Taleban fighters close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink

Afghan security officials stand guard on the outskirts of Helmand, Afghanistan, on Feb 8, 2021.
Afghan security officials stand guard on the outskirts of Helmand, Afghanistan, on Feb 8, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PANJWAI, AFGHANISTAN (NYTIMES) - The Taleban have been encroaching on key cities around Afghanistan for months, threatening to drive the country to its breaking point and push the Biden administration into a no-win situation just as the United States' longest war is supposed to be coming to an end.

Around the northern city of Kunduz, despite the winter's fierce cold, the Taleban have taken outposts and military bases, using small armed drones to terrorise Afghan troops.

In neighbouring Pul-i-Khumri, they have seized important highways in a stranglehold of the city, threatening main lifelines to Kabul, the country's capital.

And here in the city of Kandahar, a bedrock of historic and political importance and an economic hub for the country's south, Taleban fighters have pummelled the surrounding districts and moved closer to taking the provincial capital than they have in more than a decade.

The Taleban's brazen offensive has put the Biden administration into a dangerous political bind.

Under the deal struck by then President Donald Trump with the Taleban last year, all foreign troops - including the remaining 2,500 US service members who support Afghanistan's beleaguered army and security forces - are scheduled to withdraw by May 1, leaving the country in an especially precarious state.

If the Biden administration honours the withdrawal date, officials and analysts fear the Taleban could overwhelm what's left of the Afghan security forces and take control of major cities like Kandahar in a push for a complete military victory or a broad surrender by the Afghan government in the ongoing peace negotiations.

But if the US delays its withdrawal deadline, as a congressionally appointed panel recommended on Feb 3, the Taleban would likely consider the 2020 deal with the US void, likely leading to renewed attacks on US and Nato troops, and potentially drawing the US deeper into the war to defend Afghan forces, whom the Taleban could still retaliate vigorously against.

"The threat of Taleban military victories, especially in an area as symbolic and strategic as Kandahar, makes it difficult for the Biden administration to swallow the risks of finalising a troop withdrawal," said Mr Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution organisation.

"Pulling out might be politically impossible if Kandahar was on the nightly news."

In Panjwai, a district that neighbours Kandahar city, the low thud of artillery punctuated a recent warm winter afternoon, signalling the Taleban's proximity to its populated centre.

At the edge of the district, a lone police outpost sandbagged into the rock overlooked what was now Taleban territory. One officer's head was bandaged from a roadside bomb blast, another wore a gauze sling under his uniform, propping up a shoulder wounded from a sniper's bullet.

"They are still working here; we can't replace them, because we don't have enough forces," said police officer Safiullah Khan, who was in charge.

"Our commanders steal from our fuel, food and our supply."

During an offensive in the fall, the Taleban took swathes of territory and then mostly held their ground despite attempts by the Afghan security forces and US air strikes to dislodge them.

Taleban commanders told tribal officials in the district that the insurgent group deliberately stopped short of taking Panjwai, said Mr Haji Mahmood Noor, the district's mayor, because they were told to wait and see how the next phase of peace negotiations played out.

"When the trees turn green, the situation will get worse," Mr Noor said, referring to the spring, when the Taleban can move more at ease under the cover of blooming foliage.

Panjwai's near collapse and the growing threat to Kandahar city are partially the consequence of the death in 2018 of General Abdul Raziq, who had been the province's police chief since 2011.

Known for settling disputes with threats and bloody retribution, and accused of many human-rights abuses, Gen Raziq also used his close relationship with the US military to keep Kandahar province mostly secure for years.

After Gen Raziq's death at the hands of a Taleban infiltrator, his brother, General Tadeen Khan, was made a general overnight and took over as police chief, but his lack of military experience meant he was largely disconnected and absent from his duties.

As his officers taxed and abused their residents with little oversight, the Taleban forged alliances with local tribal leadership and paid low-level police officers to abandon their posts before their fall offensive, local and provincial officials said.

When the Taleban pushed into the districts around Kandahar, the police put up very little fight.

Many outposts were already barely staffed, Mr Noor and other local officials said.

Some Afghan government officials disputed that accusation, saying they retreated in fear. Others said they didn't know why they retreated at all.

General Tadeen Khan rejected any accusations of corruption and abuse and denied that his police forces were withering around Kandahar.

"The Taleban do not have more power," he said, from his well-guarded compound in Kandahar city.

"The Afghan forces can defend themselves."

The deteriorating situation in Kandahar is a broader reflection of security around the country.

The Taleban have spent the past few months capturing military bases and police outposts and installing highway checkpoints near capital cities in provinces such as Helmand and Uruzgan in the south, and Kunduz and Baghlan in the north.

Though Taleban tactics vary from region to region, the outcomes are usually the same: increased taxation on highways, plummeting morale among the Afghan security forces with dwindling US support and growing fear among those living in once-secure areas.

The Taleban's aim is to force the Afghan government into complying with their terms of peace.

In Qatar, Taleban leaders have demanded the release of around 7,000 more prisoners and the establishment of an interim government, two requests that Mr Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan's President, has so far refused.

"The Taleban seem to believe that applying this pressure, staging their fighters to potentially strike Kandahar and other urban centres, will pressure the US to withdraw, or else," Mr Watkins said.

"The strategic logic might have the opposite effect."

To prepare for a possible multi-pronged attack should the US stay beyond the May 1 deadline, the Pentagon has requested additional military options, including an increase of US troops or a commitment of more air support from US Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, according to two US officials.

Whether these requests will be granted depends on the Biden administration's next move, which it is expected to be announced in coming weeks upon completing a review of the current agreement in place with the Taleban.

The unrest has already delayed the handover of Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling US base east of the capital, to Afghan forces in recent months.

For now, a small detachment of US and Nato troops remain to support the struggling Afghan forces, according to a US military official.

With the police force mostly in ruin, the Afghan army and commandos have moved into Kandahar, beginning operations in November to retake territory that was then retaken by the Taleban.

Commando officers said their forces had been exhausted by frequent orders to fill in for their police counterparts.

In nearby Arghandab district, the site of the Taleban's northern offensive on Kandahar city, army leaders and police officers say they're severely understaffed and their pleas for support have gone unheeded by officials in Kabul.

One outpost was using two armoured vehicles likely left over from the 1980s Soviet invasion to defend against Taleban positions on the river banks below.

In December, nearly 200 checkpoints in Kandahar were abandoned by the Afghan army, according to a US government watchdog report released on Feb 1.

The collapse of some military bases in the fall afforded the Taleban troves of military equipment and ammunition, including several pieces of heavy artillery.

Afghan security forces are also contending with portions of a populace that have more faith in the Taleban than in the government.

In capturing new territory, the Taleban installed their own administrative services, explained Mr Lal Mohammad, 23, a wheat and grape farmer who now lives behind the Taleban's front line in Panjwai.

Insurgent fighters have smashed smartphones and banned music, imposed a curfew, dug defensive tunnels between people's homes and used empty rooms in them as fighting positions.

Roadside bombs are everywhere, he said.

But land disputes and petty crime are well-managed, compared to the Afghan government's corrupt bureaucracy, said Mr Mohammad.

"People like it," Mr Mohammad said, adding that he just wants someone to take over Kandahar so people can get back to their lives.

These sentiments are common in more rural areas of Afghanistan.

But the Afghan government's incompetence and widespread corruption have brought that attitude to the doorstep of one of the country's most populated cities.

"The government," Mr Mohammad said, "has failed."