The Hindu Explains | Are the Taliban on the brink of victory?

Kabul could fall to Islamist insurgents sooner than many had expected

August 13, 2021 01:23 pm | Updated November 22, 2021 09:49 pm IST

Common sight:  A Taliban flag flying at a square in the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan, on Thursday.

Common sight: A Taliban flag flying at a square in the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan, on Thursday.

The story so far: The speed with which the Taliban have seized Afghanistan’s key cities has triggered fears that Kabul could fall to the Islamist insurgents sooner than many had expected in May, when the remaining U.S.-led international troops started withdrawing. The Taliban now control at least 17 provincial capitals, including Kandahar and Herat, the second and third largest cities in the country, and are pressing on with their offensive. In many places, government troops retreated en masse , while officials handed over administrative centres to Taliban commanders in return for safety.

Who controls what?

The map showing who controls which part of Afghanistan is changing by the hour. If the government had controlled all 34 provincial capitals and more than half of the country’s 421 districts before May 1, the Taliban are now firmly in control of more than 60% of territories.

According to the Longwar Journal , 233 Afghan districts are now controlled by the Taliban, while 109 are contested. The government has only 65 districts under its control. The Taliban captured Zaranj, the first city, on August 6. Within eight days, they have taken 17 provincial capitals, including Ghazni, Herat and Kandahar.

What’s the Taliban’s strategy?

When international troops started withdrawing on May 1, the Taliban started an offensive in the north, northeast and western districts of Afghanistan. The plan appears to be consolidating their position in the hinterlands that had hosted anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s as well as surrounding the big cities. The Taliban captured most districts in Badakshan and Takhar provinces, which had hosted the Northern Alliance that continued to fight the Taliban during 1996-2001.

After capturing the districts, the Taliban turned their focus to the border crossings. They seized the Sher Khan Bandar crossing with Tajikistan, which was partly built with U.S. funds, the Islam Qila crossing with Iran and Spin Boldak with Pakistan. By taking these crossings, the Taliban squeezed the Kabul government out of critical revenues, leaving a financial blow. The control over the northern border would also allow the insurgents to check potential aid coming from neighbouring countries to their enemies in the future if a 1990s-type civil war breaks out.

After taking the districts and key border crossings, the Taliban turned fighting towards the cities. They had already laid siege to the main cities such as Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Ghazni. All they had to do was to start an all-out offensive breaking through government defences. They captured prisons, released prisoners and recruited them, took government buildings and immediately started implementing their rule. They first took smaller cities in the north and then moved to the bigger ones such as Herat and Kandahar. The plan appears to isolate and surround Kabul to force the government of Ashraf Ghani to surrender or launch an offensive on the city that’s home to 6 million people.

Is the fall of Kabul imminent?

The fall of Ghazni, Herat and Kandahar are the heaviest setbacks to the government so far in the war. Ghazni sits on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, roughly 150 km south of Kabul, linking the Taliban-controlled areas with the capital city. The way Ghazni fell surprised many. The Governor of the province, Daud Laghmani, handed over his office to a senior Taliban commander without any resistance. “He gave a flower to the Taliban commander and congratulated him,” an official in the Governor’s office told the Wall Street Journal . Ghazni fell on the morning of August 12, and in the evening, Herat was also in the Taliban’s control. Within hours of Herat’s fall, the jihadists took Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Clearly, the Taliban are encircling Kabul from all sides.

The Taliban’s quick advances have pushed foreign governments into swift action. The U.S. Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently flew to Doha, Qatar’s capital, where the Taliban have a political office. He asked the Taliban to spare the American Embassy in Kabul in the coming fight for the capital, according to the New York Times . The U.S. and the U.K. are sending more troops to evacuate its diplomats and civilians from the country. India recently closed its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. All these developments point to these countries’ declining faith in the capability of the Afghan government to defend Kabul and other cities. Earlier in the week, Afghanistan’s acting Defence Minister Khalid Payenda quit his job and left the country, which speaks of the mood in the government.

The U.S. intelligence, which had earlier concluded that Kabul could fall within six months, revised its assessment that the Taliban could capture the capital within 90 days, according to the Washington Post . The situation looks a lot worse than what it was in 1989 when the Soviet troops pulled back after 10 years of military intervention in Afghanistan. The Communist government of Muhammed Najibullah clung on to power in Kabul for three more years, despite repeated attacks by the Mujahideen, who were backed by the ISI and the CIA. Najibullah’s regime fell in 1992, only after supplies from Moscow dried up following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. It took four more years for the Taliban to reach Kabul in 1996. Now, with the U.S. occupation set to end in two weeks, the Taliban seem to be eyeing Kabul before the winter sets in.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.