In recent days, both the American and German forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. The government in Kabul is now on its own, with the Taliban conquering one district after the other. Could they soon lay siege on the capital city?
By Christoph Reuter in Kabul
The mobile phone video is short and slightly grainy, but you can hear the fear, even the panic in the voices of the people waiting. They’re making their way up the gangway into the small plane. Nobody wants to be left behind. A single man finally makes it past the security people and rushes to the plane. The person filming explains, “That was a senator” – a member of the upper house of parliament in Kabul. “These are members of parliament, representatives from the provincial council and commanders.”
In recent days, the dramatic scenes in Faizabad, the capital of the mountainous province of Badakhshan, have been a Saigon moment for Afghanistan’s government. They are reminiscent of the iconic photograph shot half a century ago, when one of the last American helicopters took off from South Vietnam, leaving desperate allies behind.
The events in Faizabad have great symbolic importance – and reinforce a suspicion that has been lingering for some time now: One day soon, the current elites in Kabul might also have to flee from the advancing Taliban.
There have long been fears in Washington that the Afghan leadership and its troops would have a hard time holding their own against the Taliban once the NATO troops left. The Washington Post recently reported on a United States intelligence assessment forecasting that Afghan leadership could only hold out for six months, perhaps a year, after the final withdrawal.
The clock started ticking on July 2, at 3 a.m. local time, when the last plane took off from the Bagram Airfield north of Kabul. The Americans didn’t even tell the Afghans in advance that they were leaving, they just disappeared. When the Afghan army finally arrived hours later, they already had to drive the first looters away from the base. It only took a few hours for the panic-stricken crowd to descend on the Faizabad airport.
Despite its very clear risk analyses, the United States decided, after almost 20 years, to end the war it launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, initially to hunt down Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorists he led. But also to stabilize and democratize the country in the long term with partners including Germany. The first part of the mission succeeded, but the second one largely failed. The Taliban has now secured control of large parts of the country.
They advanced rapidly in Faizabad, surrounding the city while simultaneously conquering almost the entire province. By July 14, they were in control of 26 of the 28 districts and had besieged two more. Other areas, especially in the north, are also falling into Taliban hands at ever-increasing speed. In the week up to July 5 alone, the Taliban captured another 38 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, nearly one-tenth of the country. In all, they now control nearly 200 districts, with another 120 or so besieged. And almost nowhere have they triumphed as quickly and as radically as in Badakhshan.
On July 3, all commercial flights from Kabul to Faizabad were suspended until further notice. Then began the half-hearted evacuation attempts that were caught on video. Witnesses at the airport claim the government sent only one plane. GIZ, the German development aid organization, alone rented five aircraft from the United Nations fleet to bring its local staff to safety.
Advancing on all Fronts
Fierce battles erupted around Faizabad, with dozens killed. But in most of the districts, there were no reports of fighting. The Taliban just marched through without resistance. The army, police, local militias – some of them only recently established – simply gave up, went home or fled. According to the Tajik army, over 1,037 Afghan security forces escaped across the border into the desperately poor neighboring country in a span of two days. And they weren’t the first to flee. “Staying would be suicide,” said one soldier who had already fled to Tajikistan with an earlier wave. “Unfortunately, the majority of the districts were left to the Taliban without any fight,” Mohib-ul Rahman, a provincial council member, told Radio Free Europe.
“Two helicopters picked up only the uniformed people, soldiers and police,” a militia member who had deserted told DER SPIEGEL: “It was clear to everyone that it is over. Some fled, others just went home.” All the reports from those holding out in Badakhshan and of those who have escaped Kabul confirm what the Taliban’s propaganda channels are communicating: The Taliban is advancing everywhere. In many cases, the government troops left their vehicles, weapons and ammunition. The only word from the Wakhan corridor, a remote mountainous area, is that the government has simply abandoned the district.
In Kabul, however, Defense Ministry spokesperson Fawad Aman tweeted: “Vast areas were cleared of Taliban terrorists in outskirts of Faiz-Abad,” using an alternate spelling of Faizabad. In a second tweet, he posted four photos from the city as proof cars were still on the road. “People continue to live without fear of the Taliban terrorists.” But there was no word about the abrupt loss of almost the entire province and the city’s expected fall. There was only talk of victories – even in the country’s other combat zone, where the Taliban are currently still advancing.
The spokesperson, indeed, the entire government, as well as President Ashraf Ghani and the political elite in Kabul all seem to be out of touch with reality. Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, who just visited Moscow, earnestly declared that the Afghan forces had not expected a Taliban offensive. Nonetheless, he said they would “absolutely, definitely” go on the counterattack.
In Kabul, politicians have been working for months to finalize the formation of a Supreme State Council that would have the authority to conduct peace negotiations with the Taliban at some point in the future. But the process has been repeatedly delayed, partly due to divisions among the Kabul elite: A “High Council for National Reconciliation” was announced in 2020, but a feud between President Ghani and his political nemesis, Abdullah Abdullah, over how many of his supporters could be included in the body has stalled that effort.
For 20 years, the changing governments in Kabul told themselves confidently that the Americans would stay forever. For former President Hamid Karzai, in particular, that self-deception became a mantra: The U.S. would never, ever pull out of Afghanistan. They believe the U.S.’ secret interests in Afghanistan – its fabled mineral resources, geopolitical aspirations, or a host of other possible incentives – were just too great. This made it easy for them to disparage their American occupiers while also sending them every bill. Afghanistan was occupied, they would say, and Kabul wasn’t responsible for anything.
