban areas that have been blamed on the Islamist group.

In seven weeks, Taliban fighters have seized three districts in Uruzgan, a longtime stronghold in the south; Sar-e Pul, a Taliban stronghold in the country’s north; Ghor, a remote and unstable province in the central highlands; and Ghazni, a strategic province straddling the main highway linking Kabul with Kandahar, the nation’s second-largest city.

The insurgents have also captured two districts in Maidan Wardak, which is only 40 kilometers from Kabul and considered a gateway to the capital. Several key highways to the country’s central and southern provinces also go through the province.

The Taliban has captured at least 32 districts since May 1, according to the Long War Journal (LWJ), a project run by the Foundation for Defense Of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, which tracks militant groups.

Afghanistan’s Tolo News estimates that the Taliban has seized control of at least 30 districts since the foreign pullout began.

According to the LWJ, the Taliban controls around 26 percent of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts, more than the government, which commands only 23 percent. The rest of the districts are contested.

The LWJ’s “living map,” based mostly on media reports, is the only publicly available source that tracks district control in Afghanistan. NATO no longer assesses territorial control, and the Afghan government has classified its own data.

The Afghan government controls Kabul, provincial capitals, and major population centers. The Taliban -- which controls more territory than at any other time since 2001 -- commands large swaths of the countryside.

Risky Retreats

In some cases, the Taliban has seized districts after fierce clashes with Afghan forces, who have complained about overdue salaries, shortages of ammunition, and delays in sending air and ground reinforcements.

In other cases, the militants have seized control of districts without firing a shot. In a growing trend, the Taliban, with the help of local elders, has negotiated the surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers and national police officers.

Such actions have allowed the militants to stock up on weapons, ammunition, and equipment. It has also been a propaganda coup for the Taliban, which has boasted of an impending victory in its recent statements.

The Interior Ministry on June 13 announced that it had arrested an unspecified number of local elders who had mediated surrenders, saying that cooperation with “terrorists” was unacceptable.

Taliban fighters stand along a road with their motorcycles at a local bazaar in the Andar district of Ghazni Province on June 3.
Taliban fighters stand along a road with their motorcycles at a local bazaar in the Andar district of Ghazni Province on June 3.

And in other cases, Afghan forces have deliberately retreated from districts where they had only a marginal presence and withdrawn to other positions, mostly nearer to provincial capitals and major cities.

From a strategic military perspective, the repositioning of forces seeks to put Afghan forces into the best posture for defending the bulk of the country's population and political centers, says Schroden.

But from a strategic political perspective, he says, there are several risks.

“First, it risks perceptions of increasing Taliban momentum and the inevitability of Taliban military takeover, which creates increased risk of side-switching by local armed forces and key political actors, as well as hedging by international actors,” says Schroden.

“And second, there is the risk of the Taliban using those perceptions to increase pressure on the government both internally and externally to make concessions at the negotiating table.”

It is unclear if the militant group is attempting a forcible takeover of Afghanistan or just trying to boost its leverage in deadlocked peace talks aimed at striking a permanent cease-fire and power-sharing arrangement.

Intra-Afghan talks that began in September have made little progress, hampered by deep mistrust, militant violence, and a huge gulf between the Taliban and Afghan representatives on key issues. In a further blow, the insurgents last month backed out of a high-level international peace conference that was to have been hosted by Turkey.

In the wake of President Joe Biden's April decision to pull out the remaining 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan without setting any conditions, the Taliban immediately intensified attacks on provincial capitals, district centers, and large government military bases.

Observers say the military exit will severely weaken Afghanistan’s security forces, which have relied heavily on U.S. air support, intelligence, and logistics to keep the Taliban at bay.

The United States has pledged to continue funding the 273,000-strong Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Washington has also said Afghan forces will receive military backing from U.S. bases and ships located hundreds of miles away, dubbed "over the horizon” support.

But it is unclear if U.S. drones and war planes will aid Afghan forces fighting the Taliban or focus on counterterrorism missions against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan.

‘Attritional Warfare’

Observers say the Taliban is adopting similar tactics to the former mujahedin, the U.S.-backed Islamist guerrilla fighters who battled Soviet and Afghan communist forces in the 1980s.

Mullah Baradar (center), the Taliban's deputy leader and chief negotiator, attends an international peace conference in Moscow on March 18.
Mullah Baradar (center), the Taliban's deputy leader and chief negotiator, attends an international peace conference in Moscow on March 18.

The Soviets departed in 1989, following a devastating, nearly decade-long occupation. But with military and financial assistance from Moscow, the leftist government of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah survived for three years and collapsed only after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of its support.

Tamim Asey, the head of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank, says the mujahedin used “attritional warfare augmented by a military chokepoint strategy,” the same tactics the Taliban has employed.

“The strategy centers around capturing key strategic districts and provinces, making highways insecure, isolating major cities, and targeting the power and transit infrastructure leading to these major urban centers,” says Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister.

“In addition, [it relies on] carrying out targeted killings and assassination campaigns inside the isolated cities to undermine government legitimacy and erode public trust.”

Taliban forces are estimated to have surrounded 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals.

The militants have captured several strategic districts near Kabul and other major cities. They have also waged a brutal yearlong campaign of targeted killings against government workers, journalists, and activists in major urban areas. There has also been an uptick in deadly suicide bombings striking urban areas that have been blamed on the Islamist group.

“The greatest tragedy of our time is that the Afghan government hasn’t learnt anything from the modern military history of Afghanistan and is responding with the same futile regular warfare counteroffensive tactics which led to the collapse of the last communist ruler of Afghanistan and has been a recipe for military disaster,” says Asey.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.