Analysis: Predicting the coming Taliban offensive

As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan after two decades, the Taliban is doubling down on its efforts to retake the country by force of arms to restore its Islamic Emirate. The question isn’t whether the Taliban will continue to wage its war against a weakened Afghan government to resurrect its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but how. 

Because there is no question: a fierce Taliban offensive is coming.

There are four likely scenarios for how the fight for the future of Afghanistan will unfold. These scenarios are briefly outlined below.

Quick Collapse: The security situation deteriorates rapidly in the wake of a swift Taliban offensive, causing the collapse of the civilian Afghan government and/or military. The Taliban takes control of the south, east and west in short order, and presses its offensive to seize Kabul and the north.

Consolidate and Fight: The Afghan government consolidates its lines and abandons areas that it is hard pressed to maintain a presence in, with the goal of securing those areas that are more easily defended. This means the Taliban regains control of the south, east and west, while the Afghan government fights to defend the capital and uses its forces in an attempt to clear the Taliban from the north.

Slow Burn: The Afghan government and military remains cohesive and the Taliban is unable to mass its forces and take provinces. However, the Afghan government still gradually loses ground to the Taliban, much as it is doing today.

Stiff Defense: The Afghan government unites, secures foreign support in the wake of the coming U.S. security vacuum, puts up a stiff fight against the Taliban, and holds the line throughout the country. 

To be clear: Unpredictable events can change the course of the fight. For instance, a terrorist attack against the West that originates from Afghanistan may force the U.S. to remain in country. Or, the U.S. could miraculously secure basing in a neighboring country and decide to continue using American airpower to back the Afghan military. Both of these events would likely lead to the Slow Burn scenario. A coup could lead to a Quick Collapse or a Consolidate and Fight scenario, depending on how the coup plays out. 

If, however, the situation in Afghanistan remains on its current trajectory, and the U.S. does complete its withdrawal, the first, second, and third scenarios are far more likely than the fourth. Given the performance, or lack thereof, of the Afghan government and military over the past decade, it is difficult to imagine that Afghan forces, which have sustained heavy losses, will magically flip a switch and put up a stiff resistance nationwide.

The far more likely scenario is that the Afghan government will be forced to abandon large areas of the country in order defend areas that are more defensible. 

Taliban are Everywhere

The Afghan government is in a major bind, as the Taliban’s power base is no longer confined to the south and the east, as it largely was in the early to mid-2000s. With the help of al Qaeda, the Taliban has included into its ranks several Uzbek and Tajik jihadist groups, such as the former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, Kaitbat Imam Bukhari, and Jamaat Ansarullah. This has helped the group make major inroads into provinces such as Badakhshan. This should have set off alarm bells within the U.S. military and intelligence community years ago.

Once the headquarters of the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban prior to 9/11, Badakhshan is now a Taliban bastion. Afghan officials say that 22 of Badakhshan’s 27 districts are under threat from the Taliban and its al Qaeda-affiliated allies. In short, this means the Taliban now contests 22 of those 27 districts. Fifteen years ago, it was unthinkable that Badakhshan could become one of the most insecure provinces in the country.

The Taliban has also made major inroads into northern provinces that were peaceful in the mid-2000s, such as Sar-i-Pul, Faryab, Jawzjan, Balkh, Samangan, Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhar. They are all under Taliban pressure. Many of the provincial capitals of the aforementioned provinces are under direct Taliban threat. Outside of the provincial capitals, the Afghan government has maintained nominal control of Kunar and Nuristan over the past two decades. 

The same is true for the western provinces. The Taliban has made major gains in Badghis, Herat, Farah, and Nimruz. (The Taliban overran Farah City for a short period of time in May 2018.)

The situation is particularly grim in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan are major Taliban strongholds, as are Ghazni, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, and Nangarhar. In eastern Afghanistan, Wardak and Logar, the gateway to Kabul, are highly contested, as are Laghman and Kapisa. 

The Taliban has had more difficulty in gaining traction in the central provinces of Kabul, Ghor, Daykundi, Baymian, and Parwan, but even in these provinces, the Taliban has overrun individual districts or launched major attacks at different times. The Taliban routinely launches attacks and assassinations in the capital of Kabul City.

ANDSF must Consolidate Lines, Secure Power Bases

A review of the security situation shows that the Afghan government and its defense forces are in a difficult position. The Taliban has made significant gains over the past several years, even as the U.S. military was supporting ANDSF operations. Today, 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals are under direct Taliban threat. 

Zero provincial capitals were under threat in 2014, after the “surge” ended and U.S. forces handed over security responsibilities to the ANDSF.

In the last three years alone, that is, since 2018, the Taliban has doubled the number of districts it controls (88 today, up from 45) and contests (213 today, up from 117).

