Taliban see battlefield dominance as path to political, diplomatic power
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With US forces largely gone from the battlefield, the Taliban have conducted a staggering, land-grabbing offensive that appears aimed at forcing the Afghan government to sue for peace on the insurgents' terms or suffer complete military defeat.
The scale and speed of the Taliban's campaign, and the inability of government forces to stem its progress, has swept aside any hopes that on-again-off again peace talks would produce a power-sharing framework ahead of the US military's final withdrawal at the end of August.
The Taliban are largely dictating when and where they will fight the government forces with multi-pronged thrusts that authorities are struggling to halt.
Brimming with confidence, they have besieged provincial capitals and stormed key border crossings.
Experts say it is still highly unlikely the lightly armed Taliban have the conventional strength to enter the heavily fortified capital of Kabul, where the Afghan military's air force and heavy weapons would keep the insurgents at bay.
But by choking off money and supplies to Kabul, the Taliban seem more geared to push the government to collapse after battering the morale of the security forces in the countryside.
"If that fails, they want to be in a position to take the military path as well."
After earlier trumpeting the potential for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, US officials have become increasingly vocal that the insurgents are charting their own course with little regard for the international community's wishes.
"We need to see some gesture from the Taliban here that they're not just completely intent on winning the military victory," said US General Kenneth McKenzie, who is now overseeing the remaining operations in Afghanistan from his headquarters in America.
- Insurgent onslaught -
In just a matter of weeks the Taliban have left the Afghan security forces badly shaken -- despite nearly two decades of international oversight and tens of billions of dollars spent.
With US airpower largely removed from Afghan skies, the Taliban have seized more than 150 districts in the past two months alone, securing a vast archipelago of security outposts along with weapons, vehicles and military hardware.
Many districts and bases have fallen without a shot fired, with the Taliban deploying tribal elders to broker the surrender from poorly provisioned Afghan troops who appear to have lost the will to fight.
"The vulnerability of the security forces against the Taliban has been a surprise, as few expected them to crumble, even partially, this fast," said retired Afghan general Atiqullah Amarkhail.
The latest offensive has piggy-backed off a winter assassination campaign that targeted members of civil society, journalists, politicians and air force pilots in a bid to undercut faith in Kabul's ability to secure those who have benefitted the most from nearly two decades of international development.
Most of those killings went unclaimed, but experts point to the Taliban as the most likely culprit.
"So pre-emptively targeting independently-minded 'public intellectuals' in the hope of eventually capturing the capital would make military sense."
The insurgents deny being involved in assassinating civilians, while some murders have been claimed by the jihadist Islamic State.
- Fight for the cities -
Reversing the insurgents momentum will be crucial for the Afghan government, with several months still left in the annual fighting season before cold weather curtails major combat operations.
The Taliban have sent mixed messages whether they will attack the cities they now besiege, with their leaders publicly vowing to refrain from fighting in urban areas even as their foot soldiers unleash withering assaults on the outskirts of provincial capitals.
One day the insurgents appear to be on the verge of overrunning a provincial capital in the northwest, and the next they are at the gates of Kandahar in the south -- all while seizing valuable border crossings and dry ports.
The strategy appears to be aimed at achieving multiple goals -- exhausting the country's overstretched air force and commando units, and depriving Kabul of much needed revenue.
It has also cut the central government off from the traditionally anti-Taliban strongholds it relies on for backing.
"The most surprising thing about the Taliban's offensive is its focus on the north and west. The Taliban is taking the fight to the doorstep and living room of Afghanistan's power brokers," said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
"If the warlords and other influential leaders are denied their base of support in the north and west, the Afghan government is lost."
Afghans confront Taliban on audio app
As war rages across the countryside, young Afghans are plugging in their earphones and logging into audio-based app Clubhouse to argue with the Taliban and pitch counter-offensive tactics.
Launched in the United States at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform acts as a giant conference call and first found popularity among American tech entrepreneurs as a forum for discussing start-ups and cryptocurrencies.
In a conflict zone, it can have the rare power of connecting ordinary citizens with militants waging fear and destruction.
"Some say the Taliban have changed, but I wanted to hear from them, in their own voice, if they really have," 22-year-old Sodaba of Kabul told AFP.
With the withdrawal of foreign and NATO forces all but complete, the Taliban have waged a broad offensive, snapping up territory and stirring fears of a military takeover.
Sodaba was particularly concerned about whether the Islamic fundamentalist group still held "their strict beliefs, especially on women".
"This is an interesting outlet that lets ordinary Afghans talk directly with the Taliban and government in real time," said Kabul-based political activist and author Fahim Kohdamani, who hosts political debates on the platform on a regular basis.
"People are very worried about what comes next now that international troops are leaving Afghanistan."
Afghans in the country's urban centres have enjoyed a relative increase in social freedoms since the Taliban fell, but these gains are under threat as the militants advance on several provincial capitals.
For women, the concerns are magnified -- the Taliban imposed a harsh version of Islamic law during their rule in the 1990s which saw half the population confined to their homes.
"I saw they won't allow people they deemed opponents to talk, and even ridiculed one woman who asked about women's rights," Sodaba said.
- Heated debates -
Clubhouse allows users to dip into "rooms", either to listen or virtually put their hand up to speak in discussions, which according to the platform's guidelines cannot be recorded nor comments quoted.
Some recent topics include the Taliban's view of the afterlife, how to have a happy relationship and Persian poetry.
Many have wanted to weigh in on the reasons behind the quick fall of rural districts to the militants, with dozens waiting for their turn to speak.
"One of the good things about Clubhouse is that even people not so educated can come to hear or have their voices heard," said Kohdamani.
In a country overshadowed by an insurgency, discussions about politics and the Taliban attract the most listeners.
In a Taliban-run chatroom, the militants laud their humanitarian values, assuring Afghans they want unity.
With sometimes up to 100 listeners, things heat up fast as the group's supporters and opponents argue about war, human rights, and the role of women in society.
"The Taliban called me rude and cut my mic, after I spoke the truth about them," Haanya Saheba Malik tweeted.
"They want to put the women in chains and restrict their human rights."
She later told AFP that she wants to report the Taliban to Clubhouse: "They openly declared those of us calling for human rights infidels and deserving of death."
Another chatroom critical of the group opened up soon after, inviting the Taliban to join a conversation they were not moderating.
One of the group's activists signed in and was quickly bombarded by criticism.
But some users are fearful of Taliban moderated conversations, saying the group is violating Clubhouse policies by recording conversations that can be used for future retribution.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied that threats were being made.
- Spreading their message -
For the Taliban, who have adopted an increasingly professional approach to public relations and social media, virtual chat rooms are a new way to disseminate their message.
Nearly half of Afghanistan's 37 million residents have access to the internet with 13 million using social media, according to the government's information technology ministry.
While Facebook is by far the most popular platform, Clubhouse appears to be growing fast.
"This is a good platform to talk to and find understanding with those who oppose us," Taliban spokesman Mujahid told AFP.
The Taliban have rarely engaged in open discussion in the past.
"They have, however, been quick to get on Clubhouse to connect with people they usually avoid, perhaps because they see themselves on the verge of a military victory," said Abdul Mujeeb Khelwatgar, the head of media advocacy group NAI.
But with little success so far, he added that "they may soon see Clubhouse as another outlet that needs to be avoided and banned."