Taliban forces dramatically stepped up their rapid advance across Afghanistan over the past days, seizing 11 capitals of the country's 34 provinces. First, on Aug. 6, Zaranj, capital of Nimruz province in the southern Taliban heartland, fell to the insurgents. But then they switched the offensive to the north, taking Sheberghan, Jawzjan province; Sar-e-Pul and Kunduz, of their respective eponymous provinces; Taluqan, Takhar province; Aybak, Samangan province; Farah, Farah province; Pul-e-Khumri, Baghlan province; and Faizabad, Badakhshan province. Herat and Ghazni, a strategic southern gateway to the national capital Kabul, were the most recent to fall, on Aug. 12. The northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif is besieged, and India's military is mobilizing an airlift to evacuate the country's nationals there. Kandahar, back in the Taliban's southern heartland, is also the scene of heavy fighting, as is Lashkar Gah, capital of adjoining province of that name.
In Episode 82 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg calls out the Orwellian pronouncements from media and politicians that Biden is "ending the war" in Afghanistan—as the war is actually escalating. This is the same imperial narcissism we heard with the much-hyped US "withdrawal" from Afghanistan in 2014, and the "withdrawal" from Iraq in 2011. In both cases, the war went on—and actually got worse, with the emergence of ISIS and the genocide of the Yazidis. Weinberg recalls with grim vindication that he similarly called out the glib optimism about a US withdrawal from Iraq in CounterVortex commentaries during the occupation 15 years ago. Meanwhile, Hazara women—who face the threat of genocide if the Taliban re-take power—are arming to resist the Taliban advance. The critical task now is to loan what solidarity and visibility we can to such efforts—not to engage in hubristic crowing about the "end of the war." Listen on SoundCloud or via Patreon.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned on July 13 of an "imminent humanitarian crisis" in Afghanistan as mounting conflict gives rise to suffering and displacement. Speaking at a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch raised concerns over the fast deteriorating conditions in the country, with families being forced to flee their homes due to the worsening security situation. An estimated 270,000 people have been newly displaced within Afghanistan since January, bringing the total uprooted population to over 3.5 million.
As the US withdraws and the Taliban advance across large stretches of Afghanistan, women are taking up weapons in local militias to defend their villages. In Ghor province, ethnic Hazara women posed for social-media photos wielding rifles and rocket-launchers, pledging to resist by arms a return to "the dark era of Taliban." With US and NATO forces evacuating Bagram Air Base, prelude to a full withdrawal by Sept. 11, the Taliban are rapidly seizing territory. Since launching a spring offensive, the Taliban have doubled their area of control, and now hold nearly 100 of Afghanistan's 407 districts. In retreat, the central government is calling upon civilians to form militias to fight back.
US warplanes carried out strikes June 28 on Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon said the targets were arms depots in the border area used by the militias Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which have carried out attacks against US personnel in Iraq for years. "The United States took necessary, appropriate and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation—but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. Iraqi militia officials told the Associated Press in Baghdad and the Assad regime's SANA news agency that four militiamen were killed. Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada vowed retaliation: "We will remain the shield defending our beloved nation, and we are fully ready…to respond and take revenge."
Explosions outside a high school in Afghanistan's capital on May 8 killed at least 50 people and wounded dozens more—most of them girls who were leaving class. The Sayed ul-Shuhada school holds classes for boys in the morning and for girls in the afternoon. The attack occurred around 4 PM, as the girls were leaving and the streets were packed with residents preparing for the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The school is in Kabul's western Dasht-e-Barchi district, where many residents are of the Hazara ethnic minority. Almost exactly a year ago, a maternity ward at the district's hospital was attacked, leaving 24 women, children and infants dead.
Afghanistan now has a clearer timeline for when US and international troops will leave, but the questions surrounding what this means for civilians and aid operations in the country remain the same. US President Joe Biden on April 14 confirmed plans to withdraw American forces before Sept. 11—the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the Afghanistan invasion. NATO also said 9,500 international soldiers—including 2,500 US troops—would leave, beginning May 1. But the implications of the pullout are as volatile as they were when Biden's predecessor first inked a peace deal with the Taliban last year. Will the Taliban pursue a decisive military victory or continue with sporadic peace negotiations with the government? How will women and minorities fare? How will this affect local and international aid operations, and the roughly 16 million Afghans—more than 40% of the population—who rely on humanitarian relief? Will there be a future for reconciliation after decades of war? And what about the militias still active in many areas? More than 1,700 civilians were killed or injured in conflict in the first three months of 2021, the UN said the same day as Biden's announcement.
With a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan approaching but a final peace deal stalled, the White House is said to be considering an extension beyond this date for removal of its 2,500 troops remaining in the country. The Washington Post writes that the Biden administration "is likely to postpone a full withdrawal—potentially with Taliban acquiescence—to buy more time to advance a power-sharing proposal they hope can break an impasse in talks between the militants and the Afghan government."