With the fall of five provincial capitals in three days – Zaranj in Nimruz, Sheberghan in Jowzjan, Sarepul, Kunduz and Taloqan in Takhar –, the Taleban switched pace. After an unexpected and highly successful sweep of rural districts in many parts of Afghanistan yielded particularly astounding results in areas considered ‘difficult’ for them, such as the northeast, the Taleban have now started to attack Afghanistan’s major cities, such as Kandahar, Herat, Ghazni and Lashkargah. The resistance they encountered there might have been why their military leaders changed the size of their targets. Although hardly relenting their push against other cities, they are now focusing on easier objectives such as the relatively undefended lesser provincial capitals. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looks at the province that fell first, Nimruz, a remote yet highly strategic province.Entering Chakhansur district, Nimruz, in February 2006. Photo: Thomas Ruttig
On 6 August 2021, the Taleban gained control of a provincial capital in Afghanistan for the first time since the start of their offensive in May 2021. As Taleban fighters entered Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province in southwestern Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces melted away, with many escaping to Iran through the nearby border (see this Washington Post report). At any other time, the significance of this event could have been minimised, but the capture of Zaranj coming as it did amid a massive Taleban campaign to sue for control of nearly all government interests across the country focuses significant attention on the fall of this remote province into Taleban hands. For many years, events in this far-flung corner of Afghanistan did not garner much international attention. More recently, however, the province’s position as a gateway for the smuggling of illicit drugs and its use by Afghan refugees seeking to go to Iran and beyond have increased the province’s prominence among observers and analysts. Most importantly, this border province has become one of Afghanistan’s major import-export hubs and international gateway for goods.
A desert cornering three borders
With a Persian-speaking community settled in the provincial centre and the surrounding villages, a largely Baloch (and Brahui) population in the western and southern deserts and Pashtuns inhabiting its northernmost districts, Nimruz remains one of Afghanistan’s most sparsely populated provinces. Zaranj, the provincial capital, with its thriving and lucrative border crossing and high social indicators such as education well-above the rest of the province (and most of southern Afghanistan), has long been a tiny island of government control amidst a remote and unchartered backwater.
It is also true that it has only rarely attracted government, and much less so international, attention and has never been the location of major military operations by government or NATO troops. Meanwhile, the province’s vulnerability is heightened by its double-border location, with Iran to the west and Pakistan to the south, by the type of terrain – a flat expanse offering few vantage points from which to defend territory – and by its overtaxed and difficult communications with Kandahar and Kabul. Its roads connections could be easily cut off by Taleban from Helmand and Farah, while air travel is often unreliable because of sandstorms, frequent in spring and summer.
Due to its geographic and tribal connections with Taleban-dominated areas in Helmand and Farah provinces, the group’s presence in Nimruz has been primarily concentrated in the northern part of the province.
The movement has particularly strong roots in Khashrod district, especially as Mullah Rasul Akhund, a prominent Taleban leader since the rule of the Emirate in the 1990s, married into the district when he was governor of the province. However, his ‘secession’ from the main Taleban and leadership of a splinter faction – strong especially in Farah and parts of Nimruz and Herat provinces – from 2015 onwards, likely hampered the Taleban’s operational capacity in the province, at least for a while.
Despite its vulnerability, and the Taleban’s deep connections in the province, Nimruz has not been a major target of Taleban activity. Unlike its neighbour Farah city, Zaranj has never before been on the verge of falling into Taleban hands (see AAN reporting here). Zaranj was also never invested by prolonged Taleban offensives or encircled in what became virtual sieges. On a few occasions, the city was rocked by massive explosive attacks, sometimes aimed at civilians, the most lethal and gruesome of which took place on 14 August 2012 (see this AAN report). Even these major attacks were often linked to the activities of foreign militant groups, responses to the agendas of foreign intelligence elements, or lesser episodes of violence in turf wars involving smugglers, rather than to Taleban military strategy (see this New York Times report).
This relative lack of interest by the Taleban in carrying the fight to Nimruz’s administrative centre and the main border crossing with Iran, Milak/Zaranj, has at times been attributed to the transversal importance of the profits made by traders and smugglers networks operating in the area.
