In the span of just a few days, the Taliban appears to have changed the complexion of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
After seizing control of large swaths of the countryside during a months-long offensive, the militants captured six of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals during a four-day blitz -- putting them in control of an entire province for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
In a major setback to the internationally backed government in Kabul, the Taliban has taken over the southwestern town of Zaranj, the northern towns of Sheberghan, Taloqan, Sar-e Pol, and Aybak, and most of the strategic northeastern city of Kunduz since August 6.
The insurgents have also captured around half of the country’s roughly 400 districts and half a dozen lucrative border crossings in recent months.
The Taliban’s dramatic military gains since the start of the final withdrawal of foreign forces on May 1 have fueled fears that it could topple the weak, deeply divided Afghan government and overrun the country's battered security forces.
But observers say the gains do not spell an outright victory for the militant group.
“If and when all anti-Taliban forces are aligned with one another, a complete Taliban victory is not inevitable,” says Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.
Afghanistan’s leaders have failed to establish serious and coherent resistance to the Taliban, a failure driven by the country’s fractious internal politics.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat who has been in office since 2014, has spent years sidelining the country’s key power brokers, many of them powerful former warlords, who view Kabul with suspicion and resentment.
“Our imperial presidential system, compounded by Ashraf Ghani’s authoritarian character, has been a major impediment,” says Moradian, referring to Afghanistan’s heavily centralized presidential system.
Kabul has hailed the creation of pro-government militias as a bulwark against advancing Taliban militants. But many of the loosely formed civilian militias, collectively known as the Public Uprising Forces (PUF), are loyal to powerful former warlords who hold significant sway in the provinces.
Many militia leaders have complained that they have yet to receive arms and supplies from Kabul.
Ghani met with some of the regional strongmen on August 9 to “expedite efforts to mobilize, equip, and strengthen” the PUF, the presidential palace said.
In a rare success story, a civilian militia led by former warlord Ismail Khan last week helped government forces successfully repel a multi-pronged Taliban assault on the western city of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest.
“Herat provides the way forward in challenging and slowing the Taliban’s momentum,” Moradian says.
Jonathan Schroden, a former military adviser to the U.S. military and a security expert with the U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CAN, says the Taliban’s military position has been boosted by capturing Kunduz and Zaranj, in particular.
Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name, is the country’s fifth-largest city and is a strategic prize given its location next to Central Asia. Zaranj, although remote and sparsely populated, is an important commercial hub near the border with Iran.
“But the real strategic danger is that these actions further the Taliban’s narrative of inevitable conquest,” Schroden said. “Their momentum has the potential to create domino effects via tribes, militias, and families deciding to bandwagon with the Taliban as the seemingly stronger side.”
Government forces have focused on repelling Taliban assaults on major cities in the country’s west and south, including Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah. The loss of any of these major cities would signify a major shift in the balance of power in Afghanistan, analysts say.
Fierce clashes are raging between government forces and the Taliban in and around the three cities, where the Taliban has faced strong resistance and suffered significant casualties.
The government’s concentration of forces and supplies to major cities could see the Taliban capture more of the smaller population centers.
“We should probably expect to see another tranche of northern provincial capitals fall in the weeks to come,” Schroden said.
The Taliban offensive has forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and led to a dramatic rise in civilian casualties as dozens are killed or wounded daily.
UN special envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons last week said the war in Afghanistan had entered a deadlier and more destructive phase "reminiscent of Syria recently, or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past."
Observers say the foreign military exit, which is more than 95 percent complete, has severely weakened Afghanistan’s security forces, which have relied heavily on U.S. air support, intelligence, and logistics to keep the Taliban at bay.
It is unclear if U.S. forces will continue air strikes in support of Afghan forces after the troop deadline. Washington has escalated air strikes in recent weeks to prevent the Taliban from capturing major cities and boosting morale among battered government troops.
The Afghan Air Force, a critical bulwark against the advancing Taliban, is stretched and dangerously overused. It is heavily dependent on foreign contractors, many of whom have left the country. Likewise, the Afghan special forces, the best trained and armed government force, has been exhausted as it is deployed across the country to repel Taliban attacks.
Afghan military experts say government forces suffer from poor leadership and communication, low morale, and dwindling resources.
In some cases, the Taliban has captured cities and provincial capitals after heavy clashes with Afghan security forces, who have complained about overdue salaries, shortages of ammunition and food, and delays in sending air and ground reinforcements.
In some cases, the militants have seized control of areas without firing a bullet, including Zaranj and Aybak, at times with the help of local elders who have negotiated the surrender of entire districts and towns to the Taliban.