Afghanistan at risk of collapse as Taliban storms the north

Afghanistan is at risk of a complete collapse after the Taliban has made dramatic gains in recent days, striking at the heart of the Afghan government’s base of power in the north while seizing control of large areas of the country – often unopposed by government forces.

The security situation has deteriorated rapidly. In the last six days alone, the Taliban has taken control of 38 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts – nearly 10 percent of the country – and most all of them in critical areas.

In all, the Taliban currently controls 195 districts and contests another 129 districts, according to the real time assessments by FDD’s Long War Journal.

Prior to the Taliban’s offensive, which began in earnest on May 1 – upon expiration of the date that the U.S. government originally committed to completing its withdrawal under the Doha Agreement – the Taliban controlled just 73 districts and contested another 210.

Put simply: The Afghan government controls only a little more than 20 percent of the country at the moment.

Afghan DistrictsAs of May 1, 2021As of July 5, 2021
Taliban Controlled73195
Contested210129
Gov’t Controlled11575
Data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal

Much of the Taliban gains have occurred in the north. The importance of the Taliban’s northern thrust cannot be understated. The Taliban is taking the fight directly to the home of Afghanistan’s elite power brokers and government officials.

If the Taliban can deny Afghanistan’s government and its backers their base of power, Afghanistan is effectively lost. The government could not possibly keep its tenuous footholds in the south, east, west, and even in central Afghanistan if the north is lost. If the Afghan government loses the north, the Taliban could take the population centers in the south, east, and west without a fight, and begin its siege of Kabul.

The Taliban has been especially active in Badakhshan province, which prior to Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the U.S. served as the headquarters to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Over the past week, the Taliban has seized control of 26 of Badakhshan’s 28 districts (the Taliban currently controls 26 districts, two were previously Taliban-controlled). Only Faizabad, which is also home to the provincial capital, and Kuran Wa Munjan are contested, according to TOLONews.

The Taliban gains in Badakhshan have been stunning. Two of the districts previously had no reports of a hint of a Taliban presence. Many of the districts fell without a fight while Afghan military personnel and government officials have fled to neighboring Tajikistan.

A source in Afghanistan, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the work, told FDD’s Long War Journal that the Taliban seized the Badakhshan district of Shignon after the Afghan military abandoned their outposts and they fled to Tajikistan along with the district’s governor.

“The same quiet takeover happened in Ishkoshim,” the source said. The provincial capital, Faizabad, is “surrounded by Taliban but the government is still holding on,” according to the source, however residents of the city “are expecting it to fall.” Images and videos of surrendered Afghan security personnel litter social media, with the Taliban shown in possession of large caches of weapons and ammunitions, as well as armored vehicles and even artillery pieces.

The situation in Takhar is equally dire. The Taliban control 14 of the 17 districts there. The remaining three, including Taloqun, which hosts the provincial capital, are contested. The Taliban has effectively surrounded Taloqan City and is launching raids into the city.

The complete loss of Badakhshan and Takhar would a major blow to Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the “Lion of Panjshir” who stood up to the Taliban and was assassinated by Al Qaeda just two days prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Panjshir was one of two provinces fully controlled by the Northern Alliance, and Badakhshan was the lifeline to the Massoud and his followers. With Badakhshan under Taliban control, the jihadi group will be free to assault Panjshir.

Taliban gains have not been exclusive to the north. In the south, the Taliban has taken control of several key districts, such as Gereshk and Nawa-i-Barakzai in Helmand, and Shah Wali Khot and Panjwayi in Kandahar. Gereshk is the first city to fall to the Taliban, and it is home to government loyalists who helped defend Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

Panjwayi is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, and is both a symbolic and tactical victory. With Panjwayi and Shah Wali Kot under Taliban control, the vise on Kandahar City will tighten. Additionally, in Kandahar, the Taliban are putting pressure on Spin Boldak, with its important border crossing to Pakistan. Spin Boldak is the base of power of Tadin Razaq, the brother of anti-Taliban commander Abdul Razzaq, who was assassinated by the Taliban in Oct. 2018 (General Austin Miller, the commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, was present during the attack). Tadin has helped defend Kandahar City, but will be forced to defend it or Spin Boldak.

The Taliban’s current phase of its offensive has gone largely unchallenged by the Afghan government and security forces. Afghan forces have wrestled only a handful of districts from the Taliban, but often those districts remain hotly contested or are quickly retaken by the Taliban. Afghan officials keep talking about plans to retake key districts, but nothing has materialized since the Taliban has pressed its attack over two months ago. The government has mobilized an armed militia, but their impact is marginal at best at the moment.

If the Afghan government does not get a handle on the security situation and finds a way to regain control of the north, its tenure may well be measured in weeks or months.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the change in status of districts in Badakhshan. Seven more districts were determined to be Taliban controlled in the hours since the report was filed.

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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