Indeed, over the years, Nimruz has become one of Afghanistan’s leading hubs for international trade. Since 2018, it ranks fourth in customs revenues generated, after Nangarhar, Herat and Balkh. Thanks to its vibrant local economy and comparative security, by southern Afghanistan’s standards, many traders from more insecure areas of the south, such as Helmand and Farah, have settled in Zaranj in recent years and become involved in import-export there. There is significant formal and informal cross-border trade with Pakistan and, in particular, Iran. The main imports are fuel, cement, spare parts and other transit goods. The province is also a major hub for the trafficking of narcotics produced in other parts of Afghanistan to Iran and the main gateway for migrants clandestinely leaving the country for Iran, Turkey and Europe (see this Foreign Policy report).
Nimruz’s desert areas feature several thriving informal border crossings, both to the south and north of Zaranj, in Kang district. Kang fell to the Taleban the day before Zaranj did, prompting David Mansfield to comment: “[T]he loss of Kang in Nimroz would deny government affiliated actors just short of $7 million per annum in informal taxes levied on the smuggling of fuel and drugs.”)
As shown by recent studies, economic transactions have often facilitated cooperation between ideologically opposed factions, reducing the intensity of conflict and sometimes allowing for local arrangements to prevent it. In one instance, for example, local traders convinced the Taleban to stop extracting arbitrary fees or ransoming trucks at their checkpoints around Ghorghori (their main historical stronghold in Khashrod district), in exchange for a share of the official custom revenues in Zaranj, a system which remained in place for almost a year between 2017 and 2018.
However, Nimruz’s strategic position has often brought with it the seeds of potential tensions at higher levels. Among concerns cited by residents, interference by Iranian diplomacy and intelligence actors has ranked foremost in recent years, spurred by disputes over the use of the Helmand river basin water reserves, the presence of a transnational Baloch population and the activities of anti-Iranian Baloch militants in the region. Similarly, the only major investment in the province (apart from the construction works at the Kamal Khan dam in Nimruz’s Chaharburjak district to regulate the flow of the Helmand river) is the Delaram-Zaranj highway (Route 606) financed by India to boost traffic through the Iranian port of Chahbahar, which has led to concerns about Pakistan’s reaction to this alternative route that could potentially allow Afghan and Central Asian trade to bypass it.
The conquest of Zaranj: a no-contest?
Nimruz had not, until now, been the focus of intensive Taleban attention during their now three-month-long offensive (see AAN report here). In mid-June, they attacked and captured two northern districts, Chakhansur and Delaram, close to their stronghold in Khashrod but far away from Zaranj and the border. In mid-July, the Afghan security forces claimed that they had recaptured Chakhansur (see this map). The Taleban, however, asserted their control over other frontier districts in the area, such as Lash wa Juwayn in neighbouring Farah province. Judging by the fact that the first district to be routed by their fighters in the final attack was Kang, located between Lash wa Juwayn and Zaranj, it is likely that it served as a staging ground for the conquest of Nimruz.
The final attack seems to have been very swift but not altogether unexpected. The government did not respond to recent alarms raised and requests for reinforcements made by local politicians – probably because most of its forces in the southern zone were tied down by the prolonged effort to defend Lashkargah.
The Taleban suddenly moved onto Kang late on Thursday and, after some fighting, the district came under their control. By Friday, the militants were inside Zaranj city, and reports started to circulate that it had fallen without a fight after the local garrison fled. This narrative clearly meets the Taleban desire to portray government forces as unwilling or unable to resist them. The rapid pace of the Taleban advance and the lack of government reaction seem to bolster this narrative. However, it is not correct to assume that the entire province has fallen into Taleban hands, as has been widely reported. Part of the Afghan security forces reportedly retreated to the centre of Chaharburjak district, where they are said to be still in control.
From a military standpoint, in the face of a concentrated and determined push by the Taleban, the fall of Nimruz was hardly avoidable. However, such a rapid collapse, potentially a veritable no-contest, is deeply concerning.
