The Taliban has taken control of more than 80 districts in the two months since launching its offensive against the Afghan government after President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would withdraw its forces from the country by September.
In many cases, Afghan security forces have turned over district centers, abandoned military bases, surrendered to the Taliban and handed over their weapons, vehicles and other war material without a fight. The Taliban’s multi-year strategy of gaining influence in rural districts to then pressure the population centers is paying dividends.
Prior to the Taliban offensive, which began in earnest on May 1, the date that the U.S. government originally committed to completing its withdraw under the Doha agreement, the Taliban controlled 73 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and contested 210, according to an ongoing assessment by FDD’s Long War Journal. The Biden administration moved the withdraw date to Sept. 11, 2021, the 20-year anniversary of Al Qaeda’s attack on American soil – which it plotted and executed largely from Afghanistan.
The Taliban began to seize territory once the May 1 deadline expired, and as of June 29, 2021, now controls 157 districts. Much of the Taliban gains are in the north, and that has put multiple provincial capitals under threat. Taliban fighters have entered the cities of Kunduz and Pul-i-Khumri and are on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif and Taloqan. Other provincial capitals, such as Maimana and Faizabad, are under direct Taliban threat.
The Taliban has largely gained ground in districts that were previously contested. The number of contested districts dropped from 210 on May 1 to 157 today. However, at least 10 districts flipped entirely from government controlled to Taliban controlled without ever being labeled as contested.
The swift collapse of these 10 districts indicates that the Taliban has leveraged its strengths in neighboring districts to convince the local government officials and security forces to surrender. Part of the Taliban’s success is attributed to the tactic of having sympathetic or pro-Taliban tribal leaders and elders convince Afghan officials and military and police officers to abandon their posts. In contested districts, often the district centers and key military bases and outposts are surrounded and cut off from resupply and reinforcements. However, many districts have been taken by the Taliban by force.
Videos of surrendering Afghan soldiers, including the elite Commandos and Special Forces that have been trained by the U.S. military, litter the web. In Qarabagh district in Ghazni province, which the Taliban overran on June 24, more than 350 Afghan soldiers were seen leaving their base. Afghan Commandos were among the surrendering soldiers.
The surrendering Afghan soldiers have abandoned large stocks of U.S.-supplied weapons, ammunition, armored Humvees, pickup trucks and other war material. The Taliban are even taking possession of night-vision devices and weapons scopes.
The Afghan government has responded to the crisis by pulling back its forces and abandoning what it claims are ‘remote and unimportant districts,’ and launching limited offensives in what it deems to be key districts. Additionally, it is now arming militias to bolster the security forces. The Afghan military has been able to regain control of 12 districts since May 1.
However, the Afghan military hasn’t been able to take control of many key districts, such as Imam Sahib, which hosts the strategic Shirkhan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan and a dry port. The Taliban took control of Shirkhan Bandar, which generated millions of dollars daily for the Afghan government, without firing a shot on June 22 – and to date, no effort has been made by the Afghan government to retake it. When the Afghan military, including its vaunted Commandos, attempted to retake the key districts of Jalriz and Nirkh in Logar province, the gateway to Kabul, it was repelled by the Taliban.
The Afghan government’s strategy of abandoning rural districts has played directly into the Taliban’s strengths. The Taliban has used its mastery of these remote districts as a springboard to take the fight to more populated areas. In these remote districts, the Taliban has established its shadow government, which it uses to spread its ideology and further its military aims. Here, the Taliban taxes the local populations, recruits fighters, establishes training camps and military stockpiles, while using these areas as staging points to attack neighboring districts.
Today, the Taliban controls and contests bands of districts stretching from the southwest to the southeast, and the northwest to the northeast, and it uses these Taliban-influenced areas to launch assaults on the Afghan government. The Taliban has overrun key districts on the outskirts of major cities and provincial capitals, and is preparing to encircle Kabul because its patient, multi-year strategy is now coming to fruition.
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