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The Taliban close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink

Written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Taimoor Shah

The Taliban have been encroaching on key cities round Afghanistan for months, threatening to drive the country to its breaking level and push the Biden administration right into a no-win scenario simply as the United States’ longest battle is meant to be coming to an finish.

Around the northern metropolis of Kunduz, regardless of the winter’s fierce chilly, the Taliban have taken outposts and navy bases, utilizing small armed drones to terrorize Afghan troops. In neighbouring Pul-i-Khumri, they’ve seized essential highways in a stranglehold of the metropolis, threatening primary lifelines to Kabul, the country’s capital.

And right here in the metropolis of Kandahar, a bedrock of historic and political significance and an financial hub for the country’s south, Taliban fighters have pummeled the surrounding districts, and moved nearer to taking the provincial capital than they’ve in greater than a decade.

The Taliban’s brazen offensive has put the Biden administration right into a harmful political bind. Under the deal struck by President Donald Trump with the Taliban final yr, all overseas troops — together with the remaining 2,500 U.S. service members who assist Afghanistan’s beleaguered military and safety forces — are scheduled to withdraw by May 1, leaving the country in an particularly precarious state.

The Taliban close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink The street connecting Kandahar Airfield and Spin Boldak to Kandahar, Afghanistan, Feb. 1, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

If the Biden administration honors the withdrawal date, officers and analysts concern the Taliban may overwhelm what’s left of the Afghan safety forces and take management of main cities like Kandahar in a push for an entire navy victory or a broad give up by the Afghan authorities in the ongoing peace negotiations.

But if the United States delays its withdrawal deadline, as a congressionally appointed panel beneficial on Feb. 3, the Taliban would doubtless take into account the 2020 take care of the United States void, doubtless main to renewed assaults on U.S. and NATO troops, and doubtlessly drawing the United States deeper into the battle to defend Afghan forces, whom the Taliban may nonetheless retaliate vigorously in opposition to.

The Taliban close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink Men sit throughout the road from a shrine being constructed in Kandahar, Afghanistan for Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief who was killed by a Taliban infiltrator in 2018, Jan. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

“The threat of Taliban military victories, especially in an area as symbolic and strategic as Kandahar, makes it difficult for the Biden administration to swallow the risks of finalizing a troop withdrawal,” stated Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based battle decision group. “Pulling out might be politically impossible if Kandahar was on the nightly news.”

In Panjwai, a district that neighbours Kandahar metropolis, the low thud of artillery punctuated a current heat winter afternoon, signalling the Taliban’s proximity to its populated heart.

At the fringe of the district, a lone police outpost sandbagged into the rock ignored what was now Taliban territory. One officer’s head was bandaged from a roadside bomb blast, one other wore a gauze sling underneath 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,” stated Safiullah Khan, the police officer in cost. “Our commanders steal from our fuel, food and our supply.”

The Taliban close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink A police and navy put up in overlooking the Arghandab valley in Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

During an offensive in the fall, the Taliban took swathes of territory after which largely held their floor regardless of makes an attempt by the Afghan safety forces and U.S. airstrikes to dislodge them.

Taliban commanders advised tribal officers in the district that the rebel group intentionally stopped wanting taking Panjwai, stated Haji Mahmood Noor, the district’s mayor, as a result of they have been advised to wait and see how the subsequent part of peace negotiations performed out.

“When the trees turn green the situation will get worse,” Noor stated, referring to the spring, when the Taliban can transfer extra comfortable underneath the cowl of blooming foliage.

The Taliban close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink Store home windows shattered by a Taliban mortar in the Arghandab District of Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Panjwai’s close to collapse and the rising menace to Kandahar metropolis are partially the consequence of the dying in 2018 of Gen. 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, Raziq additionally used his close relationship with the U.S. navy, to preserve Kandahar province largely safe for years.

After Raziq’s dying at the palms of a Taliban infiltrator, his brother, Gen. Tadeen Khan, was made a basic in a single day and took over as police chief, however his lack of navy expertise meant he was largely disconnected and absent from his duties. As his officers taxed and abused their residents with little oversight, the Taliban cast alliances with native tribal management and paid low-level law enforcement officials to abandon their posts earlier than their fall offensive, native and provincial officers stated.

