The situation in Afghanistan continues to change rapidly as the Taliban take additional provincial capitals. In two weeks, the largely Pashtun-based Islamic fundamentalist force has gone from controlling no regional capitals, despite large territorial gains, to taking the south-western cities of Zaranj and Farah city and the northern cities of Aybak, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Sheberghan, and Pul-e-Khumri in quick succession. By the time of this article’s publishing this figure is likely to have changed again.
Since the US and allied withdrawal of troops under the Doha Agreement of February 2020, the resurgence of the Taliban is plain to see. From their formation in 1995, the Taliban had swiftly gained control of Afghanistan, that is until the harbouring of Osama Bin Laden led to foreign intervention and their respective downfall in 2001.
The succeeding 20-year struggle for power in the region claimed the lives of 3,586 US and NATO soldiers, 78,314 National military and police, and 84,191 opposition fighters according to the Watson institute. For allied ground forces this intervention has reached its inconclusive ending.
Yet for the counter-insurgent militias and Afghan national army left without foreign reinforcement, the fighting intensifies. Now under the leadership of Malawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban possess their largest force to date. Estimates range between 58,000 and 100,000 fighters. As this force is used to increasing effect, taking six cities whilst closing in on the southern cities of Lashkar Gar and Kandahar, the question arises: Is this the collapse of government forces?
Though counter-insurgent efforts yielded territorial gains in the province of Nimroz earlier this month and the US increased B-52 bomber support, recent Taliban momentum is reinforced. The acquisition of large settlements provides the insurgency with major footholds that require time, resources, and lives for government forces to overturn. In cities like Lashkar Gar, difficult guerrilla tactics are apparent in reports of the fighters hiding in civilian homes.
The struggle for provincial capitals and large settlements has brought devastating conflict to the doorsteps of considerable civilian populations. The UN recently reported 1,600 civilian deaths in 2021, a 42% increase from last year as urban fighting intensifies.
Many minorities also face mortal danger in the event of occupation. In the 1990s, the Taliban committed numerous atrocities on the Shiite Hazara community. In the past few months, the targeted bombings of communities in Kabul have made the prospect of renewed violence under Taliban occupation all too real for the Hazara. An occupation that for many will bring persecution.