The ANDSF cannot possibly defend all of Afghanistan without risking being defeated, or having its military units picked apart one by one. The Taliban has expertly plotted the time and place to fight the Afghan military and police, which are spread out in small outposts and checkpoints in an attempt to defend the entire country. The Taliban and its al Qaeda-affiliated allies are able to easily overrun countless bases and district centers. 

Afghan commandos, the highly capable forces trained by the U.S., are stretched thin and forced to take on roles they are not trained for, such as providing static security in district centers. Despite the commandos’ solid training and advanced weapons, the Taliban has often prevailed against them in multiple fights.

This has led to a decline in the morale and commitment of Afghan soldiers and policemen. Afghan security personnel routinely abandon their bases or surrender to the Taliban rather than risk being killed while defending their positions. Continued successive losses, particularly without U.S. air power and special operations forces to save the ANDSF, may lead to wholesale defections, or the dissolution of entire military units. Some units may abandon the ANDSF and integrate with warlords in order to defend their home territory. Other units may defect to the Taliban en masse.

Only the threat, and periodic use of U.S. air power and special operations forces has kept the Taliban in check. When the Taliban overran Kunduz City (twice), Ghazni City, and Farah City, the ANDSF relied on the U.S. military to provide logistics, combat support, and medical evacuation, while the U.S. also executed airstrikes and ejected the jihadists from the cities. Most recently, the U.S. military blunted Taliban offensives against Lashkar Gah and Kandahar City in the winter of 2020 and spring of 2021. Even so, the Taliban was able to seize the country’s second largest dam and retain control of areas outside of the two capitals. 

After the summer of 2021, the U.S. military will not be able to bail the ANDSF out of tactical and strategic setbacks. 

So-called “over the horizon strikes,” or operations launched from outside Afghanistan, will not be sufficient in stemming the Taliban offensive. In fact, U.S. officials have only discussed the use of U.S. air power as muscle to target al Qaeda and the Islamic State, not to support the Afghan military against the Taliban. 

The ANSDF will need to consolidate positions to hold areas that it has a higher chance of defending. This means that, at a minimum, it must withdraw its forces from the south and east, while redeploying them to the center and north. The ANDSF may decide to defend portions of the west, but that will likely prove difficult.

If the ANDSF decides to go all-in and defend the south and east, it will risk being defeated. 

The ANDSF’s tactical and strategic situation throughout the country is poor. In the south and east, it’s worse than poor. The Taliban is well aware of that fact and will likely tailor its military strategy accordingly. 

The Lost South

The Taliban has near-dominance of key rural areas in Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan, and will parlay this dominance to press for full control of the provinces. 

Ironically, U.S. generals have characterized the Taliban’s control of rural areas and its so-called inability to hold major urban areas as evidence of its weakness. This characterization dismisses the Taliban’s tactical and time-tested guerrilla strategy of controlling rural regions to shape the battlefield for the coming fight to take control of the more densely populated areas. 

The Taliban knew that it could not control provincial capitals for any length of time while the U.S. military was available to aid the ANDSF. Instead, the Taliban prepared the battlefield by surrounding multiple key provincial capitals, as well as influencing the key roadways into these cities. The provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan are all but lost to the Taliban. Their capitals, Kandahar City, Lashkar Gah (Helmand) Tarin Kot (Uruzgan), and some additional key areas are currently surrounded by the Taliban. The Taliban would very likely have seized control of Lashkar Gah in the fall of 2020 and Kandahar City in early 2021 had the U.S. military not intervened. Without U.S. air and special operations forces, it’s only a matter of time before those capitals are lost. 

The Taliban doesn’t necessarily have to take all three southern provincial capitals by force. There may be no need. With the major roads to the southern capitals likely severed (the Taliban has shut down the Ring Road numerous times, even while U.S. forces were in country) and the Afghan Air Force’s decreased logistical capabilities over time, the Taliban can besiege the cities until the ANDSF ultimately collapses or surrenders. The Taliban likely won’t want to destroy the southern cities, which are the gems of its southern bastion. That would allow the Taliban to save manpower for the looming fight in eastern and central Afghanistan, including the capital of Kabul.

The Afghan government loyalists in Lashkar Gah, Kandahar City and Tarin Kot will hold out for as long as possible, but this will become more difficult as time goes on. The Taliban will try to induce them to surrender and reconcile (the Taliban has pushed reconciliation efforts in its propaganda) rather than suffer the destruction of the cities.

If the Taliban decided to fight for the three capitals, it is likely that it would move against Helmand and Kandahar first. With those two cities under Taliban control, the fate of Tarin Kot is all but sealed, given its isolated geography. The Taliban will control the main logistical routes, few as they are, in and out of Tarin Kot. The ANDSF based in Tarin Kot could be starved out in short order. Another possibility is that the Taliban assaults Tarin Kot first, in order to make an example for the citizens of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar City.

