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As the Taliban set their sights on Kabul, some fear a collapse within weeks.

Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

KABUL, Afghanistan — The last major city in northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on Saturday night, marking the complete loss of the country’s north to the Taliban as the insurgents appear on the verge of a full military takeover.

The collapse of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province and one of the last three major cities that had remained under government control, comes just a day after two key cities in southern and western Afghanistan were lost to the Taliban.

The Taliban seized the last northern holdout city barely an hour after breaking through the front lines at the city’s edge. Soon after, government security forces and militias fled — including those led by the infamous warlords Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor — effectively handing control to the insurgents.

Some of the major

cities seized by

the Taliban

Taliban controlled districts

Contested districts

Government controlled

Some of the major

cities seized by

the Taliban

Taliban controlled districts

Contested districts

Government controlled

Some of the

major cities

seized by Taliban

Taliban controlled districts

Contested districts

Government controlled

“Government forces and popular uprisings all left the city,” said Hashim Ahmadzai, a pro-government militia commander. “The Taliban seized government and military buildings. There was no resistance.”

The insurgents now effectively control the southern, western and northern regions of the country — just about encircling country’s capital, Kabul, as they press on in their rapid military offensive. The Taliban blitz began in May, but the insurgents have managed to seize more than half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in just over a week.

With the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the only two major cities left under government control are Kabul and Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province in the eastern part of the country.

The loss of the north — once the heart of resistance to the insurgents’ rise to power in 1996 — to the Taliban offered a devastating blow to morale for a country gripped with panic.

In the late 1990s, Mazar-i-Sharif was the site of pitched battles between the Taliban and northern militia groups that managed to push back the hard-line insurgents before the group took over the city in 1998. The victory followed infighting and defections among the militias and culminated with the Taliban’s ethnically charged massacre of hundreds of militia fighters who had surrendered.

During the current Taliban military campaign, Mazar’s defense was almost completely reliant on the reincarnations of some of those very same militias that have all but failed to hold their territory elsewhere in the north. Some are led by Mr. Dostum, an infamous warlord and a former Afghan vice president who has survived the past 40 years of war by cutting deals and switching sides.

Others were behind Mr. Noor, a longtime power broker and warlord in Balkh Province who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. During the civil war, he was a commander in Jamiat-i-Islami, an Islamist party in the country’s north, and he was a leading figure in the Northern Alliance that supported the American invasion in 2001. Shortly afterward, he became Balkh’s governor, deeply entrenched as the singular authority in the province. He refused to leave his position after President Ashraf Ghani fired him in 2017.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“The army is not fighting — it is only Atta Noor and Dostum’s militias defending the city,” said Mohammad Ibrahim Khairandesh, a former provincial council member who now lives in the city. “The situation is critical, and it’s getting worse.”

Following the U.S. invasion in 2001, which more or less began with the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif by the Northern Alliance on the heels of a heavy American bombing campaign, Balkh Province became one of the most stable provinces in the country.

Its position along the border with Uzbekistan and on a key trade route from Turkmenistan lifted the local economy. But in recent years, stability there has steadily declined as the government in Kabul has struggled with controlling provincial leadership and supplying the north with a sufficient number of security forces.

By Saturday night, the Taliban controlled around 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces after Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province in the country’s east, fell to the insurgents. The province was the site of some of the heaviest battles of the U.S. war, and its unforgiving terrain has long been home to foreign fighters who came across the nearby Pakistani border.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan at the White House in June. 
Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Several of his close political associates have surrendered to the Taliban without a fight or fled into exile. His army has all but collapsed, and the warlords he was counting on have proved ineffectual or are bargaining for their lives.

Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, is more isolated than ever, facing pressure to step aside — and not just from the Taliban. His dominion is shrinking by the day. He governs the capital, Kabul, two other cities in the north and east, and pockets in the interior.

Yet Mr. Ghani is stubbornly clinging to office.

In a brief recorded speech televised early Saturday afternoon, Mr. Ghani promised to “prevent further instability” but did not resign. With Taliban forces having captured Pul-i-Alam, another provincial capital — this one only 40 miles from Kabul — Mr. Ghani said he had begun “extensive consultations at home and abroad” and that the “results” would soon be shared. He said “remobilizing” Afghanistan’s defense forces was a priority.

On Wednesday, he flew to one of his loyalist redoubts, the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in attempts to rally pro-government forces; the city fell to the Taliban on Saturday night. On Thursday, officials said, he spoke by phone with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III. On Friday, he was said to be leading a national security meeting in the Kabul presidential palace.

