Kabul may be captured by the Taliban within a year as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, but its fall is not inevitable and will depend on a much better-run Afghan defense force, US experts say.
As concerns grow that rebels may regain power in the war-torn country, experts with years of experience in Afghanistan warned that poor leadership, corruption and ethnic divisions in the Afghan security forces offer the Taliban benefits and that much depends on whether President Ashraf Ghani’s troubled government can hold.
Islamist insurgents have taken control of dozens of Afghanistan’s 400 districts since the September deadline for withdrawal was set by Washington, where Ghani is due to meet with US counterpart Joe Biden in the White House on Friday.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that a new U.S. intelligence report estimates the Taliban could gain control of the country’s capital within six to 12 months of the U.S. withdrawal.
– Taliban not unstoppable –
“There really can be no denying the magnitude and speed of the kind of territorial losses the government has suffered,” Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
But “the fall of Kabul is not imminent. The Taliban is not an unstoppable military jugger,” he said.
Most of the districts that the rebels have claimed are “out in the rural areas of the country, which have little strategic or military value. There is no military need for any of the actors to be out there.”
Still, some are on transportation routes and around provincial capitals.
“The Taliban are strengthening their chokehold around larger cities. They will not necessarily try to take these cities in the near future,” Watkins said.
Afghan security forces have lost support from U.S. airstrikes on the Taliban in the past year, and their own air force could be weakened if thousands of U.S. civilian contractors holding Afghan planes fly by September.
Carter Malkasian, a former Pentagon official and now an Afghanistan security expert at the CNA consulting firm, said it was only “remotely possible” for the Taliban to sweep into Kabul in the short term.
He said, however, that such a result is conceivable within a year, as regional capitals are not currently threatened.
“If you see the losses of big cities like Kandahar city or Mazar-i-Sharif, then I would start worrying about the fall of Kabul,” Malkasian said.
– Aim to demoralize –
James Dobbins, the former US Special Representative for Afghanistan and now an expert at Rand Corporation, said he expects the fighting to escalate.
Right now, he said, “the Taliban have certain advantages. But their advantages generally apply in the countryside where their supporters are.”
Cities are more of a challenge for the group than when they came to power in 1996: the country is more populous, urbanized, better educated, better connected and more complicated to manage.
“They do not have many followers in the cities where all the infrastructure is,” he said.
“Kabul is now a city of five million people. That is not what it was the last time the Taliban conquered it. And I think they would have a hard time controlling it.”
Watkins said the Afghan military is doing what it needs to do by shrinking its footprint to focus on defending population centers and major supply arteries.
And a recent overhaul of management could improve its operations.
“The Afghan military needs to demonstrate a strength and resilience that will make the Taliban reconsider its attempt to take over the country by force,” he said.
However, he added: “The territorial losses suffered by the Afghan government will end up having political influence. There is a potential to intimidate everyone, from ordinary Afghan soldiers and policemen … all the way up to the highest political levels. , “said Watkins.
– Gets taken over –
Malkasian said the Taliban are focusing as much on eroding public morale and trust in the government as they are on taking over in the negotiations for a future government.
“Ultimately, what they want to do is not have to fight with beaks and claws to Kabul or to conquer the rest of the country,” he said.
“What they want to see is for the Afghan government to fall apart so that they can step into a vacuum.”
Malkasian insisted that peace talks are important for the rebels to give them credibility if they end up taking power.
“The Taliban are concerned about international recognition. They are concerned about receiving future assistance,” he noted.
sl-pmh / caw