Afghanistan Update: 14 August, 2021

Mazar-i-Sharif, the last government-held city in northern Afghanistan has been captured by Taliban fighters. The capture of Mazar, an anti-Taliban enclave for decades, was the latest catastrophe to befall the Afghan government. The Taliban now controls the majority of Afghanistan and is moving closer to the capital city of Kabul. The speed of the Taliban’s advance has been bolstered by the near-complete collapse of government military forces. The fact that Mazar fell practically without a fight only underscores the present condition of government military and security forces. Along with Mazar, two other smaller cities came under Taliban control today; Asadabad and Sharan. As of this evening the only major cities still being held by the government are Kabul and Jalalabad.

As conditions deteriorate for the Afghan government, Western nations are preparing to evacuate their embassy staffs and other nationals. The US is moving military forces into Kabul right now. There are 1,000+ troops on the ground at present, mostly US Marines. By late next week 3,000 Marines will be on the ground. This afternoon, the White House announced that it will be sending more troops to Afghanistan. A brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division will deploy to the region in the coming days. One battalion from the brigade will fly into Kabul while the other two will stage in Kuwait and serve as reserve force. When all is said and done, US troop numbers are expected to peak at around 5,000.

A Repeat of History On The Horizon For The United States In Afghanistan?

As the US drawdown from Afghanistan speeds up, with 90% already complete according to CENTCOM, the Taliban continues to push Afghan government forces out of many districts. At the same time, Taliban representatives continue to negotiate with government representatives in Doha, Qatar. The languid pace of the peace talks underway provides a striking contrast to the war raging back home, along with a sliver of insight to the Taliban’s present strategy. As the talks go on, Taliban forces are making gains back home. The Doha Peace Process now gives the Taliban cover as it gobbles up additional districts controlled by Afghan government forces. When Kabul protests the increasingly aggressive Taliban military offensives currently taking place, the Taliban representatives in Doha can correctly state that their presence there represents a sincere effort to bring the fighting to a close. The question is, how many nations in the region and around the world are going to buy that argument? And in the process, provide the Taliban with a sheath of legitimacy it could not have dreamed of obtaining one year ago.  

The deterioration of the situation on the ground is raising questions about the Biden Administration’s plan (or lack thereof, as the case may very well be) for the Afghan withdrawal. The administration has been insistent upon all US forces being removed from Afghanistan by 11 September, 2021, not coincidentally the twentieth anniversary of the event that initially brought US forces to Afghanistan. It seems that the pullout will be completed earlier than September, raising the possibility of the Taliban having complete control of the country by the end of the summer. This would be a foreign policy disaster for the administration and have a detrimental effect on US efforts in other parts of the world.

Images of helicopters evacuating the last Americans from the embassy rooftop in Saigon as the city fell in 1975 have been branded into the US foreign policy psyche. Now, as two US aircraft carriers move into position to support the evacuation from Afghanistan, those ghosts from the past are slipping back into the national conscience. The prospect of a similar exit from Kabul in the coming months is now quite real and the Biden administration has to take steps now to make certain to does not become reality.