The Taliban are encircling Afghan police and army positions and encroaching on government-held territory, positioning themselves for largescale offensives against major population centers while waiting for the last American troops to depart Afghanistan.
The insurgents are pushing their advantage on the battlefield ahead of a full U.S. exit, even as they continue peace talks with the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar. President Biden has said the withdrawal would be completed by Sept. 11. Other American officials indicate the remaining U.S. presence—and the vital air support they provide Afghan government forces—will be gone much sooner, maybe as early as July.
In the ebb and flow of the Afghan war, government troops sometimes still retake areas like Arghandab, a fertile valley on the western edge of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city. Taliban fighters fled parts of Arghandab in early April, after strikes from U.S. war planes made the difference following months of intense ground fighting. But with air support ending within weeks, government forces will lose a pivotal edge in the conflict.
Saeed Ahmad, a 25-year-old police officer in Arghandab, said his unit won’t hold out for long without air power or a significant influx of heavy weaponry. “In this situation, we won’t be able to protect Kandahar,” he said.
hanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is due to arrive in Doha this week after meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on Sunday. He is seeking to reinvigorate the peace process, which has been dormant since Mr. Biden said the U.S. would withdraw its remaining troops unconditionally, removing the Kabul government’s main leverage in the talks.
The escalating fighting across Afghanistan stands in stark contrast to the Taliban’s earlier pledges in Doha. As part of an agreement with the Trump administration in February 2020, which triggered the unfolding American troop withdrawal, the Taliban promised they would reduce violence significantly.
Since then, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have reported a “historic increase” in enemyinitiated attacks, according to a May report by the Pentagon’s inspector-general: The period from July 2020 to March 2021 saw the highest number of attacks since early 2015, with roughly 130 attacks per day.
cited in the report, “the Taliban is very likely preparing for large-scale offensives against Afghan population centers and government forces.” The Taliban say the U.S. is in breach of its Doha commitment to withdraw all forces by May 1.
The Taliban in the past week seized eight districts in four regions of Afghanistan, according to the Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which tracks the Afghan war through publicly available information. The districts included Qaysar in Faryab province where a Taliban car bomb killed the police chief and 23 security personnel.
The militants are currently poised on the edge of more than a half-dozen provincial capitals, including Kandahar, Lashkar Gah in nearby Helmand, and the capitals of Laghman, Ghazni, Baghlan, Farah, Kunduz and Zabul.
Capt. Nasser Khaled, who commands a unit of special forces from the Afghan Army’s Task Force 444, said the insurgents ramped up fighting after last year’s deal with the U.S. in order to boost their negotiat ing position in Doha by capturing more areas, including provincial capitals. “They are trying to move forward, but we won’t let them,” he said.
To consolidate their grip on areas under their control, the Taliban often destroy infrastructure to impede access. In Arghandab, the insurgents blew up a bridge connecting the district to the road into Kandahar.
Since 2014, Afghan security forces have assumed growing responsibility for the war, and Afghan officials routinely point out that national forces now conduct at least 95% of the fighting against the Taliban. However, most of that fighting is defensive, as government forces rarely have the capacity to clear the Taliban from areas they occupy without the assistance of a limited number of Afghan special forces. U.S. airstrikes have remained decisive in preventing the fall of several cities and towns.
The Afghan military flies its own warplanes and Russianmade helicopters, but those are nowhere near as potent as the Apaches and F-35s deployed by the U.S. military.
The U.S.-led Combined Security Transition Command in Af ghanistan plans to provide the Afghan government the equivalent of up to $852.5 million to support the Defense Ministry from December 2020 to December 2021, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
But Afghan security forces are rife with corruption and many service members complain they are underpaid and outgunned. Desertions have picked up in recent weeks.
In Arghandab, Ahmad Sharif, a 23-year-old shopkeeper who had just joined the Afghan police force, showed off weapons his unit had found after the Taliban fled town: a vest full of ammunition, hand grenades, rocket launchers
“We don’t have this stuff here at the checkpoint,” he said.
By Sune Engel Rasmussen
Published in FT
Baryalay Rahimi in Kandahar and Ehsanullah Amiri in Kabul contributed to this article