What Recent Taliban Advances in Afghanistan Do and Do Not Mean


During the past weeks, the ultra-conservative Islamist Taliban movement has overtaken dozens of districts across Afghanistan in an offensive that coincided with the ongoing withdrawal of all U.S. and allied troops from the Hindu Kush. This stoked fear that the rapid fall of these districts might be the beginning of the end of the current Afghan state. The Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) takes a closer look at the latest developments in Afghanistan, showing that the situation — although it has undoubtedly deteriorated in a more than worrisome extent — is not as apocalyptic as often portrayed and that an imminent state collapse remains unlikely.

Taliban in the district of Khost, in the northern province of Baghlan, one of well over 100 districts that the Taliban have taken over since 1st of May 2021 (screenshot from a video shared by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Twitter on 30th of June 2021 (https://twitter.com/Zabehulah_M33/status/1410158149126995971))

Recent Taliban Advances — An Overview

In hindsight, it arguably all started in the night from 4th to 5th of May, when Taliban fighters took over the district of Burka in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan. Back then, this did not seem extraordinary — the Taliban had, after all, already in the past taken over some districts. However, this time and contrary to previous instances, the fall of Burka was followed by the fall of dozens of other districts across the country, in particular since late May. Specifically, on 3rd of July, Zabihullah Mujahid, the official spokesman of the Taliban told SIGA via WhatsApp that, since 1st of May, the Taliban had taken over 143 of the around 400 districts[1] across Afghanistan. And this appears accurate or not far from the truth — the government seldom contested reports regarding the fall of districts and independent researchers of the renown Afghanistan Analysts Network assessed that, per 29th of June, 127 districts had fallen and the government had only recaptured 10; and since then the government has lost further districts. On 7th of July the Taliban even launched an albeit short-lived and unsuccessful assault on Qala-i Naw, the provincial capital of the northwestern province of Badghis.


While districts fell across Afghanistan, the north of the country was affected especially hard. This is significant as the Taliban, before the toppling of their regime by an U.S.-led intervention in the wake of the terror attacks of 11th of September 2001, had faced the staunchest opposition from constituencies in northern Afghanistan and, even at the height of their power, never managed to bring the most northeastern parts of Afghanistan into submission. As such, the concentration of the Taliban’s recent advances in the north appear to be a deliberate attempt to convey the Taliban’s message that resistance against them is futile.

Map provided by the Afghanistan Analysts Network showing the situation as of 29th of June 2021 (https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/a-quarter-of-afghanistans-districts-fall-to-the-taleban-amid-calls-for-a-second-resistance/)

Of note: since the 29th of June 2021 several more districts fell to the Taliban, most notably almost all districts of the northeastern province of Badakhshan and all districts in the northwestern province of Badghis, where the Taliban also briefly attacked the provincial capital Qala-i Naw.

The Taliban marching through numerous districts seemed also to be timed to coincide with the withdrawal of all U.S. and allied military forces from Afghanistan, arguably to reinforce the Taliban narrative that the Afghan government will swiftly crumble without U.S. and allied troops on the ground at the Hindu Kush. The U.S. and allied withdrawal started in late April and is currently set to be fully completed by late August; however, most troops already left Afghanistan during May and June with the remaining seemingly mostly, if not exclusively concentrated in the capital Kabul.


This situation of well over 100 districts falling to the Taliban is unquestionably dire for the government; however, a closer look reveals that several aspects have to be qualified.

How Much Did the Taliban Take Over and How Did This Happen?

While the outlined Taliban advance is unprecedented, it has to be first pointed out that in a significant number of the districts that fell to the Taliban, the Afghan government’s presence had since long been precarious. Der Spiegel  accurately reported that the Taliban had mostly targeted «‘low-hanging fruit’ — the districts, in which they already controlled the majority of villages and in which the government was only holding the district centre with a few buildings.» This was confirmed by other sources to SIGA and noted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network as well. Accordingly, the Taliban did not all of a sudden take over a third of the country, but rather cemented their already strong positions in areas where the government has had little sway for years. This is not to say that there were no exceptions, as, for example, the fall of Rostaq District in the northern province of Takhar, which used to be dominated by the anti-Taliban Jamiat-i Islami party, or the fall of the districts of Shughnan and Wakhan in the northeastern province of Badakhshan in early July that have not seen any Taliban presence in the past, show.


