PESHAWAR: The Taliban has reportedly seized control of the Afghan cities of Herat, Kandahar and Ghazni after weeks of military gains across the country, prompting fears the Afghan government in Kabul could collapse.
Acknowledging the rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, the US and UK governments both plan to send troops to help evacuate embassy staff.
Taliban fighters have taken charge of the southern Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan and several crossing points with Iran to the west and Central Asian countries to the north.
Since May 2021, when the US and NATO powers began their final drawdown some 20 years after their arrival in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the fragility of the Afghan government has been revealed by a string of battlefield losses.
Just how lopsided the victories of the Taliban have been is evident from the fact that, in many cases, government forces have surrendered without fighting. Even Afghan elite commandos, so highly praised by their US military patrons, have failed to make a stand.
The Taliban has seized 10 provincial capitals in less than a week, with fighting ongoing in Lashkar Gah in the south. Government forces have effectively lost control of the north and west — traditional anti-Taliban strongholds.
Taking full control of Kandahar, a vital southern city of 600,000 people, would be a major boost for the insurgents. Not only is it an important trade hub, but the militant group’s birthplace and stronghold after it seized power in 1996.
According to several reports emerging late on Thursday, the Afghan government’s negotiating team in Doha has approached the Taliban leadership with a proposal for a power-sharing deal in return for a ceasefire.
The intra-Afghan peace talks have been an agonizing, drawn-out affair, with few concrete achievements to show for President Ashraf Ghani and his backers.
The lighting advances by the Taliban in multiple provinces on Thursday may well be a make-or-break moment for the negotiations.
Granted, nobody expected the peace process to be smooth, but the talks, beginning on Sept. 12, 2020, have proved particularly slow and unproductive.
After almost nine months, the only achievement the two sides have made is an agreement on the code of conduct for the negotiations themselves.
Disagreements persisted over the precise agenda of the talks, despite mounting pressure on both negotiating parties by major stakeholders, including the US, Pakistan, Qatar and China. Yet it was obvious that any negotiations concerning substantive issues could only proceed once the agenda had been finalized.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the name favored by Ghani’s internationally recognized government, has long insisted on placing the matter of a ceasefire at the very top of the agenda.
For the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, what mattered most was the question of what system of government the country ought to adopt — its preference being Shariah, or Islamic, law.
Analysts were largely correct when they predicted that intra-Afghan negotiations would be far more challenging once the Taliban-US peace agreement was signed.
The conflict in Afghanistan, a country of some 38 million people of multiple ethnic backgrounds, has ground on for more than four decades, drawing in state and non-state actors and creating a fertile ground for both terrorism and opium cultivation — quite the opposite of what American and British forces set out to achieve then they launched a bombing campaign in October 2001.
Back then, the administration of President George W. Bush was responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, in which nearly 3,000 people perished. Accusing fingers were pointed at the terrorist group Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden, who was once a mujahideen fighter in the Soviet-Afghan war.
But the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, who was then living in Afghanistan under the group’s protection. Bin Laden and his closest aides had fled Afghanistan by the time a US-led coalition intervened and toppled the Taliban in December 2001, setting the stage for America’s longest war.
After Joe Biden took office in January, he set a symbolic date of Sept. 11, 2021, for full troop withdrawal, pushing back the May 1 deadline set in an accord struck with the Taliban under former President Donald Trump last year.
It had taken 18 months of exhaustive talks between the Taliban and the US to reach their deal, signed in Doha on Feb. 29, 2020, after repeated suspensions and acute differences over the exchange of Afghan prisoners.
Five and a half months were spent on an agreement to exchange 5,000 Taliban prisoners for more than 1,000 Afghan servicemen, and only after seeking approval from a specially convened loya jirga — a legal assembly in Pashtunwali culture.
Momentum was quickly lost, however, and mutual mistrust again crept in, to the extent that, even after several weeks of talks, neither side could agree on something as simple as whether to call the Kabul government an Islamic republic or an Islamic emirate.
As the Taliban offensive intensified in recent weeks, the Afghan government, through its Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, asked Pakistan for help in containing the Taliban, arguing that the militants posed a threat to neighboring countries and regional security.
The statement was unprecedented. No Afghan government had ever asked for Islamabad’s help fighting its enemies, instead choosing to accuse it of taking sides in the Afghan civil war.
Atmar also accused the Taliban leadership of cheating the Afghan government by holding peace talks in Doha on the one hand and preparing for a military offensive on the other.
During a recent visit to Russia, Shahabuddin Delawar, a senior member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, held the door open to further Taliban offensives by arguing the group had made no such promises to withhold attacks or refrain from seizing provincial capitals.
With the Taliban capturing more than half of the country in less than two months, it is now justifiably claiming the upper hand militarily.
There are several possible reasons for the Taliban’s rapid gains in northern Afghanistan, one being that many non-Pashtuns, including Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, have joined the Taliban’s ranks after graduating from madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Another possible reason is the long history of disunity in the ranks of non-Taliban factions, which has fostered splits and undermined their collective strength.
Short of allowing the country to sink into a protracted, bloody stalemate and a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not seen in decades, a negotiated solution involving some measure of power-sharing appears to remain the only viable option for the warring sides.
Although the two negotiating teams reiterated their commitment to the peace process in the latest round of talks on July 16, the Taliban has flatly refused to give up its demand for “a genuine Islamic system.”
Ghani has insisted his forces may lose battles, but will ultimately win the war, and made it clear his government is in the war for the long haul. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, also warned the Taliban they would lose if they refused to reach a political settlement.
The government began mobilizing and equipping the arbaki (militia) as early as 2019, providing tribal fighters with resources to resist the Taliban. The former mujahideen, made up mostly of non-Pashtuns, was also mobilized, particularly in its northern strongholds, but soon began to collapse in the face of the Taliban onslaught.
Three giant portraits of Ghani, Karzai and the late mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood that hang outside Hamid Karzai International Airport are symbols of the grit that government forces were expected to show in the face of the Taliban.
But as the fighting has shown over the past two months, the Kabul regime has been unable to match the Taliban’s strength, to say nothing of determination.