Cyclist peddles past a mural painted on the wall along a road in Kabul on July 11, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

When the Taliban announced plans to present a written peace plan to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government within a month, the militant group was clearly playing carrot and stick diplomacy.

But the Taliban’s insistence that peace can only come with the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate”, anathema to many Afghans who recall the militant group’s previous harsh rule, means the country’s political future will more likely be decided on the battlefield than the negotiating table.

The militant group that ruled Afghanistan under strict Islamic law from 1996 to 2001 increasingly has the upper hand amid a blitzkrieg that has seized massive amounts of territory in the wake of the United States’ accelerated troop withdrawal.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have captured well over 100 districts in the nation’s strategic north and northwestern regions, an offensive that has allowed the group to expand far beyond its traditional southern geographical strongholds.

The Taliban’s website is now peppered with reports of successfully “overrunning” various northern districts, including recently Badghis, Qadis, Maqur, Ab Kamari, Mayan-e-Sheen, territories it refers to as “war spoils.”

The Taliban’s growing control over the northern region’s vital border crossings is both strategic and symbolic. Not only does it significantly weaken Kabul’s ability to administer the country, it also sends a signal that it is Afghanistan’s leading military force.

In June, the Taliban took control of Imam Sahib, a town in Kunduz province opposite Uzbekistan, giving it control of a key trade route.

Overrunning the north, to be sure, is not a random strategy. Rather, it is part of a broad scheme to present its “peace plan” as a fait accompli to the Ghani government and Afghan people that re-establishes the polity it lost to the US invasion in 2001.

That is, the greater number of districts and provinces the Taliban has under its direct control, the more leverage it will have to push its Islamic peace plan.

As officials in Kabul confirm, the Taliban continue to reject “outright” interim governance proposals advanced by Ghani’s negotiators until new elections can be held. It’s not clear to most observers that the Taliban plans to win power through the ballot box.

The Ghani administration has responded with a threat to launch a major counter-offensive, namely in the north where the Taliban is advancing. But it’s not clear to most observers that Kabul can credibly launch such an operation amid a rash of national troop defections and the absence of US airpower.  

According to recent US intelligence assessments made public in news reports, Kabul does not have the military capacity to withstand Taliban attacks for more than six months.

While Ghani’s threatened counter-offensive may intensify the war, particularly if the country’s traditional warlords come to the government’s aid, it will likely only put off the Taliban’s inevitable takeover of Kabul.

This explains why an ever-growing number of Afghan security officials are defecting to the Taliban, or simply abandoning their positions to avoid fighting the battle-hardened militant group.

On July 6, over 1,000 Afghan troops fled across the border to Tajikistan after the Taliban captured several key districts in Badakhshan province, which borders both Tajikistan and China.

Taliban fighters have taken large swathes of Afghanistan in recent weeks. Photo: AFP / Aref Karimi

While Afghan security forces were able to resist the Taliban under the US and NATO’s security umbrella, including through the potent threat of aerial bombardments of Taliban positions, their weakness as an independent fighting force is quickly showing.  

By deliberately avoiding direct attacks on US and NATO forces and by abiding by select provisions of the 2020 Doha pact forged under the Donald Trump administration, the Taliban have eased the way for foreign forces to withdraw.

“If the Taliban had continued to attack the US-NATO forces, the Joe Biden administration would certainly have faced a lot of pressure to revise its withdrawal plans, or even reject the Doha-pact altogether,” said one security analyst.

“The Taliban made sure not to give the US this opportunity, as they focused their attention on Afghan security forces only.” At the same time, the Taliban has repeatedly declared “victory” over the US as it fills the vacuum left by its departing forces.

While the US could have decided to stay in Afghanistan untila peace agreement was reached between Ghani and the Taliban, its decision to withdraw nonetheless has given the Taliban powerful impetus to push forward militarily while still talking peace.

Its current lightning offensive has sought to fill the US-created vacuum before national forces can adjust both politically and militarily to the new post-withdrawal ground realities.

America’s abrupt night-time departure from Bagram Air Base indicates Afghan forces have not been well-briefed on the particulars and timing of the US withdrawal plan.

Indeed, Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib seemed to acknowledge as much in a media interview while in Moscow for talks when he said government forces “had not expected the Taliban offensive.” 

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban in Afghan warlord and former Mujahideen leader Ismail Khan’s house in Herat on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

The Taliban’s attacks can thus be interpreted as both offensive and pre-emptive. The group not only wants to defeat Kabul but is also projecting to potential challengers, namely the country’s traditional warlords, it is the only force with the manpower and resources to control the whole of Afghanistan.

In a June 23 statement, the Taliban said their recent “resounding” military victories have not only shown that Kabul was and is weak but also that “the Mujahideen have massive public roots.”

“The people of Afghanistan have always stood alongside those who struggled for our Islamic and national values”, the statement said, adding that “these victories would not have been possible without the support of the people. Afghans have a high level of trust and confidence in the Mujahideen.”

The Taliban is thus bidding to equate its battlefield victories with underlying popular legitimacy. And until the militant group is resoundingly repelled, it seems increasingly likely it will be able to present its peace plan as a fait accompli rather than proposal next month in Doha.