Taliban fighters have Kabul firmly in their sights after the group captured the key city of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest, setting off a chain reaction of defeats for what is left of the beleaguered Western-backed government.
The rapidly accelerating collapse of the central government comes as the US plans to completely end its military support for the country, 20 years after a US-led coalition invaded to remove the Taliban from power. The Taliban’s rapid advance has forced the US, UK and Canada to begin deploying thousands of additional troops to help evacuate their embassies and remaining nationals from an increasingly powerless and isolated Kabul security bubble.
By Friday afternoon, only the key cities of Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar Sharif remained firmly in government hands, with surrenders of government forces in Helmand, Logar, Zabul, Uruzgan, and Ghor Provinces in rapid succession after Thursday’s loss of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold which the groups considers the true capital of Afghanistan.
Government forces are said to hold two bases on the outskirts of Kandahar and Lashkar Gar, Helmand’s capital, but with reinforcements and resupply possibilities limited those outposts could fall at any time.
But perhaps the worst blow for President Ashraf Ghani and his increasingly helpless and isolated central government was Friday’s surrender or defection of veteran warlord Ishmail Khan in the western city of Herat.
Khan’s control over Herat and its lucrative trading outposts on the Iranian border has long made him an indispensable but independent force in the west, as often at odds with Kabul as the Taliban over money. The Taliban announced that Khan had defected and joined their movement – which he had done previously back in the 1990s – and that he would remain in control of the city.
It remains unclear if this is actually the case: An outright arrest of Khan would cause massive problems for the Taliban in-newly conquered Herat. Khan’s reputation as an independent power broker with very tense ties with Kabul might be enough for the Taliban to leave him in some measure of control. For now he appears to be detained and appearing in awkward videos with his captors.
Just two weeks after the final American combat units left Afghanistan, President Joe Biden was forced to announce the return of over 3,000 Marines and other specialised units to help secure the US embassy for evacuation should Kabul begin to fall. The UK and Canada quickly followed suit announcing the deployments of special forces units to the region to help with the evacuation of their embassies and nationals.
On Thursday the US embassy repeated its calls for all US citizens to leave Kabul via commercial flights and offered repatriation loans to any Americans unable to afford a ticket out of the country. India called up on its citizens to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible and asked those still in Afghanistan to register with the embassy. Biden has ordered the complete withdrawal of US military assets before the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks next month. A US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks to remove the Taliban from power for their harbouring of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.