Afghanistan’s northern borderlands provide a worrying sign of things to come. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon ordered a mobilization of some 20,000 reserve troops to the border, while Reuters reported the country — the poorest in Central Asia — was considering preparing refugee camps in case of an influx of fleeing Afghan civilians. Tajik authorities have left open border crossings now held by the Taliban on the Afghanistan side, including the major bridge over the Pyanj River at Sher Khan Bandar, which was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2007. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Taliban is already collecting customs revenue at what is the main trade gateway between the two countries.
Since the United States and its NATO allies announced their military withdrawal from the country — a drawdown that may be concluded by late August — the fundamentalist militant group they ousted from Kabul and then continued to fight for 20 years has surged across Afghanistan, particularly through rural areas. The Taliban is believed to control roughly a third of the country’s 421 districts and district centers, and is battling for many more.
Ahmad Javed, a member of Badakhshan’s provincial council, told my colleagues that the “situation is unfortunately not good.” He said that all but one of Badakhshan’s 28 districts have fallen into Taliban control while Faizabad, the provincial capital, is surrounded by the insurgent group. Authorities in Kabul told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that government forces had been taken by surprise but would soon launch a counteroffensive.
Meanwhile, U.S. authorities vacated the vast Bagram air base. For two decades, the base served as the hub for U.S. military operations some 40 miles north of Kabul. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops passed through the huge compound since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. It was also the site of detention facilities where U.S. troops and CIA interrogators tortured prisoners, according to U.S. government reports and investigations by human rights groups.
U.S. officials announced their departure from the base on Friday. On Monday, Afghan authorities took reporters around its facilities. According to Afghan officials briefing the Associated Press, the last remaining U.S. detachments left in the dark of night and did not notify the base’s new Afghan commander of their exit. They allege that looters briefly took advantage of that moment to storm into the base and ransack its barracks. U.S. forces left behind millions of items, large and small, officials told reporters — including thousands of civilian vehicles and hundreds of armored vehicles.
The chaos of the past few months has alarmed observers. Humanitarian organizations warn of a potential new refugee crisis should the conflict deepen. Rights groups fear freedoms and protections for women could be lost in areas where the ultraconservative militants hold sway. Minority communities, in particular the predominantly Shiite Hazaras, are bracing for a vicious backlash from the Taliban.
“Picking up a gun is the last option,” said Abdul Latif, 22, a university student whose younger sister was killed in a deadly bomb attack on a school in a heavily Hazara neighborhood in Kabul, to my colleagues. “We want to get an education, to vote in elections, to abide by the laws. But these terrorists want to carry out genocide against our sect, against our success. If the government can’t protect us and our families, it may be our only option.”
A Taliban capture of heavily fortified Kabul is still a somewhat remote prospect. But regional powers and U.S. officials are counting on a stalled political process between the militants and the Afghan government to stir into life in the coming months. Even as its fighters advanced in parts of the country, Taliban officials indicated they were ready to re-engage in talks.
“The peace talks and process will be accelerated in the coming days … and they are expected to enter an important stage, naturally it will be about peace plans,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told Reuters on Monday.
What those may yield is still in question, with officials in Kabul waiting to see a written proposal from the Taliban for their vision for peace and reconciliation. In the meantime, the security situation appears to be worsening. On Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his concern for the changing battlefield equation in northern Afghanistan and worry that factions linked to the Islamic State were now operating in the area. He blamed the developments in part on “the irresponsible behavior of some officials in Kabul” and “the hasty withdrawal of NATO.”
President Biden is eager to turn the page. During a briefing ahead of July Fourth, he sighed when confronted with a question about the American withdrawal — “I want to talk about happy things, man,” Biden quipped.
“As an Afghan woman, I don’t have that option ‘to talk about happy things,’” tweeted Shaharzad Akbar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in reaction. “I have to worry about a looming gender apartheid.”
“Biden has long been a skeptic of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and he has stuck to that position even as the number of troops and expenditure dedicated to it have drastically shrunk,” noted a Washington Post editorial. “His view has been that the war against the Taliban is unnecessary and unwinnable. But the descent from stalemate to defeat could be steep and grim.”