Kabul, Afghanistan – The Taliban leadership has reiterated that they want a “political settlement” to the Afghan conflict, but the swift military gains made by the group has alarmed experts and residents, who say they intend to capture power militarily.
Earlier this week, a top US military general issued a stern warning about the trajectory of the Afghan war a month before the complete withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan.
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Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley said on Wednesday the Taliban has “strategic momentum”. He did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover.
At a news conference, Milley said the group has been “putting pressure on the outskirts” of the capitals of half of the nation’s 34 provinces.
Sources speaking to Al Jazeera have confirmed Milley’s assessment, saying some of the biggest provinces, including Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, Takhar, Ghazni, Badakhshan, face security threat from the Taliban.
Given the size of provinces like Kandahar, Helmand and Herat, both physically and in terms of population, any Taliban advance in these areas is seen as a boon to the group.
Military battles in these provinces also pose considerable risk to civilian lives.
The Taliban creeping closer to urban centres and key commercial hubs has forced the government to overhaul its war strategy. Its new focus is to safeguard city centres, border crossings and crucial infrastructure, according to media reports.
Washington, which has already withdrawn 95 percent of its troops from the country, has carried out air raids in recent days to support government forces.
Pashtana Durrani, an education advocate based in the city of Kandahar, says in recent weeks the group has made it very clear that they have every intention of taking Kandahar, which “is a highly valuable city, both in terms of symbolism and finances”.
The Taliban now has access to another key dry port and the customs revenue after they captured the district of Spin Boldak.
A customs official speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said the Taliban allows trucks to pass through the crossing, but takes its cut – up to 50,000 Afghanis ($628) – from the drivers. However, this could not be verified independently by Al Jazeera. With hundreds of vehicles passing through these crossings each day, the group stands to make a hefty sum.
“If you hold Spin Boldak, you hold the money,” said Durrani.
The Taliban also enjoys a presence in Maruf, a district three hours to the north. This gives the group a presence of more than 100km (62 miles) in two directions of Afghanistan’s second-largest city.
Durrani says the Taliban is very intent on taking Kandahar and other cities.
“It’s not a scare tactic, it’s the reality. They are killing people.”
On Thursday, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued a warning to all parties to the conflict that they are “tracking the many allegations of harm to civilians” in Kandahar. The Ministry of Interior claims that at least 100 civilians were killed by unknown gunmen in the days since the Taliban took Spin Boldak.
The Taliban denies involvement in those killings.
On Friday, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in the Qatari capital, Doha, that his group did not want civil war. The Taliban has been engaged in months-long peace talks with the Afghan leadership, while its commanders have pressed ahead with military campaigns on the ground.
Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based analyst who has been tracking the Taliban’s movements for several years, says securing such a wide expanse has already proven difficult for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
Sources speaking to Al Jazeera said the Taliban knows that the ANSF are stretched thin due to endemic corruption and they are taking advantage of the situation to capture districts surrounding big cities at an accelerated pace.
For years, the security forces have been complaining of not receiving their wages, food, ammunition and even assistance in transporting the bodies of their fallen soldiers to their families.
“If there wasn’t corruption, the annual budget for the security forces would be more than enough, but the money has been squandered,” said Amiri, referring to the $3.3bn Washington alone has pledged to support the 352,000-strong Afghan forces over the next two years.
In March, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the top US watchdog for Afghanistan, said, “Afghanistan’s endemic corruption provides oxygen to the insurgency and undermines the Afghan state.” This statement falls in line with what sources have been saying about one of the factors leading to the Taliban’s recent territorial gains.
This years-long problem of corruption has had an effect on the recruitment and retention of security forces.
“There simply aren’t enough security forces. So many are handing over checkpoints or fleeing, that it’s become much easier for the Taliban to take territory,” said Amiri.
Parliamentarians, leaders of armed groups and analysts speaking to Al Jazeera have all repeatedly said this pattern of soldiers and police being unable or unwilling to fight has worked to the advantage of the Taliban.
Earlier this month, there were reports of more than 1,600 Afghan soldiers fleeing to Tajikistan over a two-week span. Durrani says this is not something soldiers in Kandahar can afford to do with ease.
“Even if they want to flee, they have to flee to Helmand, which is even more hostile. Or to Zabul or Uruzgan, which is already taken over by the Taliban.”
Instead, she said soldiers in Kandahar either die fighting or end up joining the Taliban, which is unlikely as many of them come from a long line of military families.
Amiri, the analyst, says that mistakes made by the Kabul leadership and other influential figures have proven to be the Taliban’s “biggest advantage”.
“Politics is a major issue,” he says pointing to the fact that the provincial police chief of Uruzgan has been replaced three times over the last two years.
Likewise, over the last year, the leadership in Kabul has appointed three different men to head the defence and interior ministries.
At the provincial level, Amiri says, this musical chairs approach to the appointment has a big effect on local security.
“Often, when these people are appointed, they have little understanding of the area they are meant to work in, and even fewer connections to the people,” he said, adding that it is especially problematic at a time when the Taliban has made efforts to simultaneously increase its foothold in the southern, western and northern regions.
Ahmad Ali Hazrat, the head of the provincial council in the eastern province of Nangarhar, agrees that mistakes have been along the way, but he is optimistic that the government will reverse the trend in the coming weeks.
Days after the Eid al-Adha holiday, the government announced a curfew in all but three provinces, which many see as a sign that the security forces will increase their operations.
Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, told Al Jazeera government forces are making gains in the districts of Herat and challenging the Taliban’s claims to authority.
Hazrat, who has supported local uprising forces in Nangarhar, says those forces fighting alongside the military and police will also help the government in their bid to start retaking districts.
His certainty about the strength of local people fighting alongside the security forces comes from recent experiences in Nangarhar. In 2018, residents in several districts of the eastern province started to take up arms against the so-called ISIL (ISIS) fighters and drove them away from the very districts they had claimed as strongholds for years.
“Even two years ago, Daesh was so powerful in Nangarhar, but it was the people rising up that defeated them and stripped them of their power,” Hazrat said referring to ISIL’s Arabic name Daesh.
But he knows the government and people cannot let their guard down.
“The Taliban have made their strategy very clear. They want to take Afghanistan again by force,” Hazrat said.
Amiri, the analyst, agrees with Hazrat’s view of the Taliban, which has killed thousands of people in the past 20 years of its armed rebellion.
He says the government must be genuine, precise and diligent in its efforts to secure the provinces. Mistakes, he said, come at too high a price.
“It’s not that the Taliban are suddenly better and stronger, they’re using the political situation and the defections to their own benefit.”