What happened in Zaranj stands in stark contrast to events as they unfolded in Sheberghan, which the Taleban managed to capture only after several days of intense fighting, and where government forces mounted counterattacks. This could be attributed to the fact that security forces in Jowzjan province were less isolated. In addition, local strongmen and military leaders (such as Abdul Rashid Dostum), supported by the so-called uprising forces, managed to put up a sustained albeit unsuccessful fight (see Tolo News here).
Zaranj lacks such connections and support. The local elites are transnational traders mostly from outside the province and often from areas with a strong Taleban presence, such as Helmand and Farah provinces and not strongly connected to or supported by any of the major Afghan factions.
The local security forces in Zaranj may have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of Taleban fighters. It is possible that their morale was sapped by the government’s failure to send relief, support and reinforcements. They were likely concerned that they would suffer the same fate as the garrison in Kang district, where some 30 security forces were reportedly killed or executed after they were captured (see Tolo News here).
There are, as of yet, unsubstantiated rumours that their decision to retreat followed negotiations with the local Taleban. Whatever the reasons, the temptation to flee beyond the border and out of harm’s way – as was the case in Badakhshan in July – proved too strong to resist. This is no doubt a worrisome signal for the central government. Despite recently regained confidence in the resilience of security forces and a rare show of popular support, in major cities, beleaguered garrisons across the country are running low on morale, supplies and leadership.
Why now and what next?
The Taleban could have easily tried to conquer Zaranj earlier, given the number of available fighters in the area and its remote location, making it difficult for the government to send reinforcements. Instead, they concentrated first on more difficult objectives such as the northeast and Herat province. That a serious effort to capture Zaranj, and thus virtually the entire province, happened only now, can be explained: On the one hand, the country-wide Taleban offensive was partially losing its stunning speed and effectiveness in the face of government resistance in major centres such as Herat and Ghazni. On the other, the Taleban seem to have abandoned their previous reluctance to capture provincial centres, initially understood to be part of an attempt on their part to respect the Doha agreement and avoid NATO intervention (both attacks on cities and US airstrikes have taken place since, but US troops withdrawal also is almost complete).
It is possible that the conquest of Zaranj, followed on Saturday by the fall of Sheberghan, serve a double purpose. First, to provide a morale boost to Taleban fighters, who have grown accustomed to an uninterrupted string of successes and are now confronting serious resistance by government forces for the first time, with the highly-symbolic ‘liberation’ of a whole province.
The Taleban renewed attempts on medium-sized objectives such as Taloqan and Kunduz (See Tolo News here), which also have fallen to the Taleban at the time of writing, would imply that they want to keep a steady flow of successes to maintain the momentum which could be lost if they were stuck for weeks against bigger obstacles such as Kandahar, Lashkargah or Herat, especially in the face of possibly intensive airstrikes there.
Second, capturing Nimruz (and Jowzjan) means continuing the strategy of occupying all border crossings and, in the process, denying the government revenues from legal and illegal trade and authority vis-à-vis the local population and the cross-border traders, and de facto insulating Afghanistan. In this sense, the fall of remote Zaranj may represent a significant blow to Kabul more because of the loss of the last land border and connection to Iran than as the first provincial capital to be completely conquered by the Taleban.
This development does not affect Afghanistan alone. Control of Nimruz is pivotal to Afghanistan’s ability to connect to Iran and India and reduce its dependence on Pakistan. Also, the economic importance of Iranian trade with Afghanistan must not be underestimated. With the fall of Islam Qala (in Herat province), Milak and smaller border crossings in Farah, this trade is now entirely under the control of the Taleban. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, was confronted with this state of affairs on the very day he was sworn into office (in the presence, among others, of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani), but no matter who’s in power, Iran can hardly risk any disruptions to this vital source of revenue.
What is clear is that the lucrative traffic flowing through Nimruz will not be altogether stopped by the Taleban takeover. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the Taleban can manage it without causing dissatisfaction, either through diversion or selective taxation, to some of the parties involved. Finally, the Afghan government is not likely to easily accept the loss of such a gateway, strategic to its economic and diplomatic survival.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Thomas Ruttig
This article was last updated on 9 Aug 2021