As Indian embassies go on high alert, how Taliban is expanding footprint in Afghanistan without US troops
While the government in Kabul has brought reforms, including on women’s rights and voting, Taliban have reiterated that they want an ‘Islamic system’ in Afghanistan
Indian diplomatic staff at the embassy in Kandahar in Afghanistan have been moved out as the city in southern Afghanistan witnesses heavy fighting amid an attempt by Taliban to seize control. As the US calls time on its involvement in the country after 20 years of occupation, Afghanistan finds itself caught again in a rapidly deteriorating conflict in which the Taliban says it has made big territorial gains.
Here’s how the situation is unravelling in the country.
How much territory does Taliban control?
As US and NATO troops clear out of Afghanistan with a peace process that has barely taken off and national forces yet to decisively prove that they can defend the democratic government, Taliban has barely lost any time in launching a bid to expand its hold in the country.
The militants have said they now control 85 percent of Afghan territory although the government in Kabul has rubbished the claim, arguing that national forces are actively resisting the Taliban onslaught and that they are in the process of recapturing lost territories.
However, experts point out how Taliban is just tightening the noose as it targets the major cities and privincial capitals across Afghanistan. The approach is to capture the districts and areas surrounding these provincial capitals so that they can cut off any reinforcements that Kabul tries to send to these centres, experts say.
News agency Reuters said that the Sunni Taliban had seized a key district in Herat province, home to tens of thousands of minority Shi’ite Hazaras while Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan, had also fallen to the militants.
In fact, the Taliban are reported to have quickly taken over areas adjoining five countries, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Pakistan. That puts the militants in a position to cut off supplies and also prevent assistance from reaching the ethnic communities in Afghanistan that can oppose its expansion.
A US defence official did not confirm how much territory Taliban now hold but pointed to grim battles ahead to keep the militants at bay. “Claiming territory or claiming ground doesn’t mean you can sustain that or keep it over time,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby is quoted as having told news outlet CNN.
“And so I think it’s really time for the Afghan forces to get into the field… to defend their country, their people.”
What is the situation with the US withdrawal?
After announcing that US troops would leave the country by 31 August, the Joe Biden administration has moved fast to effect the pull out with the plan being to leave only 650 troops to secure the US embassy in Kabul.
Biden reiterated his commitment last week to get US troops out of the country 20 years after they landed in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Biden believes the US has achieved the objectives of decimating Al-Qaeda and ensuring that the Afghan soil is not used for another attack on America that had seen it invade Afghanistan in the first place and that the task of nation-building should be now left to the Afghan people.
“We achieved those objectives, that’s why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country,” Biden said last week at the White House.
US troops have already emptied out of the Bagram air base, which was a key base for its military operations in Afghanistan. The abandoning of the Bagram air base signified the symbolic end to US’ involvement in the country and Pentagon has said that the withdrawal of American forces is 90 percent complete.
But Biden acknowledged that the troop withdrawal leaves the democratically elected government of Ashraf Ghani in a precarious position. “The likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely,” he said.
Where’s the peace process at?
As Taliban appeared to easily overwhelm Afghan forces, local militias and common citizens have banded together across Afghanistan to bolster the fight against the militants. But experts have doubted whether that would be enough to thwart the militants when reports keep emerging regularly of government troops fleeing the Taliban offensive.
Emboldened by the US troop withdrawal and the lack of strong resistance from the government forces, the Taliban may not see any merit in pursuing the peace process with the elected government, especially when discussions so far have yielded practically no results. However, late last month, a Taliban spokesman insisted that the group was committed to peace talks.
While Taliban and Afghan government talks had begun in September last year in Qatar’s capital Doha, the talks are stuck on basic issues. According to a US government briefing, the two sides “appear to remain far apart on the two key issues that appear to be central to talks, reducing violence and determining the future structure and orientation of the Afghan State”.
While the government in Kabul has brought reforms, including on women’s rights and voting, Taliban have reiterated that they want an “Islamic system” in Afghanistan.
What is the humanitarian crisis?
Amid the worsening conflict, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it is facing difficulties in getting necessary medical supplies into Afghanistan and that some staff had also fled after militants attacked health facilities.
According to WHO, at least 18.4 million people, close to half the population of the country of 38 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 3.1 million children who are staring at acute malnutrition.
“We are concerned about our lack of access to be able to provide essential medicines and supplies and we are concerned about attacks on health care,” Rick Brennan, WHO’s regional emergencies director, told a UN briefing.
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