With the fall of Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities, to the Taliban, the war in the country appears to have entered an irreversible phase. They already seized Ghazni, a strategically important city on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. The speed with which the Islamist insurgents captured the cities — 17 in eight days — is a surprise. Troops from the U.S. and the U.K. are to go back to Afghanistan to evacuate their citizens. The latest U.S. intelligence assessment predicts that Kabul could fall within 90 days. The Afghan government has reportedly offered a power sharing proposal to the Taliban. But neither the offer nor the warning from the U.S. and other countries that they would not recognise a Taliban regime that takes power by force has stopped the militants. In his Id message, Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said the Taliban are on the verge of establishing a “pure Islamic system” in Afghanistan. It is clear from his words and the military campaigns that the Taliban want the whole of Afghanistan under their command. Also, why should they make concessions when their offensives are cutting through the government defences at break-neck speed?
What altered the balance of power in the battlefield was the withdrawal of the U.S.-led international forces. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020 legitimised the jihadists, the American withdrawal gave them a sense of victory. At no point in talks with the Taliban did the U.S. manage to extract concessions towards a political settlement in Afghanistan. The American focus was on taking its troops out unharmed, and the Taliban stayed away from targeting Americans even when they continued an assassination campaign inside the country. On the other side, the U.S. withdrawal has left the Afghan government, internally divided and lacking support in rural areas, devoid of its most critical advantage in the war — air support. Overstretched across the cities that were under siege for weeks, their defences crumbled like a sandcastle when the Taliban pressed on. The government of President Ashraf Ghani has long tried to ignore the former warlords in an attempt to shore up the national army. But when the national forces failed to defend the cities, Mr. Ghani turned to the ethnic leaders, but it is now too late as the Taliban are already at the gates of Kabul. The Taliban, like in the 1990s, promise stability and security. But the tragedy is that if they take Kabul, Afghanistan’s nearly 40 million population would be subjected, once again, to one of the most barbaric forms of religious totalitarianism. Whatever limited progress and freedoms the Afghans earned over the last 20 years are now at risk of being surrendered to a murderous militia with scant regard for human rights.