Afghan Taliban’s surprising advance brings them close to Kabul

Afghan Taliban now hold 142 districts, fighting for 170 more

By: News Desk      Published: 02:30 PM, 26 Jun, 2021
Afghan Taliban’s surprising advance brings them close to Kabul
TV grab.

The Taliban are advancing at lightning speed across Afghanistan as US troops withdraw. They now control a third of the country, are fighting for control of 42 percent more — and may even be slowing their advance on purpose.

A Taliban commander in Ghazni province told NBC News that he and fellow fighters were surprised at the speed of their advance and had avoided capturing some targets so as not to run afoul of the US.

According to Afghan media reports, eyewitness accounts and statements from local Afghan officials, the Taliban are advancing in rural areas and near Kabul. They now hold almost twice as much of Afghanistan as they did just two months ago, raising fresh doubts about whether the Afghan government can survive once US forces depart by September 11.

Since May 1, days after President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban have captured 69 of the country's 407 districts, including territory in northern provinces once seen as off-limits for the insurgency and a stronghold for the government, according to Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies' Long War Journal. The Taliban now hold 142 districts, and are fighting for control of about 170 more.

"The Taliban are putting significant pressure on the Afghan government by their operations in the north," said Roggio, who keeps a running tally of how much territory the Taliban controls.

Since the beginning of May, the Taliban have advanced in the north and around Kabul, the capital.

By seizing ground in far-flung areas in the north, including a border crossing with Tajikistan, the Taliban are forcing the Afghan security forces to balance stretched resources as they try to hold off the insurgents elsewhere in the country, including in provinces near the capital Kabul, he said.

"The Taliban have nearly doubled the number of districts it controls, have captured key areas and military bases, and demoralized segments of the Afghan security forces and the government," Roggio said.

In the country's north, the Taliban have taken control of more than 40 districts since the start of May, including a key district in Kunduz province on Monday, allowing them to encircle the provincial capital.

In a war that has often been a slow grind, the situation on the ground has changed on a daily — sometimes hourly basis — in recent weeks. Some Afghan government units have abandoned their weapons and vehicles without a major fight, as local officials reportedly negotiated surrender agreements with the Taliban.

The Taliban's battlefield victories come as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, met President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday. 

In an agreement between the Taliban and the United States negotiated by the previous administration, Washington had committed to withdraw all US troops by last month. Biden opted to pull American forces out by Sept 11.

The Taliban's progress has moved faster than even the insurgency anticipated.

The Taliban commander who spoke to NBC News, and the insurgency's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, said the group has intentionally avoided capturing entire provinces or provincial capitals, saying it wanted to abide by commitments under the 2020 agreement with the US signed in Doha last year.

"We are bound to honour the Doha accord that we signed with the United States in the presence of the international community. We don't want to capture any province or provincial headquarters anywhere in Afghanistan by September 2021 when the U.S. forces leave our country," the Taliban commander said.

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The Doha accord does not prohibit the Taliban from taking control of provinces or cities, but does bar them from targeting US forces. The decision by the Taliban not to seize cities appears aimed at avoiding antagonizing US and NATO forces as they depart.

Some Taliban fighters had recently reached the entrance of Mazar-e-Sharif but they were called back to their previous positions outside the city, he said.

The commander said that in some already captured areas the insurgency has had to scramble to take over governing duties because the Taliban can't keep up with the pace of their own gains.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group is not punishing or capturing government soldiers who surrender. Such an approach would represent a change in tactics for the insurgency, which has been accused by human rights groups of executing and torturing captured troops.

"We neither imprison them nor punish the Afghan security forces who surrender peacefully. We let them go home, those who lay down arms and don't resist," the spokesman said.

With the Taliban on the march, some civilians are fleeing to larger cities still controlled by the government.