The Teetering East

As the Taliban battles for the south, it will likely fight concurrently to gain control of the east. It is also possible that the Taliban decides to consolidate its gains in the south before making a push for the east. Of course, this all depends on the security situation and status of the ANDSF.

The ANDSF’s tactical posture in the eastern provinces of Ghazni, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, and Nangarhar is no better than that of the south. With the exception of Ghazni City, the Taliban has not made an overt play for any of the provincial capitals.  

However, this does not mean the capitals are not under threat. Like in the south, the Taliban controls or contests key districts that decide the fate of these cities. Qalat, the capital of Zabul, is in the heart of Taliban country, and the Taliban could quickly move to take the city. The Taliban has proven that it is capable of closing down the Ring Road and other key roadways, such as the Gardez-Khost Highway, at will. 

The Haqqani Network, an integral and powerful part of the Taliban that is also closely allied with al Qaeda, is based in Paktika, Paktia, and Khost. The Haqqanis are also strong in Ghazni. With bases nearby across the border in Pakistan, and direct support from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, the Taliban and its Haqqani contingent will be difficult for the ANDSF to fend off. The Taliban likely will take the provincial capitals of Qalat (Zabul) and Ghazni City in short order. Khost City, on the other hand, may remain contested for some time as the CIA-backed Khost Protection Force may put up a fight, as it has little to lose. As goes Khost City, so goes Gardez (Paktia) and Sharan (Paktika). If the Taliban is able to take control of Zabul, Ghazni, Wardak, and Logar, it is only a matter of time before Paktia, Paktika, and Khost fall.

The Gateway to Kabul

If the Taliban can take control of the east, the battle for Kabul will not be far behind. The Taliban has laid the groundwork for the fight in Kabul province over the past several years. The Taliban currently contests nine of Kabul’s 15 districts. This is why the Taliban are capable of routinely launching terror attacks inside the capital.

In order for the Taliban to launch its assault on Kabul City, it will need to secure the provinces of Logar and Wardak, which serve as the gateway to the city. Currently, the Taliban maintains a significant presence in most of the districts in Logar and Wardak provinces, so much so that the provincial capitals are currently under Taliban threat. 

The Taliban is currently well-positioned to make its push for Kabul. In Logar, the Taliban controls four of the seven districts and contests two more. In Wardak, the Taliban controls three of the nine districts and contests four. 

Additionally, the Taliban has significant influence in other provinces around Kabul, including in Kapisa, Laghman, and Parwan.

If the Taliban is successful in securing Logar and Wardak and is able to maintain pressure in the provinces surrounding Kabul province, as well as the districts in Kabul province that surround the city, the fight for Afghanistan’s capital will begin. 

The Troubled North 

As the Taliban fights to regain control of the south and east, it will continue its attacks in the north, where the group has expanded at a stunning rate since the mid 2000s. The Taliban has been so effective in the north that eight of the 17 provincial capitals under direct threat from the Taliban are in that region: Maimana (Faryab), Sar-I-Pul, Mazar-I-Sharif (Balkh), Aybak (Samangan), Pul-I-Khumri (Baghlan), Kunduz City, Taluqan (Takhar), and Fayzabad (Badakhshan).

The Taliban will not give up its hard-fought gains in the north so easily. It will want to maintain its strong presence there. Additionally, continuing the fight in the north will tie up key Afghan military and police formations that could be used to fend off attacks in the south, east, and in Kabul.

While the north is certainly strategic terrain for the Taliban, it will be secondary to the efforts in the south, east, and Kabul.

The Wild West

Like the north, the Taliban has made significant gains in the west. It is no accident that Farah City was one of three provincial capitals overrun by the Taliban. The Taliban has a major presence in Farah, Herat, and Badghis, and controls and contests numerous districts there. 

The Taliban will not need to commit significant resources to take the west if it is successful in seizing control of the south and east. With control of the south and continued disruptive attacks in the north, the western provinces will fall to the Taliban with minimal effort as key logistical routes will be choked off. 

A Much Tougher Center

While the Taliban is well positioned in most of the country, its footprint in Hazara-dominated provinces of central Afghanistan – Ghor and Baymian – is limited. The Hazara have suffered under the rule under the Taliban and will organize to fight for their territory. Fighters from the Iranian-trained Fatemiyoun militia who fought against the Islamic State in Syria likely will bolster the ranks of the Hazara resistance. 

However, if the Taliban is able to secure the surrounding regions, the ability of the Hazara to resist the Taliban onslaught will be degraded over time. 

The blueprint for the Taliban to reclaim Afghanistan has been carefully plotted and mapped out over the last decade. It’s been staring the U.S. military in the face. The jihadists’ effective strategy has been willfully ignored at times, but will soon be a problem solely for Afghan forces.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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