Things have been moving at breakneck speed since the first provincial capital – Zaranj in Nimruz – fell to the Taleban on 6 August. Six of the seven zonal army corps have either surrendered or dissolved, with only the Shaheen Corps in Jalalabad left, which has not been attacked yet. Over 20 provincial capitals are now in Taleban hands, most prominently the sudden fall of Mazar-e Sharif this evening after the security cordon was broken. The recent loss of Ghazni, Logar and Maidan Wardak (there is still some fighting in the latter, but it is no longer in government hands) and the near dissolution of the army have left Kabul completely vulnerable, both militarily and politically. AAN’s new report by Martine van Bijlert looks at the drivers behind the rapid fall of Afghanistan’s district and provincial capitals to the Taleban and what it means for the government’s tenuous prospects.Internally displaced people gather to receive food in Kabul’s Shahr-e-Naw Park.
Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 13 August 2021.
To be clear, in practice, the fall of a provincial or district capital means that the civilian administration and the government troops have abandoned key government buildings. (Last week, for instance, I spoke to someone in one of Herat’s districts who said that his area was now under Taleban control, but the government buildings remained empty, as their fighters had not yet arrived to take control.) In some districts, the centre had long been the only part still in the government’s hands, while in other cases, such as, for instance, Malestan, the centre’s fall meant that the rest of the district could also no longer be defended. In some provinces, government forces abandoned the centre but managed to retreat to the nearby army garrison or airport, where they continued to hold out. Nevertheless, in most cases, even this ended in surrender or a negotiated retreat (as was the case in, for instance, Kunduz, Herat, Kandahar, and Helmand).
The rapid fall of so many provincial capitals came as a surprise. From the outside, this looks like a complete reversal of fortune, which in many ways it is, but it is also an acceleration of the existing state of affairs in large parts of the country: an ongoing war with deaths, revenge killings and aerial bombardments and an encroaching Taleban. This does not detract from the gravity of the current situation, nor does it imply that a considerable change is not underway. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the country did not go from relative stability to utter chaos overnight.
A deluge of carefully curated images and videos on social media for those who know where to look has accompanied the rapid fall of so many provincial capitals. Videos with fighters running through towns – initially the suburbs, then increasingly the centres – were followed by footage of Taleban fighters wandering through government buildings or sitting behind desks and on sofas. These were followed by videos of mass prisoner releases in almost all provinces overrun by them, showing crowds of men carrying bags walking along the road. Also widely distributed were photos of the Taleban flag raised in various locations, interviews with or statements by the new local leadership, and countless images of vehicles and weapon arsenals.
The Taleban appear to have media teams accompanying their fighters as they take control of the cities or, at the very least, an intentional media engagement strategy. Much of the footage seeks to convey a message of law and order and seems intended to reassure and intimidate in equal measure. This includes interviews with self-possessed paternal spokesmen, speaking of peace, alongside videos showing culprits being punished. (See, for instance, this video of two men with blackened faces in Herat, the images of men shot with their hands tied and the shooting of a young man on a motorcycle who was carrying a small Afghan flag—the latter two have not been linked here.) There have also been reports and images from districts that show open schools and humming bazaars (see this BBC report from Balkh), indicating a desire by at least one part of the Taleban to offer an acceptable face. While there has been very little non-curated footage from areas that have fallen under their control, there have been credible reports that in some areas women are no longer allowed to go out without mahram [male relative], or where female students or working women were told they would no longer be allowed to work or attend school (for instance quoted, here). There have also been some cracks in the carefully curated image of discipline, including reports of looting in some provinces (see also this video from Asadabad).
The government was wholly unprepared for the onslaught. But so was the US, who seemed to have been caught up in their own timeline-thinking. In their view, it seems, the Taleban were poised to begin their offensive in earnest after 31/08, and the rapid ascent of the Taleban appears to have taken them by surprise. Ironically, they are now hastily flying in 3000 soldiers to support an evacuation, which may, in turn, disrupt commercial flights and complicate the possibility for others to leave. It must also be highly demoralising for the city’s population, with the noise of helicopters a continuous reminder that people are leaving (the American Embassy has for years flown to the airport rather than drive the few kilometres by road).
