Security Exchange News

The Return of the Taliban

15 August 2021

This morning, Kabul residents awoke to face their first full day under Taliban rule in two decades. Over the course of the last 12 months, the Taliban have increasingly escalated violent attacks on the Afghan government security forces and foreign troops, culminating in an unprecedented nationwide offensive - which saw Taliban insurgents advance on Kabul yesterday, seizing the capital.

The Taliban swept into Kabul unopposed, taking the presidential palace as President Ashraf Ghani’s civilian government collapsed. Ghani is now understood to have fled to a Central Asian country – rumoured to be Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, chaotic scenes have broken out at Kabul International Airport as thousands attempt to board evacuation planes. All commercial flights have been suspended and the US forces have secured a perimeter around the airport whilst they facilitate flights out of the country. Reports of diplomatic staff being prioritised over civilians for evacuation further fuelled chaos as crowds grew at the airport on Monday, prompting US forces to fire warning shots into the air in a bid to control the crowds. Several casualties have been reported amidst the mayhem and confusion. Footage has emerged online of several Afghan civilians attempting to cling on to the side of a US air force plane as it prepared to take off amid a crowd of people running alongside the plane on the runway. Unconfirmed reports claim at least two people were killed after falling from a plane after it had taken off. Multiple embassies had already begun to extract or significantly reduce their staff prior to the capital’s fall, urging all foreign citizens to leave the country immediately. Evacuations out of the capital remain ongoing and multiple Western countries have started evacuation flights out of Kabul including Czechia, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and France. More than 60 countries have urged the Taliban to allow people to leave.

The Taliban’s capture of Kabul comes almost 20 years after they were ousted in 2001 when the US-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks. While the capital seemingly fell overnight, the Taliban have been steadily advancing on the city for weeks now. As insurgents began to take provincial capitals, it was clear what their end goal would be. The capture of the strategically key cities of Kunduz and Ghazni further confirmed fears that a move on Kabul was imminent. The warning signs were arguably present from the start of the year when US President Joe Biden confirmed that the US would not honour the 1 May withdrawal date – instead committing to a delayed date of 1 September, despite increasing concerns over instability and violence. The landmark February 2020 peace deal agreed between the US and the Taliban outlined that US troops would be withdrawn under specific conditions, which included the Taliban committing to reducing violence and not allowing Afghan territory to be used for terrorist activity. In lieu of any significant reduction in violence, the change in US administration was prompted to reconsider the timeline for withdrawal - a decision which didn’t sit well with the Taliban leadership, who accused the US of violating the agreement.

The advance of the Taliban in subsequent months has been linked to the group’s exploitation of the power vacuum left behind by the US troops withdrawal, damaging US credibility as observers draw comparisons to Vietnam. The Taliban timed the launch of their large-scale campaign to capture territory in the weeks following the staged withdrawal of the US forces - leading to widespread fighting across much of Afghanistan between the insurgents and the now-depleted Afghan forces. As the Taliban have advanced, fighters have been seizing Afghan military equipment, including attack helicopters, armoured vehicles, artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), firearms and night vision goggles. It is also understood that some equipment has been handed over to the Taliban by soldiers who have defected from the government forces. While the seizure of big-ticket items such as helicopters sounds critical, they are unlikely to have had much of an impact on the battlefield, as Taliban fighters have neither the training or equipment to use and maintain them – meaning the main extent of the impact remains limited to depriving the Afghan forces and undermining the US.

As of 15 August 2021, some 345 districts are now thought to be under Taliban control, while only 12 remain under government control and 41 are contested. The majority of this territory has been seized in the last four to five weeks; in early July, only 90 districts were under Taliban control and 141 were still held by the government – leaving 167 contested. The accelerated rate at which the Taliban took control of more areas was carefully coordinated. Taliban-operated access roads linking key rural areas began appearing first, then advances on contested areas, which in turn were followed by targeted assaults on key border crossing points. Following the capture of Spin Boldak in Kandahar, came the Taliban’s first capture of provincial capitals, including Zaranj – a key border crossing with Iran. Some of the heaviest fighting was reported in the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat; once these cities fell to the Taliban, the Afghan forces had begun to retreat and in some cases allowed the Taliban to take provincial capitals with minimal resistance in a bid to avoid civilian casualties. The capture of Kunduz and Ghazni then gave the Taliban key access routes to the capital, linking Taliban strongholds in the south. Before the Taliban moved on Kabul on Sunday, the last major city in northern Afghanistan - Mazari-Sharif - also fell. The Taliban now control almost all major cities and all major border crossings, leaving Kabul as the only official route out of the country. The capture of the border crossings was also key in limiting supply chains for the Afghan military, as well as generating more income for the Taliban, who now collects all customs duty on goods entering the country, although the flow in imports and exports has been significantly disrupted following the recent instability – particularly essential goods.

It is feared that the mass exodus of refugees from Afghanistan will continue to affect surrounding countries for years to come. The rapid advance of the Taliban has sparked concerns over the impact the waves of refugees will have on neighbouring countries – particularly Pakistan, which arguably becomes strategically more important to the US in the context of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognise the Afghan Taliban Government in 1996 and is expected to announce key decisions on its current stance at a national security committee meeting on Monday. Further afield, it’s expected many Afghan refugees may seek refuge in Europe via Iran and Turkey; this would provide Ankara with leverage over the EU, which they previously utilized in response to the 2015-2016 migrant crisis.

Details of life in the capital under Taliban rule have begun to emerge, with Taliban fighters now manning former police checkpoints and army barricades. The Taliban are understood to have taken control of almost all military vehicles and stations and are stopping traffic to search cars. Most shops remain closed and many women have seemingly chosen to stay indoors. Journalists on the ground have reported cases of Taliban fighters carrying out door-to-door searches and stopping all background music in the capital. While most of the more dramatic scenes have been unfolding at the airport, those elsewhere in Kabul have described a tense atmosphere as the new Taliban government settles in.

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