Taliban advances as U.S. completes withdrawal

Time lapse video of the Taliban’s advance, from April 13 to present

The Taliban has made dramatic gains since President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. The time lapse map, which is dated from April 13 to today and was created by FDD’s Long War Journal, shows the jihadists’ swift advance since Biden made his announcement.

The current Taliban and al Qaeda offensive was planned far in advance. The jihadists laid the groundwork for seizing large parts of the country years ago by directly challenging the Afghan government and military in rural districts. The insurgents seized more rural ground after the NATO handed over primary security responsibilities to the Afghan government in 2014. The Taliban’s strategy was downplayed and dismissed by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, who touted population control over territorial control. But the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies slowly but methodically took control of remote districts, using them as bases of operations to project power in neighboring districts as well as recruit, train, and indoctrinate future fighters.

The jihadists’ military strategy is complemented by its political strategy. The Taliban’s ultimate objective is to regain control of the country and restore its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In order to achieve this, the Taliban needs the U.S. to leave the country. In 2018, the Trump administration entered into talks with the Taliban. On Feb. 29, 2020, the Trump administration signed the Doha agreement, in which the U.S. agreed to leave the country by May 1, 2021 in exchange for nebulous and unenforceable counterterrorism assurances from the Taliban. Although the accord was widely trumpeted as a peace agreement, the negotiations were really designed to get the U.S. to withdraw its forces and undermine the Afghan government, which was excluded from the talks.

President Biden adhered to the agreement with the Taliban, even though he described it as a “bad deal,” and announced on Apr. 14, 2021 that U.S. forces would leave the country by Sept. 11, 2021 — the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The U.S. withdrawal is now ahead of schedule and expected to be completed by late August.

Importantly, the Taliban waited for the U.S. to announce its exit before executing its plan, which was obviously formulated well in advance.

By May 1, the Taliban offensive was in full swing. The U.S., NATO and the Afghan government was caught off guard. The Taliban planned, organized and executed its offensive without detection. With the exception of Commandos and Special Forces, Afghan security forces remained on the defensive for years, giving the Taliban the time and space it needed.

Districts began falling under Taliban and al Qaeda control at a rapid pace as Afghan security forces surrendered and even abandoned multiple district centers, military bases, border crossings and other key facilities. The Taliban and its allies have taken control of 139 districts in the span of less than two months, nearly tripling the territory under its rule. Multiple provincial capitals are now under direct Taliban threat, and it has launched incursions in cities such as Ghazni, Kunduz, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Maidan Shahr, Mihtarlam, Taloqan, Sheberghan, and Qala-i-Naw. Afghan security forces, meanwhile, have largely been on the defensive and have only managed to regain control of a handful of districts.

The  Taliban’s northern offensive is especially clever. It is designed to undercut the Afghan government’s traditional base of power. If the north is lost, the Afghan government loses its base of traditional support and is at risk of collapse.

The Taliban has not planned and executed this operation without help. Pakistan remains the Taliban’s primary backer and primary safe haven. Iran has helped the Taliban to a lesser extent. Al Qaeda, which was never defeated in Afghanistan, has also played a key role in the Taliban’s success.

Al Qaeda has fought alongside the Taliban both before and during the current offensive. But more importantly, it provided the Taliban with military and political advice (including strategy sessions on talks with the U.S.), and helped the Taliban integrate regional jihadist groups to fight under its banner. In the north, al Qaeda helped the Taliban organize groups such as the now-defunct Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah, Kataib Imam Bukhari, and the Turkistan Islamic Party to fight in the Taliban’s ranks. In the east and south, groups like the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen have aided the Taliban’s offensive.

The Afghan government is at a critical moment. It must halt the Taliban advance and reverse its gains in the north and the provinces surrounding Kabul. To do so, it must consolidate its forces, stop attempting to defend indefensible terrain, and abandon regions of the country, including in the south and east. It must also take the risky move of fully mobilizing the militias of pro-government (or at least anti-Taliban) warlords. If the Afghan government does not do this, and soon, it is at risk of losing to the Taliban and al Qaeda on the battlefield.

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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