- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Taliban‘s success in capturing territory and beating back government troops has emboldened the insurgents as they launch an aggressive urban offensive, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan warned Tuesday, adding that the Afghan security force needs to quickly “find its military bearings” or risk further losses.

Speaking on Tuesday at this year’s virtual Aspen Security Forum, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said there is no military solution to the conflict, which has grown more violent as American troops complete their exit. He urged the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul to form a consensus government, but he acknowledged that the Taliban have gained battlefield momentum and subsequent leverage over diplomatic negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Taliban and government forces were battling to control key cities, including Lashkar Gah, the capital of the strategically vital Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Afghan officials reportedly ordered civilians to leave the city Tuesday ahead of a major military offensive against the advancing Taliban.

“The situation is very concerning,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “Right now, the government’s primary focus is to find its military bearings, if you like, after the losses it suffered in recent weeks, and to develop a new military strategy and implement that strategy, believing that without that it’s in too weak a position to pursue a negotiated settlement.

“And the Talibs have been emboldened by the developments in recent weeks in terms of the gains they have made and are in a maximalist frame of mind,” he said. “But we believe there is no military solution.”

Violence also reached Kabul on Tuesday, with an apparent car bomb wounding at least 10 people. Afghan officials said acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi was the probable target of the attack. He was unharmed.

Witnesses also reported gunshots in the same area of Afghanistan‘s capital city.

The Taliban did not immediately take public responsibility for the blast. NBC News, however, cited three anonymous Taliban leaders as saying the insurgent group was behind the incident.

Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan native, has spent years at the center of U.S.-Afghan foreign policy. Under President Trump, he served as the lead U.S. negotiator in direct talks with the Taliban. Those talks ultimately produced a February 2020 deal in which the U.S. agreed to withdraw all of its military forces in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.

After taking office in January, President Biden kept Mr. Khalilzad in his post at the State Department. Although he delayed the timetable for the U.S. exit, Mr. Biden largely stuck to the deal Mr. Khalilzad struck with the Taliban. The U.S. will complete its withdrawal by Aug. 31.

Shortly after the withdrawal schedule was announced, Taliban insurgents began overrunning government forces across rural Afghanistan, including areas where they had not been operating. The group now has set its sights on provincial capitals and ultimately may mount an attack on the capital, Kabul, where the U.S. will maintain an embassy guarded by hundreds of Marines.

Relations between Washington and Kabul have become strained as the foreign troop withdrawal nears completion and the Taliban score battlefield gains.

“The reason for our current situation is that the [withdrawal] decision was taken abruptly,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Monday in an unusual direct address to the nation’s parliament. Mr. Ghani said he had warned the U.S. that the withdrawal would have consequences for the nation’s security.

Provincial fighting

The situation for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul appears most dire in Lashkar Gah, a city of roughly 200,000 people. Dozens of civilians have already been killed in fierce fighting, United Nations observers said Tuesday, and the government is taking dramatic steps to guard against further loss of innocent life.

“I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses. It is hard for us, too. But if you are displaced for a few days, please forgive us. We are fighting the Taliban wherever they are,” Afghan Army Gen. Sami Sadat said in a message to city residents, according to Al-Jazeera. He urged civilians to flee the area immediately.

Taliban fighters in the city reportedly seized more than a dozen local TV and radio stations, part of the insurgents’ growing effort to control the flow of information.

As the Taliban offensive gained steam, the U.S. carried out airstrikes in recent days in a last-ditch effort to stop the advance on key cities. Military observers and analysts say such strikes will become much more difficult once the American withdrawal is complete because it will take much longer and be much more logistically difficult for U.S. commanders to send in air power from elsewhere.

Critics also point out major ripple effects of the U.S. exit, including the withdrawals of thousands of military contractors who helped the Afghan air force repair and maintain its fleet of helicopters and fighter jets.

“We didn’t just withdraw our 3,500 forces,” retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Aspen forum. “That resulted in the withdrawal of 8,500 [international] coalition forces who were doing a lot of the train-and-equip missions. … That resulted in, then, the departure of 15,000 contractors who are the critical elements in maintaining and sustaining the Afghan air force.

“That is now really in danger of being unmaintainable,” he said.

Gen. Petraeus said he expected the U.S. to regret withdrawing from Afghanistan eventually, but “I didn’t fear that we would regret it as soon as we are now.”

“This situation is seriously dire,” he added.

In its deal with the U.S., the Taliban promised to engage in good-faith negotiations with the Afghan government with the ultimate aim of forming a coalition government. Both sides say that remains their goal even as violence spreads across the country.

Mr. Khalilzad said he hopes the Taliban live up to their promises but added that the U.S. is taking all necessary precautions. Diplomats will have a major security presence in Kabul, and “over the horizon” military capabilities have been established to strike Taliban targets and radical jihadi groups seeking haven in Afghanistan.

“Especially with a group that we have been fighting for 20 years, it is not a question of trust,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “We obviously reached an agreement with them. … But at the same time, given the trust deficit that exists, we are taking measures to be able to secure our interests with appropriate preparations.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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