This feigned incapacity, combined with grand patriotic gestures, was nurtured in Kabul. Even when then-President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal deal with the Taliban leadership in 2020, many still reacted with disbelief. And when, after his election, President Joe Biden gave specific withdrawal dates in April, some still didn’t want to believe it. Even as Ashraf Ghani flew to Washington in late June, many in the Presidential Palace and the government ministries hoped that Biden, at the last second, would say: “OK, we’re going to stay.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, unit by unit, the U.S. military, intelligence and service providers said goodbye – and disappeared. The harsh awakening came early in the morning of July 2. Over two decades, the gigantic U.S. base at Bagram had grown into a kind of city with, at times, tens of thousands of residents, fast-food outlets, a hospital, a prison and a 3.6-kilometer (2.2-mile) runway big enough for a Boeing 747 aircraft to take off and land. Bagram was the heart of the American military machine in Afghanistan. But the place fell silent overnight. “We didn’t realize the Americans were gone until it was light,” said General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the Afghan who is now in charge of the compound. “No one told us anything.”
At an evening gathering in Kabul, officers were still upset about the callous departure days earlier. And it sounded less like determined anger than fearful indignation.
No one in Kabul seems to have a plan for stopping the Taliban. President Ghani doesn’t make public appearances. Western diplomats in Kabul say he only consults with his closest confidants. A new defense minister with combat experience from the guerilla war has been appointed, but overall, the executive branch in Kabul seems shockingly paralyzed.
Even the elite units, which are robust in combat and yet manageable in size, are driven haphazardly and without cover into suicide missions, complains one of their commanders. On June 16, when a special forces group was sent into the Taliban stronghold of Faryab to retake a district, the men came under mortar fire from a much larger Taliban force. They had been expected.
If things had gone according to plan, there would, for example, have been air support for the elite force. But as one military man later summed it up “the army didn’t come, the police didn’t come and the secret service didn’t come.” He didn’t even bother mentioning the air force. “Everyone left them hanging.” At least 21 of the elite fighters were killed in less than an hour, including their well-known commander. There was a big funeral in Kabul, and the district was retaken. But only for three days. The Taliban has been in control ever since. A member of the provincial council, Abdul Ahad Elbek, criticized the deployment, saying that sending the troops there in the first place had been a death sentence.
It’s a strange contrast: On the one hand, the government is acting mindlessly, while, on the other hand, as Bill Roggio, the matter-of-fact editor of The Long War Journal, argues, the Taliban is acting more strategically. By attacking the north, he says, the Taliban is about to threaten the power bases of the government and its allies. “If the Afghan government loses the north,” he recently wrote, then Afghanistan is effectively lost. Then “the Taliban could take the population centers in the south, east, and west without a fight, and begin its siege of Kabul.”
Badakhshan, the mountainous province that has now been conquered, played a central role as the last bastion against the Taliban in the 1990s. The legendary guerilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, the “Lion of the Panjshir Valley,” successfully fought to ensure the Taliban never captured the region. He also became famous for controlling the hinterlands leading to the border with Tajikistan, through which he ran his supply route.
A Fight to the Death
The Taliban grew out of the Pashtun ethnic group almost three decades ago. They never gained complete control over northern Afghanistan, which is primarily home to Tajiks, Uzbeks and Ismailis. Taloqan was the last provincial capital they managed to capture in 2000, a year before they were driven out altogether by the U.S. forces. The Taliban captured the rest of Takhar in June and now Taloqan is under siege.
Back in the autumn of 2019, a team of reporters with DER SPIEGEL witnessed how the government’s power in the districts had shrunk to the central military posts. Even then, the Taliban controlled the villages and streets after sunset.
As in Takhar, many soldiers and police in Badakhshan are simply giving up. Before closing in, the Taliban dispatch village elders as emissaries to the military posts to make an offer: the freedom to retreat and around 50 euros in pocket money – or a fight to their death. According to reports from the ground, the Islamists sometimes pay extra for equipment, vehicles and ammunition left behind. Afterward, the people who abandon the fight are left alone.
Politically, the Taliban are seeking to promote themselves as representatives of all Afghans and not as just the leaders of the Pashtuns. Their shadow governor for Takhar province is an Uzbek, and the military commander for the northern offensive is a Tajik. A high-ranking Taliban delegation recently traveled to Day Kundi province to assure the Shiite Hazara living there that nothing would happen to them. Just 20 years ago, they were persecuted and massacred by the Taliban as heretics.
But what is credible change and what is just deception? The fear runs deep in millions of Afghans, and the dearth of information from remote districts fuels that fear. Shaky mobile phone videos are circulating of women being flogged by the Taliban for “immoral behavior,” of individual men being executed. Some of the people who have fled to Kabul describe acts of revenge. Decrees issued by local Taliban leaders forbid women from leaving the house without a male family member, girls’ schools have been closed.
Not everything can be corroborated, but the Taliban’s foot soldiers appear to have changed far less than its leadership in exile, who like to think of themselves as modernized and having arrived in the 21st century.
“But what choice do we have?” asks the militiaman from Badakhshan who had watched as the solider and police officers were taken away by helicopter. “The government is abandoning us, the foreign troops are gone, almost all the borders are closed. What are we supposed to do?”