Conflict Alerts # 416, 4 August 2021
In the news
On 1 August, the Taliban escalated its countrywide offensive by continuing assaults in three provincial capitals: Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar. Several commandos were deployed to the western city of Herat, while authorities in the southern city of Lashkar Gah called for more troops to counter the fierce fighting. On the same day, the Taliban also struck the Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan with at least three rockets. A Taliban spokesperson said: "Kandahar airport was targeted by us because the enemy were using it as a centre to conduct airstrikes against us." On 3 August, the residence of acting Defence Minister came under a car bomb attack, followed by sporadic gunfire and hand grenade blasts.
On 2 August, President Ashraf Ghani blamed the US "hasty" troop withdrawal for the worsening violence in Afghanistan. Further, he said that his administration would now focus on protecting provincial capitals and major urban areas in the face of the rapidly advancing Taliban, who he previously said has become "more cruel and more oppressive."
On 3 August, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said: "At this point, they (Taliban) are demanding that they take the lion's share of power in the next government, given the military situation as they see it," adding, "the Taliban say they do not want to be a pariah state," He said: "the Talibs have been emboldened by the developments in recent weeks in terms of the gains that they have made and are in a maximalist frame of mind."
Issues at large
First, the Taliban's offensive. Since May 2021, the Taliban has launched a large-scale offensive across the country and has made substantial territorial gains by captured around half of Afghanistan's 400-odd districts, seizing land, closing in on the central government compound and taking control of key border crossings with neighbouring countries amid the US and NATO troop withdrawal. The recent attacks in Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar mark a shift in the Afghan conflict, before these, clashes were largely confined to the country's rural areas or smaller cities contested by the militants. However, large-scale conventional attacks in Afghanistan's largest cities shows that the Taliban is marching towards the centre of these cities.
Second, the return of former prisoners to the battlefield. According to Afghan officials, the Taliban commander supervising the offensive in Lashkar Gah is one of 5,000 former prisoners released by the Afghan government in 2020 under pressure from the US. Similarly, several former prisoners that were released to further peace talks have returned to the battlefield to join the Taliban offensive, highlighting a miscalculation on the part of the US.
Third, Kabul's defensive. In efforts to counter the Taliban's offensive, the Afghan forces have lead operations and counterattacks against the Taliban in several provinces. The Afghan forces have responded with substantial air support, retaking some districts. However, both the Afghan air force and its commando forces are exhausted and overwhelmed. Although, the government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban's territorial gains, it has largely failed to reverse their pace on the ground.
First, the Taliban's end game. This is the first time that the Taliban has advanced into urban areas since they were overthrown nearly two decades ago. The current focus of the Taliban's efforts seems to be several key provincial capitals. Additionally, the Taliban's offensive depicts that they are not looking for power-sharing but something more. If the Taliban if succeeds in capturing any major urban centre, the current offensive would move to another level, impacting the already deteriorating situation in the country.
Second, Kabul's unsystematic response. The Taliban advance has once again left the Afghan government rattled. Although the Afghan forces have been holding ground in several key areas, Kabul still lacks clear direction in countering the Taliban, which in the long run would be futile.