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Illustration by Security Management

Taliban Continues Rapid Offensive in Afghanistan

The Taliban is back in the global spotlight. As U.S. and allied troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters are taking advantage of the shifting situation to consolidate power and take control of swaths of territory in the country.

The insurgents seized three more provincial capitals and a local army headquarters, officials said today. Taliban forces now control around two-thirds of Afghanistan, having earlier captured six other provincial capitals in the span of a week. 

“While the capital of Kabul itself has not been directly threatened in the advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of its countryside,” according to the Associated Press (AP).

In terms of motivation and ideology, the Taliban is more regionally focused than al Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS). Scott Stewart, vice president of intelligence at TorchStone Global, says “the Taliban want to reestablish their emirate in Afghanistan but do not have larger aspirations to create a global caliphate” like IS. These differences have led to tension or even open warfare between the Taliban and other extremist groups in the past, he adds.

“Due to the Taliban’s focus on Afghanistan, it does not mean much for organizations in the broader Middle East,” Stewart tells Security Management. “There may be repercussions in other parts of South Asia, such as Pakistan where related groups such as the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) may be emboldened by the Afghan Taliban’s successes.

“For organizations in Afghanistan, the situation is very precarious, especially given the Taliban’s rapid advances against provincial capitals and other cities,” he continues, noting that the current offensive has kept the Taliban well-armed and supplied as they seize military equipment, bring defectors from the government military and regional militias into the fold, and release thousands of imprisoned Taliban militants from regional prisons.

On 7 August, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan issued a security alert urging American citizens to leave the country immediately, especially since—due to a State Department departure order of all personnel who could perform their duties elsewhere—the embassy’s ability to help U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited, even in the capital of Kabul.

India, meanwhile, announced yesterday that it would be shutting down its last consulate in Afghanistan. It sent a military plane to northern Afghanistan to pull out its citizens and diplomats, Reuters reported. Only India’s embassy in Kabul remains operational.

“Organizations should treat this alert as a significant signpost and should reevaluate their operations inside the country, their current staffing levels as well as reviewing their contingency plans,” Stewart says. “While organizations will have different tolerances for risk depending on the nature of their work, their institutional culture, and even their past interaction with the Taliban, all organizations should nevertheless review their contingency plans and ensure that they are prepared for the possibility of the Taliban continuing to take territory, to include Kabul. Organizations should ensure that their evacuation plans have redundant routes and modes of travel.”

Since June, the Taliban has taken control of seven out of 14 official border crossings in Afghanistan, according to analysis by the Middle East Institute. Several captured border crossings include major customs facilities, which could provide insurgents with sources of revenue while also enabling them to control ingress and egress from the country.

“Perhaps the biggest implication for organizations in Afghanistan is that it serves to cut off potential land escape routes from the country, further emphasizing the importance of evacuation by air and the security of the International Airport in Kabul and Bagram air base,” Stewart adds.

Additionally, the Middle East Institute said control of border crossings can force neighboring countries—such as Uzbekistan and Pakistan—to deal with the Taliban as a legitimate trade partner and authority. Already, some countries have softened their approach to the Taliban, with Tajikistan no longer referring to it as a terrorist or extremist group and Turkmenistan quietly receiving a Taliban delegation in July.

A U.S. peace envoy warned the Taliban on Tuesday that any government that comes to power by force in Afghanistan will not be recognized internationally, the AP reported. The envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the group that a military takeover of Kabul would guarantee the Taliban-backed government would be global pariahs.

While the Taliban military chief, Mohammad Yaqoob, released an audio message to fighters on Tuesday ordering them not to harm Afghan forces or government officials, stay out of abandoned government or security officials’ homes, leave marketplaces open, and protect places of business in conquered territory, it was not immediately clear if the fighters would heed the instructions.

According to the AP, civilians who fled Taliban offensives said insurgents imposed repressive restrictions on women and burned down schools. The United Nations has also received reports of executions, revenge killings, and military use or destruction of homes, schools, and clinics.

Women and girls have been hard hit by the offensive so far. Among the 800 civilians killed and 1,600 wounded in May and June, about half were women and children, according to the United Nations. One attack on a girl’s school in Kabul killed more than 85 people—many of them girls, The Washington Post reported.

Afghan interpreters and contractors who assisted U.S. military forces are also targeted in the Taliban offensive. During the past few years, hundreds of Afghan interpreters or their families have been killed by insurgents.

The intense fighting has driven thousands of people to Kabul, where many are living in parks. Others have fled the country, exacerbating an existing Afghan refugee crisis. According to the Brookings Institute, there are 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan alone, which the country is ill-equipped to support or afford.

“Internally displaced people have been a serious problem in Afghanistan for decades, and there were some 4 million internally displaced people before this current Taliban offensive began,” Stewart says.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that nearly 400,000 Afghans have been internally displaced within Afghanistan in 2021 so far, and refugees continue to leave the country in search of safety. The UNHCR found that nearly 200 refugees fled into the Islamic Republic of Iran during the past few days.

In Pakistan, some of the 3 million refugees are Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan in 2001 and will likely return to rejoin the Taliban, “but others will leave Afghanistan to replace them and the refugee situation in Pakistan will remain dire,” Stewart adds.