Faizabad, a rugged outpost in the Hindu Kush Mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, has long been a base of resistance to the Taliban and never fell into the hands of the Islamists when they ruled in the 1990s.
But the city was one of at least 11 Afghan provincial capitals, a third of the total, captured this week in a lightning-fast Taliban attack launched in the wake of the hasty departure of US troops that has changed the balance of power in Afghanistan. The Islamist militants now control Herat and are on the brink of taking Kandahar, the country’s third largest city, respectively.
Analysts, diplomats and security officials said they are underestimating the Taliban’s military strategy, which has routed a better-equipped Afghan army that outnumbers them.
The offensive has left little hope that the Taliban will seek a political settlement as their fighters surround Kabul. The insurgents want to force the surrender of President Ashraf Ghani or will carry out a bloody attack on the capital of about 4.5 million inhabitants.
Taking advantage of the confusion following the US departure, the militant group moved across the countryside, besieging Herat and Kandahar to the south and west before attacking the north, a historic bastion of anti-Taliban resistance. Demoralized Afghan troops surrendered or fled, leaving behind weapons and supplies. Insurgent numbers were bolstered by an agreement with the US to release prisoners, based on a 2020 deal signed by the Trump administration that bypassed the Ghani government.
Insurgent numbers were boosted by a US deal to release prisoners, based on a 2020 deal signed by the Trump administration with the Taliban that bypassed Ghani’s government.
“I’ve never seen the Taliban strategize like they’ve done in recent weeks in taking these cities,” said Ahmed Rashid, an author who has followed the Taliban for decades.
Nearly 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from power by the US, the militants are closer than ever to overthrowing Ghani’s democratic government and installing a brutal Islamic emirate. Observers warned that the Taliban would abolish women’s rights and could once again turn Afghanistan into a haven for international terrorism — with groups like al-Qaeda and Isis already present in the country.
A US defense official told the The Washington City Times that “assessment has deteriorated,” with Kabul at risk of a direct attack. “They’re probably also surprised at how fast it’s going.”
Muhammad Zadran, a senior Taliban member in the southern province of Paktia, said: “We will traverse Kabul like an anaconda. Control over Kabul and the Afghan regime is inevitable, maybe in a few weeks.”
Ghani’s western allies have reacted weakly, fueling fears of a snowball effect on humanitarian and international migrant crisis. Joe Biden this week confirmed his commitment to withdraw the remaining US troops before the end of this month. It was time, he said, for the Afghans to “fight for themselves”.
But critics argued that the withdrawal has put an end to any chance for peace.
“The Taliban’s strategy over the past two weeks has been nothing short of brilliant,” said a Western diplomat. “They knew the government would fight tooth and nail” [to defend southern cities], so they hit three at a time. Once reserves were deployed, they attacked the entire north at once.”
The diplomat added: “There is a huge smokescreen that the Taliban wants peace. All they ever wanted was an outright win.”
The Taliban have captured Puli Khumri and Ghazni and put them in control of the highways leading from the north and southwest to Kabul. The insurgents said they want to take the city before the freezing winter slows the fighting.
“Afghan forces have to defend many different cities, critical infrastructure locations and important routes,” said a former senior US intelligence official. “The Taliban can en masse wherever they want, and they have done that quite effectively.”
Any battle for Kabul is expected to be tougher for the Taliban and more deadly for civilians. Afghanistan’s elite forces were spread too thinly to defend the provincial cities, but will gather en masse in the capital.
A member of the Taliban leadership council acknowledged that “the cream of the crop of Afghan forces will leave the rest of the country and gather for the battle for Kabul.”
Much of the blame for the losses has been put on the Afghan army, which has withdrawn in many places without a fight. Analysts said his abilities have been crippled by bribery and mismanagement, despite billions of dollars worth of US training and equipment.
The government is also having a hard time. On Wednesday, it replaced the army chief for the third time in a year and the finance minister resigned and left the country. “It’s hard to imagine the Ghanaian government staying in power [for long]’ said Abdul Basit, a retired Pakistani diplomat.
Javid Faisal, an adviser to the Afghan government, said the country was being abandoned by its allies. “Afghanistan must not be left alone at this crucial moment,” he said.
“The NATO and US forces, with all their equipment, could not win. How do they expect the Afghan forces to do it all alone?” he added. “Still, the Afghan armed forces are determined.” . . They are well trained and will continue to protect their country.”
The government has attributed the Taliban’s success to neighboring Pakistan, which has been accused for decades of quietly harboring and aiding Islamists, even while pledging to support the US. A senior official in Pakistan’s foreign ministry rejected suggestions that it was “the villain”.
The US defense official said that with each victory, the Taliban grew stronger and replenished supplies from every provincial military headquarters that it took over.
“The Afghans need the regular armed forces to take a stand. So far they have failed to do so,” the official said.
Faisal, the government adviser, warned the international community of a humanitarian crisis if it did nothing. “If the violence continues, if Afghans are forced to leave their homes, it will be a loss to our neighbours, the region and the world.”
Additional reporting by Sami Yousafzai in London