Habiba was cooking in her home near an abandoned Nato base in the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar when a police officer knocked on her door. “He said the Taliban are hiding around these houses, they will open fire, you need to leave,” recalls the 40-year-old mother of four.
She fled with her family to the capital Kabul by bus two weeks ago. Looking out of the window as they travelled across a desert under cobalt skies, she saw the signs of the Taliban onslaught that has gripped the country in fear as the US works to wind down its military mission by the end of August.
“I was thinking that the regime has changed. Everywhere I saw the white Taliban flag and armed fighters. I asked my husband, has the government collapsed and we weren’t told?” says Habiba.
She is one of almost 300,000 people who have fled their homes since January in response to the US retreat from Afghanistan that has led the Taliban to claim victory and launch relentless attacks across the country. The Islamist insurgents have tried to take control of the north, a region that used to be an anti-Taliban stronghold, in order to neutralise the threat of a second resistance from the warlords who helped overthrow them before.
The Taliban have also focused on seizing lucrative border crossings to cut off a significant source of the Afghan government’s customs revenue, making it even more dependent on foreign aid. As well as Kabul, they currently lie in wait close to the gates of Kandahar in the south and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, a city where Taliban control was previously unthinkable.
The advance of the Taliban on the capital follows President Joe Biden’s decision in April to withdraw US troops in less than six months after 20 years of fighting the “forever war”. The rapid withdrawal has tarnished America’s image, with looters ransacking Bagram Airfield for hours after US soldiers abandoned it in the dead of the night without telling Afghan officials.
A Taliban takeover would threaten many of the core political objectives the US says it has been fighting for over the past two decades — including the rights of women in society and the country’s nascent democracy. It would also raise the prospect that the country will again become a safe haven for anti-western jihadist groups.
As the Afghan government fights for its very survival, the question is whether the Taliban’s momentum is now so strong that the collapse of the government becomes inevitable as defeat builds upon defeat.
“The Taliban have recognised that all they need to do is keep the pressure on, wait us out, and launch simultaneous offensives around the country,” says David Petraeus, a former US commander in Afghanistan and former head of the CIA who now works as a partner at KKR Global Institute, part of the private equity group. “They have broadly achieved their objectives without the US getting meaningful concessions in return.”
Winning on the battlefield, the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate a political settlement with Kabul, according to government officials, diplomats and analysts from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and India. They say the best scenario for President Ashraf Ghani is to achieve a stalemate before the summer fighting season ends in October.
In the capital, residents are bracing for a siege. Foreign embassies are taking stock of supplies and securing sources for food and petrol, while the stream of people seeking sanctuary inside the city increases daily. Over 1,659 civilians were killed in the first half of 2021, according to the UN, a 30 per cent increase from the same period last year.
The US withdrawal is taking place against the backdrop of a severe drought which has hit livelihoods and driven up food prices, while the Delta variant is leading to a surge in coronavirus infections.
An Afghanistan government official says the strategy is to focus on protecting Kabul and the 10 most populous cities. Ghani made sweeping changes to his cabinet in June with appointments that prioritised battlefield experience, such as naming General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who was a warlord during the 1990s, as defence minister.
But Ghani remains politically isolated from many of the warlords he needs to take on the Taliban and without US air support, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces soldiers are losing the fight.
The swift US pullout was a “shock” to the Afghan government, says the official. “There is us and only us to fight the Taliban. That acknowledgment and realisation was important.”
He adds: “It is far from reality that the Taliban will be in a position to force the government to surrender. They may win battles, but it’s impossible to win the war.”
The Taliban feels like it has been in the ascendant for more than a year, having signed a peace deal with the Trump administration in February 2020. Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative to Afghanistan, sat down with Taliban delegation leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a red-carpeted hall in Qatar to sign the deal that included American forces leaving the country, having not suffered a single casualty in the past year.
Declaring that they have defeated the American occupiers, the Taliban now expects to force Kabul into a power-sharing agreement. That, say experts, is a euphemism for a soft surrender that would pave the way for the Taliban to reinstall its ultraconservative Islamist government.
During the peace talks in Doha and on official trips to neighbouring countries — including Russia and China — the Taliban said it was committed to the peace process and made assurances that Afghanistan’s soil would not be used by terror groups.
But in areas where they have taken control, reports suggest that the Taliban has returned to its brutal medieval theocracy, banning women from work and carrying out public executions. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, warned last week that the country would be isolated internationally if the Taliban takes control by force. “An Afghanistan that does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people, would become a pariah state,” he said while in India.
The Taliban, who refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, sense they are close to seizing power and have demanded that Ghani step down.
“Every single [provincial] capital is besieged by the Emirate. The Emirate could conquer them as easily as the districts, but then we would want to conquer them in the best way possible, to prevent casualties and destruction, to prevent looting, and to appoint civil servants,” says Mohammad Zahid Himmat, a Taliban commander in central Wardak province.
Himmat is open about the plan to economically choke Kabul into submission. “The first step was to conquer economic borders, the second step will be imposing more economic restrictions through controlling imported goods, petrol and gas,” he says, adding that the Taliban has been in touch with neighbouring countries — Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan — to keep trade flowing through the crossings.
He is unequivocal about the Taliban’s ultimate goal: “The Islamic Emirate asked others to sit down for talks and establish peace, but talks on the forthcoming regime are for establishing a pure Islamic regime.”