All in all, the most significant turnaround is probably the one experienced by the many Afghans, who had not yet clocked how determined the US government was to leave and with so little regard for what it was leaving behind.
Embassies, now focused on evacuating their nationals, partners, and a limited number of other at-risk people, are either closing down or reducing their presence. This threatens to play into the view that the lights will go out in Afghanistan after the seemingly inevitable takeover. It may also bolster the view among domestic audiences that the West has done as much as it could to rescue the people who don’t want to live under the coming, and seemingly inevitable, Taleban rule — which, it needs to be said, is not the case. Not only are most countries slow to act, but they are also making promises they are unlikely to deliver on. Providing visas to a relatively small group of Afghans will not make up for the implosion, which is as much the responsibility of the international partners, as it is of the Afghan side.
The government, in turn, seems to have been caught in a surreal bubble. While the Taleban were advancing, senior government officials were still releasing statements about donor-driven ceremonies and meetings. Although these events were, in most cases, milestones necessary for the next tranches of aid to be disbursed, they projected a complete lack of urgency to the population, which made the government look detached and preoccupied with formalities and frivolities. In truth, the government was, and is still, facing a severe fiscal crisis precipitated by the loss of customs revenues and declining aid flows, with government staff in the provinces, and presumably the ANSF too, complaining they had not been paid for months. The promised salary increases for low-ranking civil servants that had been hailed as a triumph by MPs has not yet materialised, with the Ministry of Finance promising, once again, on 9 August that the pay hikes would go into effect “soon.”
If the government and the US were unprepared, the Taleban were not. They seem to have been planning for this for months, making both deals and threats, using networks they had built over the years. What initially looked like a lucky case of dominoes falling exceptionally fast because of an unprepared government seems to have been a case of sustained preparation. This is also borne out by the fact that there have been relatively few visible Taleban troop movements, which would seem to indicate that they had prepositioned their fighters in many districts. Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight, independent journalist Bilal Sarwary said: “The back door channels seem to have been the work of months if not years. The Afghan government and its main intelligence agency apparently were not aware.” The government, on the other hand, had not adapted the distribution of its forces. Suggestions by the military leadership to consolidate and, for instance, pull troops out of areas that were going to be impossible to keep anyway, had been rejected.
Although Afghanistan’s security forces seemed demotivated, unsupported and weak, there were those that would have, and did, continue to fight, but there was little or no central coordination, no chance of help or backup or resupplies, and a scarcity of clear messages, or leadership, from the Palace. It is stunning and quite shocking to see some of the enormous weapons caches the Taleban have now taken and that were apparently available and to recall phone conversations with government officials at the frontline who said they recruited soldiers but had no weapons to give them and felt utterly abandoned.
The government did not give the impression of having created a war room, nor did it exude any sense of urgency. President Ghani and his small inner circle of confidantes seemed to approach the situation either as a piece of policy that people needed to get behind or a psychological war that could be won, or at least weathered, by buttressing morale and framing the narrative (see for instance the announcement of a new action plan on 29 July that was supposed to improve security within six months). There seemed to be little connection to, or interest in, the actual situation on the ground—which, by the way, is not unfamiliar behaviour. It has been modelled to the Afghan government by the international military and donors for years.
The government forces were weak but could have done better under more prepared and decisive leadership. The idea of the Republic, rather than a Taliban government, is certainly alive, but the weaknesses of this specific government and the way it abandoned its own troops made it not worth fighting for many. In some places, troops who fought ended up feeling like there had been a deal that they had not been told about, while other places folded without a fight (see this recent AAN report about the fall of Zurmat). In several provinces, after days of fighting, including airstrikes, with the government forces holed up with no chance of pushing back, elders negotiated the handover. In places like Uruzgan and Logar, the forces and government officials surrendered and were taken into custody (and have not been heard from since), in other places, the remaining troops were allowed to leave, for instance in Kunduz, Herat and Kunar, resulting in footage of long convoys of Humvees and armoured cars speeding away. And now, even those who fear ill-treatment or death at the hands of the Taleban (such as the Khost Protection Force) have surrendered.
