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A Taliban offensive has swept across the north of Afghanistan, increasing pressure on Kabul’s government as US forces prepare to leave the country.
The Islamist militant group captured five Afghan provincial capitals over the weekend, four of which were in the north, a historic bastion of warlords hostile to Taliban rule. A fifth northern provincial capital was captured on Monday.
The Taliban’s gains are the most significant since US president Joe Biden announced in April that American troops would pull out of Afghanistan by the end of August.
Taliban fighters have overrun large parts of the Afghan countryside, taking control of more than half of the country’s 400 districts and a number of economically important border crossings as government security forces retreated to local cities.
An ultraconservative militant group with roots in the armed resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the Taliban wants to establish an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan. It took power in the late 1990s but was deposed by a US-led invasion in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by al-Qaeda, a jihadi group with ties to the Taliban.
The latest assault on urban centres, protected under the terms of a 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration that paved the way for the US withdrawal, has undermined the Biden administration’s hopes for a political settlement between the Taliban and Afghan leaders in Kabul. Talks between president Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Islamists have stalled.
The Taliban has also laid siege to Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities, and targeted the capital Kabul with bombs and rocket attacks in what analysts see as the precursor to an eventual push for overall control of the country.
“The fear is political meltdown. The fall of these major cities triggers a political cascade where people realign their allegiances and the cohesion of the security forces breaks down,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security analyst.
“It certainly gives them an upper hand. The north was one of the main areas from where a lot of us hoped the resistance would emerge.”
The northern capitals captured in recent days include Kunduz, one of the country’s most populous cities, which the government had vowed to defend. The Taliban also briefly captured the city in 2015 and in 2016, both times relinquishing control to government forces within a matter of days.
The militant group also took Sheberghan, the stronghold of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord who played a key part in the Northern Alliance coalition that helped the US defeat the Taliban in 2001.
The Taliban is now reportedly targeting other northern cities, including Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest in the region and base of Atta Mohammad Noor, a former governor and another northern commander.
Analysts say the offensive could undermine efforts to mobilise a new front of militia leaders against the resurgent Islamists, further weakening the country’s armed resistance.
“No one thought they’d be so rapidly gaining territory,” said Romain Malejacq, a political scientist and author of a book about Afghan warlords. “What’s ahead is worse than what’s [been] going on in the past few weeks.”
The US has been carrying out air strikes in Kunduz and elsewhere to support Afghan forces, with attacks being led from outside of the country after the US closed its main air base last month. A US defence official told the FT there were only “a handful” of strikes a day.
Analysts note that a sense of abandonment over the hasty US withdrawal has weakened morale among Afghan security forces.
“It’s a very dire situation and the US government is flat footed and unable to offer a meaningful response,” said Mir.