Even if the Taliban comes close to taking control, the international community will still have some leverage. One factor preventing the Taliban from an outright takeover is that, unlike the previous time it was in power, from 1996-2001, it wants international legitimacy to keep aid flowing and the Taliban leadership off UN sanctions lists, says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“The Taliban see a political settlement meaning a transfer of power with certain concessions to the government, but they can’t be trusted,” says Haqqani, pointing out that they “did not keep their word” with former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban executed him.
When the US shut the two most important air bases in Kandahar and Bagram by July, Afghan soldiers immediately suffered from the lack of air support. The US had not trained Afghans to be able to maintain the equipment that gives them a crucial advantage over the Taliban, according to Afghan officials and military experts.
Not only did about 2,500 US and 8,500 Nato coalition soldiers leave, but so did thousands of logistics contractors who maintained the US-provided air and ground weapons systems, says Petraeus. “We should do all that is possible to keep the Afghan Air Force fully operational,” he says. “We also need to ensure rapid replenishment of the rockets, bombs and ammunition” that is already in short supply.
Biden has pledged to continue supporting the Afghan forces, including earmarking $1bn to Afghanistan’s air force and delivering additional Black Hawk helicopters. Yet how effective that support will be on the ground without a US military footprint remains unclear.
As the Taliban offensive mounts, there is widespread disillusionment with the corruption-plagued government in Kabul. Ghani had severed ties with many of the warlords who formed the Northern Alliance, a coalition of militias who toppled the past Taliban regime, says Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His recent efforts to build fences were likely to be too little, too late.
“The irony is that Ghani’s survival depends on the Northern Alliance, which he has worked so hard to dismantle,” says Murtazashvili. “He seems to be unable to compromise, isolated and in denial about the situation around him.”
Kabul has only recently started articulating a clear strategy to beat the Taliban, says a western diplomat: “Now they are saying the right thing, the question is, can they execute it?”
The resurgence of violence has made a negotiated political settlement almost impossible, says Waheed Omer, a senior aide to Ghani.
“[The Taliban] has a misguided calculation that they can win militarily. Tactical gains in the past couple of months have made them even more arrogant, but the atrocities they committed recently will haunt them,” says Omer. “They have lost whatever support they had among the people. They have proven again that they are the same old terrorist group.”
Omer denies that morale is low and says the government is determined not to compromise on its beliefs, including holding democratic elections and protecting the rights of women. “We will fight them to our last drop of blood if they believe they will win militarily,” he says. “If war is what will finally convince the Taliban, we will give them that.”
Still, even as regional powers voice support for Ghani’s government, they are deepening ties with the Taliban to hedge against a Kabul collapse. This includes India, a staunch opponent of the Taliban, which it views as a proxy of Pakistan. In July, New Delhi officially confirmed they had opened talks for the first time with the Islamists.
As Kabul has come under intense pressure, Ghani has lashed out at Pakistan for allegedly allowing more than 10,000 jihadis over the border to help the Taliban and has accused Islamabad of not putting enough pressure on the Islamists to foster peace. His vice-president Amrullah Saleh tweeted on August 1: “Afghanistan is under a full scale invasion of Talib terrorists who have an organised backing and sponsorship in Pakistan . . . They have no intention to engage in meaningful negotiations.”
Pakistan was one of three countries, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that recognised the Taliban regime when it took control of Kabul in 1996. It has nurtured ties with the Taliban to counter India’s influence in the region and the threat of a Pashtun uprising across the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan established by British colonial authorities.
“Pakistan is pursuing a two-prong strategy. On the one hand it is trying to promote a peaceful conclusion [of the US presence] and it fears very much an influx of refugees and the chaos that would follow a Taliban takeover,” says Ahmed Rashid, author of books on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban. “At the same time it is also encouraging the Taliban.”
Pakistan’s ambiguous role has contributed to frosty relations with Washington, say analysts, pointing to the fact that Biden has yet to speak to Imran Khan, the country’s prime minister. Yet though Pakistan is accused by the US of playing a “double game” and harbouring terrorists, Islamabad insists its influence on the movement is modest.
“Everybody’s lost leverage over the Taliban,” says Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser. “Everybody now needs to invest fully in trying to see if we can get to some, even imperfect, arrangement that would allow this protracted conflict to be warded off.”
If Kabul collapses, neighbouring countries fear a protracted civil war that could make Afghanistan fertile ground for extremists. “I don’t think the Taliban are a terrorist movement, but they have relations, friendships, and shared a common goal of removing the US,” says Carter Malkasian, author of The American War in Afghanistan. “Terrorist organisations will have latitude, some of the Taliban will be perfectly happy to turn a blind eye.”
Al-Qaeda, the Islamist group founded by Osama bin Laden, is present in at least 15 provinces, primarily in the east and south, according to a UN Security Council report released on July 21. It operates under Taliban protection in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces, with fighters coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also aligned with what Beijing calls the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it accuses of carrying out terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
The Pakistan Taliban, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, is becoming more active, launching an increasing number of cross-border attacks, and Isis has expanded its presence in the country, with sleeper cells and strengthened positions around Kabul, according to the UN.
“The most painful moment is yet to come,” says Malkasian. “It could be Kabul falling, maybe it is that Saigon moment of a helicopter going with people trying to escape, maybe it is executions.” He adds that “the most painful thing would be a terrorist attack on the US”.
As Kabul’s battle with the Taliban reaches a tipping point, there is a swelling exodus of people to safer cities from the rural areas under Taliban control. Habiba in Kabul has been reduced to living in one room with her family. Going back to her home in the south where the Taliban are firmly entrenched is not an option. Yet her future in Kabul is uncertain.
“The morale of the Taliban tells us that they can capture Kabul,” she says. “I’m afraid.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington