Taliban continue to out-manoeuvre, out-fight and seize control of the military, demographic and territorial space

The Taliban offensive continues inexorably towards a near-inevitable collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as district after district fall to Taliban control. The ANDSF has lost the cohesion of a fighting force and it is up in the air as to how many troops are actually engaged on ground given the surrenders, desertions and significant combat attrition. The last ditch ‘Plan B’ to form up into a defensive bulwark around population centres and along MSRs is a fast fading possibility as day by day the Taliban continue to out-manoeuvre, out-fight and seize control of the military, demographic and territorial space. To some analysts it is no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and how soon. A glance at the map below affords a vivid picture of the ground situation as it stood on 13 July 2021 with 223 districts out a total of 407 under Taliban control.

The emerging Taliban strategy appears to have graduated into the economic dimension in bringing Afghanistan and the people to their knees by seizing vital choke-points at dry ports located along the international borders of the nation. In an orchestrated military offensive, the Taliban plan aims at isolating Afghanistan from the NORTH by capturing the dry port on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan IB at Sher Khan Bandar and then from the WEST by seizing the two strategic dry ports on the Afghanistan-Iran IB at Islam Qala and Torghundi – the ports are the primary import points for liquefied gas and fuel for the country. On 14 July 2021, the Taliban seized the dry port at Spin Boldak on the Afghanistan-Pakistan

IB, reportedly with close air support provided by the Pakistan Air Force. I have heard from colleagues in Kabul of fighters from Punjab (Pakistan) in the ranks of the Taliban – this is a repeat of what we have so often heard and know to be true of Pakistani Army regulars and SSG advisors embedded in the fighting ranks of the Taliban and they have tipped the scales of battle in favour of their Frankenstein. A tweet by Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh (a survivor of numerous Pak-sponsored assassination attempts, he has been called ‘The Last Man Standing” by ORF and ‘…understands the Pakistanis like few other people do, and has a knack for getting under their skin by his no holds barred calling out of Pakistan’s double game in Afghanistan’) is relevant:

“The Pakistan Air Force has issued an official warning to the Afghan Army and Air Force that any move to dislodge the Taliban from Spin Boldak area will be faced and repelled by the Pakistan Air Force,”

It must be noted that Spin Boldak lies on the disputed Durand Line that has been a bone of bitter contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan and, in their convoluted logic, may accord them some locus standi for supporting the Taliban so overtly. This dry port is a vital access point for Afghanistan to the sea ports of Karachi and Gwadar and has always been a major entry point for Taliban fighters, reinforcements, logistic backup and medevac to Taliban fighters within Afghanistan. As I see it, the Taliban and the Pakistanis have left, and will continue to do so, the major dry port at Torkham unmolested and unthreatened. A closure of this dry port will see the deprivation of basic household items like rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar and an escalation of prices in Kabul and the littoral areas. I have personally seen this happening a number of times in my tenure in Afghanistan. Pakistan holds this sword over the head of the Afghan government and this dependence will increase with the closure of other alternative dry ports.

A question that has been doing the rounds more frequently of late – when and where does this all end? I assess that the Taliban will not attempt a classical storming and sacking of Kabul, the nation’s capital. But we can predict a swift capitulation of the capital if and when the Salang Pass and Tunnel (120 KM from Kabul to the NORTH) falls into Taliban control. This is the most strategic MSR in the entire nation and is the only lifeline and two-lane highway connecting two halves of the country – the NORTH and the SOUTH. The fall of Salang would be the closing chapter of this bitter battle and any government in Kabul would find it near impossible to maintain any semblance of legitimate governance.

And if the Taliban do come into power in Afghanistan? Apart from a return to a repressive regime (they are already executing Afghan Army Commandos, pilots and a sworn agenda to put women back to the cave-age), Afghanistan will be a lightning rod attracting virulent VEOs into Afghanistan from Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the 20 odd VEOs (JeM, HQN) on home turf in the Afghan- Pakistan border and tribal regions of FATA. IS (K) and AQIS are as yet a vibrant virulent group that have morphed into organizations with a regional character in recruitment, training, thinking, planning and fighting in terrain and urban centres specific to the sub-continent. And they are all battle tested. With such big-tent brands in Afghanistan, VEOs and fighters will flock to their banner and their agenda of global jihad. The Taliban, who are to date insular in aim and objective with an Afghanistan-centric goal, may not appeal to these hard-core foreign fighters. And Kashmir is a made-to-order conflict arena in the immediate neighbourhood where they may seek to realize an expansion of their global jihad for Islam.

No crystal ball gazing here but, as things stand and all marbles accounted for, bad times are coming…