Furthermore, it is important to note that the Taliban did take over many district centres without much, if any fighting. One example for this was Warduj, a district in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, from which government forces retreated on 2nd of July and which is a known Taliban stronghold. «The order to retreat from Warduj came from Kabul», a soldier of the Afghan National Army’s Territorial Force told SIGA via telephone on 3rd of July; the man had, until the withdrawal from Warduj, been stationed in Chokaron, the administrative centre of said district. «We took all vehicles and weapons with us and left the district without a fight», he further stated, adding that there had been armed skirmishes in the days before the retreat. A high-ranking police officer from Warduj corroborated this; however, according to him, «commanders on the front line decided to withdraw, as the morale of troops was low due to the fall of many districts.» A resident of a village near Chokaron also confirmed that the withdrawal was not forced, describing it as «a trade-off» to whose detail he and other civilians are not privy. Similar things happened in dozens of other districts, as the Afghanistan Analysts Network as well as other not publicly available data seen by SIGA documented. 


That said, in some cases of districts falling without a fight, the Taliban did force such an outcome. For example, on 19th of May, remaining government forces in the centre of Dawlatshah, a district in the eastern province of Laghman, «surrendered without any resistance after negotiations», as The New York Times reported. This was confirmed to SIGA by Mirzo, a man who hails from Dawlatshah but currently lives in Laghman’s capital Mehtar Lam. «The Taliban sent local tribal elders to the remaining government forces in Dawlatshah, telling them that they are under siege and can either surrender or die», he added via telephone. «When government forces ran out of food after days of being besieged, they were eventually forced to surrender. »


However, while some government forces indeed have had little choice but to surrender or retreat, others did so without apparent reason. «Government forces withdrew from Farkhor around midnight [in the night from 3rd to 4th of July] when the Taliban were 10 km away», a man who witnessed the change of control in the centre of Farkhor, a district in the northeastern province Takhar that has historically seen almost no Taliban activity, told SIGA via telephone. «When the Taliban arrived a few hours later in the district centre, I saw that their number was only a fraction of the number of the withdrawing government forces», he added. 


That said, at least in some cases, such incidents were apparently caused by Taliban ruses. «We have recorded instances where a small number of Taliban would talk over open radio lines with each other, pretending that they are hundreds and will soon overrun nearby government positions», an Afghanistan-based analyst who follows the conflict closely via sources on the ground across the country noted. «Soldiers listen to such radio traffic and in some cases believe it, which leads them to surrender or withdraw to a Taliban force that would not have been able to overpower them», the analyst elaborated.


Accordingly, and although the Taliban are unquestionably a force to be reckoned with, they are «not an unstoppable military juggernaut», as Andrew Watkins, Senior Analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, summed it up to SIGA.

Are the Taliban in «Control»?

Another question that receives little attention is to what extent the Taliban actually control newly conquered areas. «Everything is excellent here», a Taliban group commander who has been with the insurgency for about 14 years told SIGA on 28th of June via telephone from Sholgara, a district in the northern province of Balkh which fell to the Taliban on 21st of June. «The mujaheddin who have military positions are on the frontlines, but there is no fighting. And the mujaheddin with civilian positions take care of everything; there is a district governor as well as responsible persons for education and electricity, to name only a few», the man asserted. Mujaheddin means ‘holy warrior’ and is a term the Taliban use to refer to themselves. 


Asked about it, however, the group commander acknowledged that the Taliban «have no checkpoints, no controls» in Sholgara, implying that they apparently actually do very little, if anything at all, in the newly conquered district. The latter was confirmed by two residents of Sholgara who also spoke to SIGA via telephone. «Armed Taliban can be seen on the street and in the bazaar, but they don’t interact with people», one resident said. «When the Taliban took over, they gathered all the people in the bazaar and announced that life shall continue as usual. They also gave out a telephone number that one can call in case of any problems; but that was it», he elaborated. The other resident, a shopkeeper, confirmed that his and other shops indeed remained open but also said that the Taliban had done little in the district. «They announced new Taliban laws, such as that men should not shave and go to the mosque for every prayer, but they so far did not check or have dealings with ordinary people», he explained. 


That the Taliban have at least so far not exerted much, if any, direct physical control or provided any services in newly conquered areas was further confirmed by other sources from other districts to which SIGA also spoke by telephone. Amongst these sources was Bashir Akhundzada, a university lecturer who lives in the administrative centre of Baghlan-i Markazi, a district in the northern province of Baghlan that, after heavy fighting, fell to the Taliban on 21st of June. «The Taliban [in Baghlan-i Markazi] have not provided any public services to the people so far and it remains unclear whether this will change», he said. «When the government was here, corruption was — contrary to now under the Taliban — a problem, but the government was providing some health services, education, and electricity», he explained. 


