US officials believe Afghanistan’s government could fall in 90 days, with Kabul isolated in as little as a month, as Joe Biden urged Afghan leaders to “fight for their nation” following rapid advances by the Taliban.
With foreign embassies in Kabul, including the US embassy, discreetly accelerating evacuation planning in the event of the situation worsening, the Taliban’s lightning succession of victories on the battlefield has caught out western capitals that have long sustained the Afghan government.
While western analysts and policymakers were already dubious about the ability of the Afghan security forces to withstand a fully fledged Taliban offensive, many had assumed the government could hold out for at least six months.
Instead, the Afghan government – which the US has backed at a cost of $1tn over 20 years, including providing military training and arms – appears to be collapsing in the face of the Taliban’s offensive.
The Taliban now controls 65% of Afghanistan, senior EU officials say, and the group has taken, or threatened to take, 11 provincial capitals.
US defence and intelligence officials, quoted anonymously in several media outlets on Wednesday, said that the new assessment of how long Kabul could stand was due to the rapid gains the Taliban had made.
“But this is not a foregone conclusion,” one official told Reuters, adding that the Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance.
The dire predictions came as Faizabad, the provincial capital of the northern Badakhshan province, fell hours after the Taliban’s capture on Tuesday of Pul-e-Khumri, capital of the northern province of Baghlan, where Afghan security forces retreated toward the Kelagi desert.
Following the latest catastrophic news from the battlefield, an official suggested that the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, had replaced his army chief of staff.
“Afghan leaders have to come together,” the US president told reporters at the White House on Tuesday night, saying Afghan troops outnumbered the Taliban. “They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
With the reported fall of Faizabad, the Taliban have captured most of the country’s biggest northern cities, with Mazar-i-Sharif and Maymana remaining outside Taliban control. Taliban forces are already attacking Maymana and claim to have entered the city of Gardiz, provincial capital of Paktia province.
The Afghan government and military did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the latest military setbacks.
However, Ghani went on Wednesday to Mazar-i-Sharif to seek the support of two warlords there to push back against the Taliban advance. Hours before he arrived, pictures posted on official government social media accounts showed the notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum boarding a plane in Kabul for Mazar along with a contingent of commandos. “I’m going to [the north] to defeat the enemy,” Dostum said.
The speed and consequence of the collapse of Afghan government forces was underlined reports, initially in the Washington Post, quoting unnamed US officials that raised the spectre of a complete collapse of the Afghan government.
“Everything is moving in the wrong direction,” one source told the paper.
Biden said he did not regret his decision to withdraw troops from the country, noting that Washington had spent more than $1tn over 20 years and lost thousands of troops. He said the US continued to provide significant air support, food, equipment and salaries to Afghan forces.
Ghani said he was seeking help from regional militias with whom he has squabbled for years. He appealed to civilians to defend Afghanistan’s “democratic fabric”.
The loss of Afghanistan’s northern cities is doubly significant, as for years the north was Afghanistan’s most peaceful region, with only a minimal Taliban presence.
The militants’ strategy appears to be to take the north, and border crossings in the north, west and south, then close in on Kabul.
The government’s tactic of withdrawing from hard-to-defend rural districts to focus on holding population centres appears to have backfired as the Taliban has moved quickly to surround cities.
The significance of the capture of Faizabad, however, will not be lost on Afghans, as a city that the Taliban could not capture during their rule in the 1990s when they had control of more than 90% of the country’s territory.
“The city has been surrounded by the Taliban for more than a month,” a senior official in the city said by phone. “In the past week they attacked the city twice. Last night they advanced from four directions and the city fell at 11 pm. They’ve overrun the city and all of Badakhshan province.”
A resident of the city said: “The situation is calm now but there were some clashes during the night. There are not many people on the streets, and many are hiding in their homes.”
Ghulam Bhauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, told Reuters that fighting was taking place in 25 of 34 provinces and 60,000 families had been displaced over the past two months, with most seeking refuge in Kabul.