The Afghanistan government is collapsing even faster than US military leaders thought possible just a few months ago when President Joe Biden ordered a full withdrawal.
The Taliban seized the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni Thursday, just 150 kilometers from Kabul, in one of the insurgents' most important gains in a lightning offensive that has seen them seize ten provincial capitals in a week.
The interior ministry confirmed the city's fall, which lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway and effectively serves as a gateway between the capital and militant strongholds in the south. "The enemy took control," spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said in a message to media, adding fighting and resistance were still going on.
The government has now effectively lost most of northern and western Afghanistan and now holds a scattered archipelago of contested cities also dangerously at risk of falling to the Taliban.
A new US intelligence assessment has stated that the Afghan government could fall within six months of the American military departing, which is far sooner than the previous intelligence assessment suggested.
What does the latest US intelligence assessment say?
The most recent American military assessment, taking into account the Taliban's latest gains, says Kabul could be under insurgent pressure by September and that the country could fall entirely to Taliban control within a couple of months, according to a defense official who discussed the internal analysis Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
- The latest assessment is that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a couple of months, a US defense official told The Associated Press, who discussed the internal assessment on the condition of anonymity.
- Another US defense official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, said the new assessment of how long Kabul could stand was a result of the Taliban's rapid gains as US-led foreign forces leave." But this is not a foregone conclusion," the official added, saying that the Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance.
- According to Washington Post, the situation in the country is now worse than it was in June when the US intelligence predicted that Kabul could collapse in six to 12 months after the American troop pullout from Afghanistan. "Everything is moving in the wrong direction," a source familiar with the new intelligence assessment told the paper.
- John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the Afghans still have time to save themselves from final defeat. "No potential outcome has to be inevitable, including the fall of Kabul," Kirby told reporters. "It doesn't have to be that way. It depends on what kind of political and military leadership the Afghans can muster to turn this around."
- US president Joe Biden made a similar point a day earlier, telling reporters that US troops had done all they could to assist the Afghans over the past 20 years. "They've got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation," he said.
The United States continues to support the Afghan military with limited airstrikes, but those have not made a strategic difference thus far and are scheduled to end when the US formally ends its role in the war on 31 August. Biden could continue airstrikes beyond that date, but given his firm stance on ending the war, that seems unlikely, reported AP.
"My suspicion, my strong suspicion, is that the 31 August timeline's going to hold," said Carter Malkasian, who advised US military leaders in Afghanistan and Washington.
The US keeps a distance as Afghan forces face Taliban rout
Senior US military officials had cautioned Biden that a full US withdrawal could lead to a Taliban takeover, but the president decided in April that continuing the war was a waste. He said on Tuesday that his decision holds, even amid talk that the Taliban could soon be within reach of Kabul, threatening the security of the US and other foreign diplomats.
Officials said that there had been no decision or order to evacuate American diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan. But one official said it is now time for serious conversations about whether the US military should begin to move assets into the region to be ready if the State Department calls for a sudden evacuation.
Kirby declined to discuss any evacuation planning, but one congressional official said a recent National Security Council meeting had discussed preliminary planning for a potential evacuation of the US Embassy but came to no conclusions.
Any such plan would involve identifying US troops, aircraft and other assets to operate from within Afghanistan or nearby areas. The US already has warships in the region, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and the USS Iwo Jima amphibious ready group with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard.
Military commanders have long warned that it would be a significant challenge for the Afghan military to hold off the Taliban through the end of the year. Shortly after Biden announced his withdrawal decision in early May, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he foresaw "some dramatic, possible bad outcomes" in a worst-case scenario. He held out hope that the government would unify and hold off the Taliban and said the outcome could clarify by the end of the summer.
While the capital of Kabul itself has not been directly threatened in advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the slivers of the country it has left. The government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital, and just a few other cities as thousands displaced by the fighting fled to Kabul and now live in open fields and parks.
Military officials watching the deteriorating situation said that the Taliban hadn't taken steps to threaten Kabul so far. But it isn't clear if the Taliban will wait until it has gained control of the country's bulk before attempting to seize the capital.
Taliban inches closer to Kabul after seizes the strategic city of Ghazni
The loss of the Ghazni will likely pile more pressure on the country's already overstretched airforce, needed to bolster Afghanistan's dispersed security forces, who have increasingly been cut off from reinforcements by road.
In less than a week, the insurgents have seized ten provincial capitals and have encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Fighting was also raging in Kandahar and Lashkar Gar — pro-Taliban heartlands in the south and Herat in the west.
Late Wednesday, the Taliban said they had overrun the heavily fortified jail in Kandahar, saying "hundreds of prisoners were released and taken to safety".
The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters and replenish their ranks. The loss of the prison is a further ominous sign for the country's second city, which has been besieged for weeks by the Taliban.
Kandahar was once the stronghold of the Taliban — whose forces coalesced in the eponymously named province in the early 1990s — and its capture would serve as both a tactical and psychological victory for the militants.