The Afghan president’s options appear limited. He has little discernible support at home or from his former foreign backers. Street demonstrations supporting his army quickly fizzled out.

Thousands of his soldiers are surrendering, deciding that Mr. Ghani is not “worth fighting for,” Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister, tweeted on Friday.

Far from hinting at resignation, the president has only suggested that he would not run for re-election if the Taliban agreed to elections. Their battlefield rampage appears to have made the offer irrelevant. As his country slips away and provincial capitals fall, Mr. Ghani and his advisers have said little, sometimes even refusing to acknowledge the losses.

Even Mr. Ghani’s substantial corps of bodyguards, said to number in the thousands, poses a potential threat. Many are from villages now controlled by the Taliban.

Leading Afghanistan is a dangerous business. For more than a century, most Afghan rulers have been killed or have died in exile, the Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield pointed out.

Still, if — as seems increasingly likely — Mr. Ghani is deposed by the Taliban, he can lay claim to a singular distinction. “This will be the first insurgency that has ever driven a Kabul government from power that has also had the backing of a foreign power,” Mr. Barfield said.

The last time the Taliban seized control, in 1996, one former ruler wound up swinging from a noose on a lamppost in downtown Kabul, and the other fled hundreds of miles to the north to govern a postage-stamp rump state for five years.

Mr. Ghani shows no signs that the cruel lessons of the past sway him any more than the uncertain present and the fearful future.

“He’s hunkering down,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan presidential adviser. “He’s refusing to admit the reality. The news is relayed to him through a filter.”

Mr. Farhadi added that “trusted lieutenants surrendered just this morning,” referring to the recent capitulations of governors Mr. Ghani had appointed in Ghazni and Logar provinces.

“He’s at risk from his own bodyguards,” Mr. Farhadi said. “This is how it happens in Afghanistan. The last days of any leader are like this.”

Mr. Ghazni’s youthful finance minister, Khalid Payenda, fled the country several days ago.

Leadership characteristics that in the past merely annoyed his fellow citizens — Mr. Ghani’s refusal to delegate authority or listen to others more knowledgeable than himself, especially on military matters, according to those who know him — are now proving lethal to the Afghan state.

“He is isolated, confused and deeply mistrustful of everyone,” said Tamim Asey, a former deputy minister of defense. “He doesn’t know how to reverse this.”

Unless a compromise can be reached, Mr. Asey said, “I would say that Kabul could become a blood bath very soon.”

The Taliban have said that the fighting will not end unless Mr. Ghani is removed. As the “polarizing figure,” in Mr. Farhadi’s words, Mr. Ghani has “demeaned the Taliban time and time again, saying, ‘You are the stooges of the Pakistanis.’” In return, the Taliban see him as the “stooge” of the Americans.

Analysts place much of the blame for the current disaster on the head of Mr. Ghani, a former World Bank anthropologist and published author with an outsize faith in his own intellect.

The Americans tried to construct republican institutions on Afghan soil, but they proved to be a flimsy facade. Instead, they helped bring Mr. Ghani to power through political deals struck during a contested presidential vote. Since then, Mr. Ghani has personalized power to disastrous effect.

He needed the militias in the north and west, yet showed contempt for their leaders. On Friday, Ismail Khan, a key militia leader in the western city of Herat, surrendered to the Taliban.

Mr. Ghani “did not take advice from anybody,” said Mr. Barfield, of Boston University. “If he had delegated power to the military, it might have been saved. Now, it’s a case of reality biting.”

Items belonging to a family who had fled Afghanistan were sold on the street in Kabul, the capital, on Friday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Afghans woke to a frighteningly uncertain future on Saturday, a day after three major cities were confirmed to have fallen to the Taliban, fanning already intense alarm that Afghanistan was teetering toward collapse and autocracy amid an intensifying humanitarian crisis.

By Saturday night, 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals were in the hands of the Taliban, including Mazar-i-Sharif, the government’s economic engine in the north.

The Taliban seized Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, on Friday morning, just hours after capturing Herat, a cultural hub in the west, and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. They have toppled city after city with stunning velocity this week, leaving just two major urban centers, including Kabul, the capital, in the government’s hands.

As the insurgents turn their sights on Kabul, a harsh reality has become clear: The two-decade American-led effort to turn Afghanistan’s military into an effective fighting force has been an abject failure. The security forces are imploding even though the United States spent more than $83 billion on weapons, equipment and training for them over the past 20 years.