«On the other hand, security is better under the Taliban. It is quiet and I have not heard a single report that Taliban have harassed civilians», he stated. The same feeling was also voiced by other sources, including the men in Sholgara. Given that the reason for the better security situation in Taliban areas is arguably that the government does not conduct guerrilla attacks in Taliban territories, while the Taliban do this vice versa, it is debatable though whether the Taliban can be credited for the better security in their areas. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch reported that, in other areas, the Taliban have not only harassed people, but forcibly displaced them and even burned their houses.


That said, according to Akhundzada, «people [in Baghlan-i Markazi] now mostly worry about the economy and whether or how they can safeguard their livelihood under the Taliban», echoing common sorrows of people living under the Taliban elsewhere (see for example here and here). «Both systems, the government’s and the Taliban’s, have good things and bad things», he summed everything up.


The above is not to say that the Taliban don’t govern at all. As various reports show, the Taliban nominally have civil servants such as district governors, different commissions, a taxation and judiciary system, and a vice police. «Where the Taliban are controlling territory since considerable time, they have, in fact, established an efficient system. District governors and other Taliban officials can easily be reached via telephone or radio and they decide swiftly on various issues», Rahmatullah Amiri, an Afghan who has conducted extensive research in Taliban areas, told SIGA. «This Taliban governance is very ad hoc with most Taliban officials not having fixed locations or working hours», Amiri acknowledged, «but this is mainly due to the fact that the Taliban want to prevent being targeted by airstrikes or raids; in any event, the system works.» In this regard, previous research by the Afghanistan Analysts Network qualifies though that the Taliban, even in areas that they control since long, «provide barely any services, apart from law courts. Instead, they ‘piggy-back’ on those [services] funded or run by the government and NGOs.» It also has to be noted that credible reports persist that Taliban justice and policing might be swift, but regularly includes harsh corporal punishment even for minor offences and is at times arbitrary (see for one of many examples here).


In any event, while Amiri believes that the Taliban would and could set up such governance in newly conquered areas in case they should hold them, he stated that «the recent Taliban advances were so fast and even for them unexpected that, at the moment, the Taliban don’t have enough men to exert control or establish their type of governance in districts they have just taken.»


Even if the Taliban should eventually expand their governance system to all the overrun areas, some recent examples show that the Taliban seem to be at least at times overwhelmed with certain aspects of governance. For example, much has been made out of the Taliban administering the official border crossing to Tajikistan in Shir Khan Bandar in the northern province of Kunduz and collecting customs since they took it over on 22nd of June. A well-connected merchant from Kunduz told SIGA in a telephone conversation though that Shir Khan Bandar is by far not running as smooth as the Taliban claim. «The border crossing is indeed open and trade continues to some extent. However, while there was a legal and clear order when the government was running Shir Khan Bandar, this is not the case anymore under the Taliban. The Taliban do not have a system and do not know how much specific cargo is worth and how much it should be taxed», he explained. That the Taliban seem to be ill-suited to run a border crossing was corroborated by a video of Taliban rather cluelessly going through the ransacked customs office and, indirectly, by the Afghanistan Analysts Network who cited two journalists from Kunduz city as reporting that the Taliban «had asked employees [of the border crossing] to return to work, but no one had turned up because they were afraid.» In another example, the Taliban have proven unable to regulate the water flow of Dahla Dam, a dam in the southern province of Kandahar that they took over in May. That, in turn, led farmers from several districts who are dependent on irrigation water from the dam to complain and the Taliban to request engineers employed by the government to come, which eventually happened, as was confirmed by an interlocutor with contact to local sources.

Taliban going through the ransacked customs office in Shir Khan Bandar, the official border crossing between the northern Afghan province of Kunduz and Tajikistan (screenshot from a video shared on Twitter by Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary on 26th of June 2021 (https://twitter.com/bsarwary/status/1408744110295597064))

In view of all this, the Taliban’s own claim that their recent advances mark a change from a «military and jihadi» to a «civilian situation» and that everything runs smoothly in newly captured districts are more than questionable. In fact, it is open to debate whether or to what extent the Taliban could, in the foreseeable future, make the major step from an insurgency that was so far confined to rural areas with little infrastructure and a population that, due to their past experience, does not expect much in terms of services, to an entity that would have to govern the whole or most of the country, including parts of the population opposing them and urban centres as well as infrastructure that pose an array of technical and logistical challenges.

Is the Afghan Government on the Verge of Collapse?

Meanwhile, several pundits have assessed that the collapse of the current Afghan government is imminent (see for example here); however, a sober view raises questions about the likelihood of such a scenario at least in the near future. 


