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13 August 2021updated 23 Feb 2023 4:50pm

Afghanistan is at a perilous tipping point

The speed of the Taliban advance means that the best the Afghan government can hope for is a slightly stronger negotiating position.  

By Freddie Hayward

The Taliban stormed across Afghanistan this week, capturing more than a third of provincial capitals and severely jeopardising the stability of the Afghan government. Islamist fighters are now in control of around 65 per cent of the country capturing the second (Kandahar) and third (Herat) largest cities yesterday as diplomats rush to install a power sharing agreement. The position of the Afghan government is so precarious that a US defence official, citing intelligence, told Reuters on Wednesday 11 August that Taliban fighters could isolate the country’s capital Kabul in 30 days and possibly capture it in 90.

“We’ve crossed the psychological tipping point,” Mike Martin, author of An Intimate War (2014) and visiting fellow at King’s College London told me. “If psychological confidence collapses you can start a domino effect and that’s clearly what’s happened.”

The Taliban’s onslaught began in May after President Joe Biden confirmed that US troops would complete their withdrawal from the country by 11 September. Despite the speed of the Taliban advance, President Biden said on Tuesday 10 August that he did not regret his decision to withdraw and urged Afghan leaders to “fight for their nation”.

Now, with echoes of the evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam conflict in 1975, the US is reportedly sending thousands of troops to secure the partial evacuation of its embassy. Similarly, the UK is sending 600 soldiers to facilitate the removal of British nationals, with the UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, saying soldiers will still leave by the 11 September withdrawal deadline. According to American officials, the US is seeking Taliban reassurance that the group will spare the embassy if it takes power.

There are some signs that the Afghanistan government is attempting to rally itself. Interior minister, General Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, has said that the government’s strategy is to recapture and protect key highways, cities and border crossings. Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani travelled to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday 11 August and held crisis talks with warlords and ethnic leaders as well as agreeing to arm pro-government militia. But the speed of the Taliban advance means that the best the government can hope for is a slightly stronger negotiating position.

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With uncertain prospects of a diplomatic solution, the other factor to watch is regional powers filling the security void left by the Americans. Afghanistan borders Pakistan and Iran – but the proximity of major players such as Russia, China and India makes those nations intensely interested in events. Notably, the Taliban captured the capital of Badakhshan on Wednesday 11 August – a province that juts out from Afghanistan’s north-east and borders China.

Senior leaders of the Taliban met with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi on 28 July in an apparent sign of China’s growing accommodation of the Islamist group. Marking a new era of US disengagement and prefiguring the rise of Chinese regional influence, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state said that China’s possible involvement in Afghanistan could be a “positive thing”. The Chinese government will not welcome a failing state on its doorstep, however, particularly given the Taliban’s historic links with Uyghur militants.

Russia has also taken action in recent weeks. The country’s military concluded exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan only 20km north of Afghanistan on Tuesday 10 August and has reportedly pledged funding for a new outpost in a strategic position on the Tajik-Afghan border.

With the Taliban in the ascendant, US military dominance so swiftly disappearing and the humanitarian crisis growing by the hour, the region looks set to be dramatically reshaped once again.

[See also: Will the US withdrawal from Afghanistan come to haunt Joe Biden’s presidency?]

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