Hungry, ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units have crumbled across the country. Demoralized soldiers and policemen have expressed abiding resentment of the Afghan leadership, chief among them the embattled president, Ashraf Ghani, who is stubbornly clinging to office, more isolated than ever.

The insurgency’s human toll is reverberating across Afghanistan, with the Taliban’s brutal military campaign spurring a mass exodus. Many Afghans fear a return to extremist rule. When the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Another disturbing prospect is a civil war reminiscent of the 1990s, with heavy fighting between ethnically aligned militias.

At least a quarter of a million Afghans have had to flee their homes since the end of May, 80 percent of them women and children, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday. The conflict is also exacerbating food shortages that were already dire.

“The most vulnerable are paying for what’s happening on the ground,” Shabia Mantoo, a spokeswoman for the agency, told reporters in Geneva on Friday. More than 400,000 people have been driven from their homes since the start of the year, she added. Two million children are now in need of nutritional support, the U.N. food program said.

American officials said the Biden administration was bracing for a possible collapse of the Afghan government within the next month, as the Taliban sped toward Kabul, their ultimate prize. The Pentagon said on Friday that the insurgents were seeking to isolate the capital, taking over border crossings, highways and lines of revenue as they marched through the country.

The administration has been urging the security forces to show “leadership” and the “will” to defend Kabul. But many U.S. officials are increasingly doubtful that the Afghan forces can rally to mount a defense of the city.

The Pentagon is moving 3,000 Marines and soldiers to Afghanistan and another 4,000 troops to the region to evacuate most of the American Embassy and U.S. citizens in Kabul.

It is a glaring sign not only that the country is nearing collapse but that the United States is fully intent on withdrawing from its longest war, with no intention of coming to the rescue of the Afghan military.

“I am just a vendor, why would they have any issue with me?” said Shams Ul-Haq, an 18-year-old selling onions at a market in central Kabul.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

With most of Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, and with Kabul one of the last bastions held by government forces, many of the city’s residents expressed fatalism and fear at the prospect of their home falling into the hands of the armed group.

“God forbid we will see war in Kabul,” said Sayed Akbar, 53, as he sold perfumes on a sidewalk in central Kabul. “People here have gone through 40 years of sorrows. The roads on which we are walking are built on people’s bones.”

Over the past few days, Afghans living in the country’s provinces fled to Kabul, while many living in the capital have sought to escape abroad. Some said they would have no choice but to fight, while most shared resignation over a reality that could be theirs within weeks: The Taliban were coming.

In the downtown Shar-e Naw neighborhood, where hundreds of people fleeing other parts of Afghanistan have arrived each day, three former students of economics at Jowzjan University, in the north of the country, said they had been forced to leave their city when the Taliban captured it.

“Taliban plundered our belongings. We fled so they don’t overrun our lives,” said Parweez Talash, 24.

The rapid advance of the Taliban has caught Western officials by surprise, and many countries said they would repatriate their citizens, close diplomatic representations and resettle Afghans.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

But as they contemplated the takeover of Kabul by the armed group, some Afghans said they would have no choice but to try to get by. “I am just a vendor. Why would they have any issue with me?” said Shams Ul-Haq, an 18-year-old selling onions at a market in central Kabul.

Many more said they feared that Taliban rule would erase all the advances made by Afghanistan in the past two decades, including in women’s rights, education, and infrastructure.

“In the last 20 years, we rebuilt this country. We built roads. We built dams and infrastructure,” said Eqbal Osmani, 30. “We had finally brought livelihood and relative peace to this country. I’m most worried that there comes a day when it all gets sabotaged.”

At a mall in Shar-e Naw, three sisters in their 20s who were shopping for dresses for an upcoming wedding said they would likely be among the first targeted by the Taliban.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years until the United States invaded in 2001, and under their strict interpretation of Islam, women were forbidden from working, receiving an education or even leaving their home without a male relative.

Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

“Taliban don’t have mercy on anyone, let alone on young women like us,” said one of the sisters, Maryam Yusofi, while another, Basira, said she felt abandoned by the United States.

Ms. Yusofi, 27, said that if the Taliban took control of the entire country, Afghanistan would likely “return to the dark days,” a feeling shared by other young Afghans who grew up in a nation where U.S. and Afghan forces had kept the group at bay.

Murtaza Sultani, 20, said there would be “no going forward.” Asked where he thought he would be in 10 years, Mr. Sultani said: “When the Taliban arrive, they might shut our business. Thirty-year-old Murtaza will probably be long dead.”