The Taliban close in on Afghan cities, pushing the country to the brink Haji Mahmood Noor, the district mayor for Panjwai at the district governors workplace in Panjwai, Afghanistan, Jan. 30, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

When the Taliban pushed into the districts round Kandahar, the police put up little or no struggle. Many outposts have been already barely staffed, Noor and different native officers stated. Some Afghan authorities officers disputed that accusation, saying they retreated in concern. Others stated they didn’t know why they retreated in any respect.

Tadeen rejected any accusations of corruption and abuse and denied that his police forces have been withering round Kandahar.

“The Taliban do not have more power,” he stated, from his well-guarded compound in Kandahar metropolis. “The Afghan forces can defend themselves.”

The deteriorating scenario in Kandahar is a broader reflection of safety round the country. The Taliban have spent the previous months capturing navy bases and police outposts and putting in freeway checkpoints close to capital cities in provinces akin to Helmand and Uruzgan in the south, and Kunduz and Baghlan in the north.

Though Taliban techniques range from area to area, the outcomes are often the similar: elevated taxation on highways, plummeting morale amongst the Afghan safety forces with dwindling U.S. assist and rising concern amongst these dwelling in once-secure areas.

The Taliban’s goal is to power the Afghan authorities into complying with their phrases of peace. In Qatar, Taliban leaders have demanded the launch of round 7,000 extra prisoners and the institution of an interim authorities, two requests that Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, has up to now refused.

“The Taliban seem to believe that applying this pressure, staging their fighters to potentially strike Kandahar and other urban centers, will pressure the U.S. to withdraw, or else,” Watkins stated. “The strategic logic might have the opposite effect.”

To put together for a potential multipronged assault ought to the United States keep past the May 1 deadline, the Pentagon has requested extra navy choices — together with a rise of U.S. troops or a dedication of extra air assist from U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, in accordance to two U.S. officers. Whether these requests will likely be granted relies upon on the Biden administration’s subsequent transfer, which it’s anticipated to be introduced in coming weeks upon finishing a evaluation of the present settlement in place with the Taliban.

The unrest has already delayed the handover of Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling U.S. base east of the capital, to Afghan forces in current months. For now, a small detachment of U.S. and NATO troops stay to assist the struggling Afghan forces, in accordance to a U.S. navy official.

With the police power largely in break, the Afghan military and commandos have moved into Kandahar, starting operations in November to retake territory that was then retaken by the Taliban. Commando officers stated their forces had been exhausted by frequent orders to fill in for his or her police counterparts.

In close by Arghandab District, the web site of the Taliban’s northern offensive on Kandahar metropolis, military leaders and law enforcement officials say they’re severely understaffed and their pleas for assist have gone unheeded by officers in Kabul.

One outpost was utilizing two armored autos doubtless left over from the Eighties Soviet invasion to defend in opposition to Taliban positions on the river banks under.

In December, almost 200 checkpoints in Kandahar have been deserted by the Afghan military, in accordance to a U.S. authorities watchdog report launched Feb. 1. The collapse of some navy bases in the fall afforded the Taliban troves of navy tools and ammunition, together with a number of items of heavy artillery.

Afghan safety forces are additionally contending with parts of a populace which have extra religion in the Taliban than in the authorities. In capturing new territory, the Taliban put in their very own administrative companies, defined Lal Mohammad, 23, a wheat and grape farmer who now lives behind the Taliban’s entrance line in Panjwai.

Insurgent fighters have smashed smartphones and banned music, imposed a curfew, dug defensive tunnels between folks’s properties and used empty rooms in them as preventing positions. Roadside bombs are all over the place, he stated. But land disputes and petty crime are nicely managed, in contrast to the Afghan authorities’s corrupt forms, stated Mohammad stated.

“People like it,” Mohammad stated, including that he simply needs somebody to take over Kandahar so folks can get again to their lives.

These sentiments are frequent in extra rural areas of Afghanistan. But the Afghan authorities’s incompetence and widespread corruption have introduced that angle to the doorstep of certainly one of the country’s most populated cities.

“The government,” Mohammad stated, “has failed.”

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