The capture of Ismail Khan on 13 August was a coup for the Taleban. The government, initially reluctant to engage and fund the old mujahedin networks, had finally relented and sent him, hoping that the charisma of old commanders—Ismail Khan in the west, Dostum and Atta in the north—might provide the needed morale, even though they are much older now and the extent of their networks was unknown. After his capture, Ismail Khan appeared on several videos (see here), slightly dazed, speaking of peace and insisting that he had been treated well. It does not seem that he made a deal beforehand, like others did, and was instead stopped from boarding a helicopter after retreating to the airport. He has apparently been tasked by the Taleban to urge others, particularly within Jamiat, to surrender as he has done.
The capture and parading of Ismail Khan seem part of the image the Taleban are trying to curate—for a domestic audience, if not for the rest of the world—of a strict but benign force that will deal swiftly with wrongdoers but give amnesty to those who surrender, as has been said explicitly in some of their statements. But it bears repeating that the fate of other, lower-profile, people linked to the government who have surrendered for now remains undetermined. There have been reports of revenge killings and executions of surrendered ANSF and other forces, most notably in Malestan and Spin Boldak, as well as the killing of civilians (see for instance here).
The current international frenzy to leave Kabul, and take with them whoever they can, seems inspired by the anticipation of mass reprisals, as well as a more general fear of a breakdown of order—a loss or absence of discipline within the Taleban, but also among remaining government forces, as well as civil unrest and crime.
In general, the trepidation many people feel relates to both lawlessness and law. There is the fear of widespread revenge and abuse – spontaneous, undisciplined and violent – by Taleban fighters who are not controlled or have been set loose by their leadership, or of personal scores being settled under cover of a takeover or in the chaotic interim period, particularly in a large city like Kabul. There is also the fear of a systematic singling out and punishing of those linked to the government, the international intervention or past enemies. So far, again, it has been a mixed bag that seems to depend on local leadership and local circumstances largely; not an unambiguous blanket targeting of people, but also certainly not the blanket safety the Taleban are trying to convey. Taleban reassurances that people’s properties and dignity will be safe and that there is amnesty for those who join have understandably not quelled these fears.
Then there is the fear of what life will look like once the area settles into a new normal, which the Taleban seem keen to convey—particularly for the women and men who want to live lives beyond the confines of the Taleban’s rules. So far, all signs are that although some local Taleban leaders are trying to convey a softened image (“the burqa is not compulsory, we prefer to convince people rather than force them”), the core of their rules has stayed very much the same.
Parts of the country are, in the meantime, facing a possible grave humanitarian crisis due to mass displacement and destruction of shops, houses and harvests, coupled with the existing hardships of poverty, drought and unemployment. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that more than 300,000 Afghans were internally displaced in the “recent intensification of the conflict.” The number of conflict-displaced persons arriving in the capital has swelled. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported on 13 August that they had dispersed aid to 13,500 verified IDPs who had arrived in the last six weeks. The number of hidden IDPs, who are staying with family members and other host families, will be much higher.
The influx of conflict-displaced Afghans into a city already facing the potential crumbling of services threatens to overburden a public health system already taxed by the Covid-19 pandemic and raises concerns about food security. It could also increase tensions between Kabul residents and the conflict-displaced new arrivals, as anxieties about the future increase, amidst increased unemployment, high prices and a possible hike in covid cases and other infectious diseases.
The main immediate question is what the government will do. It is clearly not in a position to address the problems it is facing. There has been strong pressure on President Ghani to step down to at least the spectre of urban warfare in a heavily-populated capital. This option of resignation was initially met with his outright refusal, followed by an unrealistic ‘offer’ to the Taleban of a possible power share.
But there are indications that things may be shifting. Earlier today (14 August), Ghani addressed the nation. There had been a flurry of social media posts speculating that he would announce his resignation throughout the morning. Instead, the short pre-recorded message was a vague commitment to remobilise the forces, conduct wide consultations, and work to end further violence. The text seemed designed to hedge all possible outcomes but, between the lines, it was an implicit acknowledgement that the fight was over. President Ghani has now appointed a new negotiation team, but it seems likely that many of these overt moves (including a bizarre visit to Bala Hissar this afternoon, possibly to prove that he is still in the country) are meant as a time-winning cover for a behind-the-scenes search for a swift transition that is accompanied by as little chaos as possible.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Thomas Ruttig
This article was last updated on 15 Aug 2021