Jim Huylebroek and

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011. The country’s foreign minister said it owed “a debt of gratitude” to those who had worked with its forces.
Credit…David Goldman/Associated Press

Canada has promised to resettle more than 20,000 Afghan citizens from groups it considers likely targets of the Taliban, including women leaders, rights workers and L.G.B.T.Q. individuals, as many nations scramble to evacuate their nationals and help Afghans flee.

Canada’s immigration minister, Marco Mendicino, announced the resettlement process at a news conference on Friday, adding that Canada could “not stand idly by” as the Taliban seized control of cities and provinces. The rapid advance has prompted a surge in refugees and stirred fear among those who have worked with Western governments or organizations, or with the current authorities.

Some 250,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since late May, most of them women and children, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Several European countries announced on Friday that they were withdrawing embassy workers and evacuating Afghan nationals who had worked for them. Most of them reiterated calls for their nationals to leave the country urgently.

Norway and Denmark announced that they were temporarily closing their embassies, and Spain said it would repatriate its diplomatic staff and evacuate Afghanistan translators “as soon as possible.”

Britain has said it will send 600 troops to help evacuate its citizens, and Denmark is also offering evacuation to all Afghans who worked for its embassy or armed forces in the past two years.

Canada did not provide a timeline for its resettlement program. On Friday, it was continuing to repatriate those who had worked with its diplomats and armed forces in Afghanistan, according to government officials.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude, and we will continue our efforts to bring them to safety,” the country’s foreign minister, Marc Garneau, said.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, co-founder of the Taliban, with Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, at a meeting in Tianjin last month.
Credit…Li Ran/Xinhua, via Associated Press

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the prospect of a Taliban takeover have been viewed with a mix of resignation and trepidation in Asia. But a main source of Asian anxiety is a giant power that ordinarily might welcome a weakened American footprint: China.

While it routinely criticizes the United States for acting as a global belligerent, China has warned that a hasty American withdrawal could create instability across the region. An attack last month on a bus carrying Chinese workers in Pakistan, killing nine of them, has since been blamed on assailants operating from inside Afghanistan.

China, which shares a short border with Afghanistan, has also expressed worry that Uyghur extremists from the Xinjiang region in its own far west could find a haven in Afghanistan under the resurgent Taliban. The militant movement now controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory and could soon make a triumphal return to power in Kabul, the capital.

“The Chinese are actually quite concerned,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory firm. “They wanted us to stay.”

Still, China recently offered a public show of support for the Taliban. China’s Foreign Ministry held two days of talks late last month with a delegation that included one of the Taliban’s founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China called the Taliban “a pivotal military and political force,” but urged the movement’s leaders “to hold high the banner of peace talks,” according to a statement by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Wang also extracted a public pledge that the group would not allow fighters to use Afghan territory as a base for attacks inside China.

China’s position reflects a recognition of the Taliban’s growing control in Afghanistan, despite two decades of American-led intervention.

Susan L. Shirk, the head of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said most Asian governments had already factored in a Taliban victory “because it’s been a protracted process, not a shock.”

Even in the face of new security problems, Mr. Bremmer said, it would not be surprising to see Chinese officials portray the American pullout from Afghanistan as a humiliating retreat — especially officials who have adopted the aggressive style known as “wolf-warrior diplomacy.”

“There’s no question that there are wolf warriors in China who want America to be in decline,” he said.

U.S. Army soldiers oversaw the training of the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in early 2016.
Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

While the future of Afghanistan seems more and more uncertain, one thing is becoming exceedingly clear: The United States’ 20-year endeavor to rebuild Afghanistan’s military into a robust and independent fighting force has failed, and that failure is now playing out in real time as the country slips into Taliban control.

The Afghan military’s disintegration first became apparent months ago, in an accumulation of losses that started even before President Biden’s announcement that the United States would withdraw by Sept. 11.

It began with individual outposts in rural areas where hungry and ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment, slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads, then entire districts. As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totaled around just one-sixth of that, according to U.S. officials — were apparent. These shortcomings can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

Soldiers and policemen have expressed ever-deeper resentment of the Afghan leadership. Officials often turned a blind eye to what was happening, knowing full well that the Afghan forces’ real manpower count was far lower than what was on the books, skewed by corruption and secrecy that they quietly accepted.

And when the Taliban started building momentum after the United States’ announcement of withdrawal, it only increased the belief that fighting in the security forces — fighting for President Ashraf Ghani’s government — wasn’t worth dying for. In interview after interview, soldiers and police officers described moments of despair and feelings of abandonment.

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