The Taliban captured their seventh and eighth provincial capitals Tuesday as top U.S. lawmakers blasted the Afghan army‘s “complete, utter failure” on the battlefield, underscoring mounting frustration in Washington over the growing possibility of a full takeover by the radical Islamist insurgency.
In its latest effort to halt insurgent momentum, the Biden administration has dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, to meet with Taliban leaders in Qatar. Mr. Khalilzad is stressing that the U.S. and its allies won’t recognize a Taliban-led government established through violence.
The last-minute trip by Mr. Khalilzad, the veteran Afghan-born diplomat who negotiated the original U.S. troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban early last year, is more proof of the growing alarm inside the White House, State Department and Pentagon, as the exit of foreign troops has led directly to a wave of Taliban victories and demoralizing defeats for Afghan government troops.
The southwest provincial capital of Farah fell early Tuesday and was quickly followed by Puli Khumri, the capital of the northern province of Baghlan. They mark the seventh and eighth provincial capitals to come under full or partial control of Taliban forces over the past five days. The Taliban‘s battlefield gains coincide with the full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, which will be complete by the end of the month.
Officials in Farah said Afghan troops were still battling insurgents but that the Taliban had captured key sites across the city.
“This afternoon, the Taliban entered the city of Farah after briefly fighting with the security forces. They have captured the governor’s office and police headquarters,” said Shahla Abubar, a member of Farah’s provincial council, according to Agence France-Presse.
In addition to Farah and Puli Khumri, the Taliban since Friday also have fully or partially seized the provincial capitals of Aibak, Kunduz, Sar-e Pul, Taloqan, Zaranj and Sheberghan. Eight of the country’s 34 provincial capitals are now in Taliban hands.
European Union officials estimate that the group controls roughly 65% of the entire country.
In capturing so much territory so quickly, the Taliban have steamrolled over Afghan defense forces that have been trained, equipped and advised by top U.S. military leaders for the better part of two decades. Unlike the Taliban, the Afghan military has its own air force and is presumably much better organized.
Still, the Afghan military has relied heavily on American air power and appears unable to hold even urban centers on the periphery of the Kabul government’s control.
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that U.S. airstrikes against Taliban targets have continued over “the last few days” in a last-ditch effort to slow the group’s advance on major urban centers. It’s generally believed that the Taliban would have captured even more ground without those American airstrikes.
The Afghan military can’t rely on U.S. airstrikes forever. Defense Department officials say the strikes will be much more logistically difficult and may face legal and technical hurdles when the American military mission formally ends Aug. 31.
“We have the authorities to conduct airstrikes in support of Afghan national defense and security forces through the end of the drawdown. … I won’t speculate about authorities beyond that,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “We will conduct these strikes where and when feasible with the full understanding that as we continue the drawdown … the where and the when in terms of feasibility of these strikes is going to be different, and it’s going to decline.”
Mr. Kirby stressed that “it’s really going to come down to the leadership and the will” of Afghan military and political leaders.
‘A failed 20-year strategy’
In Washington, some of Mr. Biden’s top allies have all but given up on the Afghan military. They say the collapse of Afghan forces is confirmation that the president made the correct decision to withdraw.
“The Taliban‘s surge is actually a reason to stick to the withdrawal plan,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said on the chamber floor. “Because the complete, utter failure of the Afghan national army, absent our hand-holding, to defend their country is a blistering indictment of a failed 20-year strategy predicated on the belief that billions of U.S taxpayer dollars could create an effective, democratic central government in a nation that has never had one.
“Staying one more year in Afghanistan means we stay forever, because if 20 years of laborious training and equipping of the Afghan security forces had this little impact on their ability to fight, then another 50 years wouldn’t change anything,” Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Biden is taking flak, though, from some analysts and retired military figures, who say the precipitate troop withdrawal has left the Afghan army exposed to a multifront Taliban advance that could topple democratic rule, create an opening for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, and reverse two decades of social and political progress since the Taliban were last in power.
“The depressing news of rapid Taliban gains in Afghanistan lays bare the stakes of the future of the U.S. mission in that country, and the consequences of the premature and ill-conceived unconditional withdrawal of U.S. support,” said an analysis by Irfan Nooruddin, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.
“As difficult as it will be for the Taliban to establish sole control over all of Afghanistan, it is even less conceivable to imagine now a scenario in which the Taliban is defeated militarily by the Afghanistan forces,” he said. “Any future therefore involves accepting Taliban control over large swaths of territory or a return to all-out civil war.”
Mr. Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan followed a path set out by President Trump and Mr. Khalilzad, who struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that called for the U.S. withdrawal in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.
In addition to 3,500 U.S. troops, thousands more NATO forces are exiting the country.
At the same time, the White House is doubling down on its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban.
Mr. Khalilzad, who was kept on as special envoy when Mr. Biden became president, arrived in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday and met with Taliban representatives. The State Department said the meeting was designed to “help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Khalilzad‘s mission also was to “press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan,” the State Department said in a statement.
The U.S. diplomat warned the Taliban leaders that if they seize the capital, Kabul, by force, then their victory will not be internationally recognized. A Taliban-led government, he said, would face near-total isolation and would be cut off from crucial aid from the global community to rebuild the shattered country.
The Taliban have shown at least some signs that they want to be seen as legitimate and humane. Top Taliban military commanders released an audiotape Tuesday ordering fighters not to harm Afghan troops and government officials who surrender.
The audio message from Mohammad Yaqoob, a son of late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, also instructed insurgent fighters to keep local businesses and markets open. Such moves could indicate that the Taliban are looking to maintain at least some goodwill with local populations.
Still, the Taliban have given little indication that they are prepared to slow their military advance. Foreign analysts and regional observers generally agree that the insurgents will continue their assault to gain even more leverage during cease-fire negotiations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.