Although even high ranking government officials themselves recently mentioned that the «survival (…) and unity of Afghanistan is in danger» and anti-Taliban leaders outside the government have called for a «national mobilisation» of ordinary people to stand up against the Taliban (see for example here), except for the Taliban (and a small local chapter of the self-declared Islamic State) no one has openly threatened to overthrow the government or seems to be in a position to do so. «As long as the promise of U.S. and Western funding continues to flow to the tune of billions of dollars a year, the Afghan state — even just a shell of one — remains the most attractive source of resources for political stakeholders of the [current] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan», Watkins explained in this regard. «Until the situation develops to the point that the political elite truly feel their backs against the wall and begin to operate on the basis of survival, rejecting or turning against the state still seems unlikely», he further added. As such, a state collapse from the political side appears, despite the worrisome continuing disunity amongst Afghan politicians, improbable.


Another factor that some fear could cause the state to collapse is the surrender of large numbers of government forces during the recent Taliban advances. While there is no question that numerous soldiers and policemen have surrendered to the Taliban and that this is a serious issue for the Afghan government, dispassionately looking at figures suggests that the situation is not as critical as Taliban propaganda and some reports imply. 

Afghan government forces lie down their weapons and gear in Darqad, a district in the northeastern province of Takhar (screenshot from a video dated 21st of June 2021 that was shared by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (https://twitter.com/Zabehulah_M33/status/1407029003656048646))

According to a communiqué published by the Taliban, during May 1,533 security forces members and other government employees have joined the Taliban; and during June another about 1,300 soldiers surrendered, as Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, told SIGA. Mujahid also added that, during June about 250 to 300 more were arrested and approximately 100 to 150 killed. This amounts to slightly over 3,000 security forces members during the past two months, which — given experience with Taliban statements — might well be exaggerated. However, even if the Taliban figures are accurate, they show that the number of surrenders, although high and certainly worrisome, remains under 1% of the at least 298,000 Afghan government forces (as this figure cited in an official U.S. report does not include members of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s paramilitary intelligence service whose numerical strength is unknown but significant, the actual number of all government forces must be considerably higher than 298,000). 


As such, these surrenders alone will not lead to a collapse of the security forces. The latter is all the more the case as Afghan government forces have in the past proven to be able to sustain heavy attrition. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the Taliban themselves have, according to not publicly available data seen by SIGA, suffered heavy casualties during their recent advances, notably in retaliatory airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force. However, in the absence of successful counter-operations and a counter-narrative of the Afghan government that has so far done little, if anything to address the current crisis, there is the spectre that such surrenders and low morale could have a spiralling effect and cause panic that would lead to actual mass defections. As the above cited figures suggest that this has not happened so far and as an officer of the Afghan National Army, while openly acknowledging surrenders in Ghazni province, also told SIGA about examples in which government forces refused to surrender despite the impossible odds they faced, the scenario of such a panic seems — at least for the moment — not likely. This was also seen in Qala-i Naw, the provincial capital of Badghis, where government forces, despite the defection of some soldiers and policemen, including high-ranking officers, did not collapse when the Taliban attacked the town on 7th of July.


All in all, there is no question that the unprecedented capture of well over 100 districts by the Taliban is a more than harsh blow for the Afghan government and raises serious concerns for it. However, a closer look also reveals that numerous of the respective districts were either low-hanging fruits with little government presence or rather fell due to disarray on the government side than because of military prowess of the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban seem to exert little control in the newly conquered areas, which qualifies their strength and opens the possibility for government forces to retake lost territory. Even if the latter should not be possible and the Taliban should continue to take over districts or even provincial capitals, this alone would not automatically lead to the complete collapse of the Afghan state — unless current worries should spiral into outright panic amongst government forces and officials. As such, narratives and propaganda will play a crucial role in the days and weeks to come. 


With respect to the latter, it is noteworthy that Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in an interview broadcast on 30th of June stated that the recent Taliban advances do not mean that at least officially still ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and a government-led team of other Afghan stakeholders in Doha, Qatar, should be forgone. To the contrary, he termed these negotiations «effective and good» and said that they have to be continued. However, the Taliban’s actions and statements, all the more after their latest advances, suggest that they at best intend to negotiate the surrender of the Afghan government, not peace. Nevertheless, this indicates that the Taliban still eye to win at the negotiation table and not by taking the whole country by force. This is further corroborated by credible reports and indications that the Taliban continue to deliberately abstain from taking over provincial capitals.


In view of all this, the most likely scenario remains that the U.S. and allied withdrawal might end the war for Western forces, but not for Afghans, with an Afghan government caught on the back foot scrambling to break Taliban momentum on the battlefield and the Taliban trying to capitalise on their vast territorial gains in the military but also political sphere.

Franz J. Marty

[1] The exact number of districts varies from source to source, as sometimes districts are divided into new districts either informally or by presidential decree, and it is, at times, unclear, whether or to what extent such new districts actually exist as separate administrative entities.