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Taliban Advance Marks Turning Point in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s actions in Helmand province could be decisive in the Afghan war.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
An Afghan militia fighter keeps watch at an outpost against Taliban insurgents.
An Afghan militia fighter keeps watch at an outpost against Taliban insurgents at Charkint district in Balkh province, Afghanistan, on July 11. Farshad Usyan/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Taliban close in on a key provincial capital in Afghanistan, Iran-backed forces reportedly carry out another oil tanker attack, and the delta variant reaches Wuhan, China.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Taliban close in on a key provincial capital in Afghanistan, Iran-backed forces reportedly carry out another oil tanker attack, and the delta variant reaches Wuhan, China.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Taliban Close In on Key Provincial Capital

Violence has rippled throughout Afghanistan this week, from the western province of Herat to Kabul, as Taliban forces ramp up attacks in the final month of the U.S. withdrawal. But the fighting in one city in particular, Lashkar Gah, could prove a turning point in the war: The Taliban may be poised to take their first provincial capital in years.

By Tuesday, the Taliban had seized nine of the 10 districts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, once a center of U.S. and British campaigns. As the Taliban advanced, the Afghan army ordered airstrikes supported by U.S. troops. At least 40 civilians were killed in the city over the past day, and residents are fleeing their homes in droves. If Lashkar Gah falls, it would be a devastating setback for the Kabul government, which promised to defend provincial capitals after losing ground to the Taliban in rural areas.

Kandahar in the crosshairs. The fate of other provincial capitals hangs in the balance. Last weekend, the Taliban pushed further into Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and launched rockets at the airport. The Taliban have reached the city gates of Herat, although civilian militias and Afghan troops have fended them off for nearly two weeks. Ismail Khan, a warlord and former governor in Herat, told Lynne O’Donnell that the Taliban “are even more cruel now than they have ever been.”

Meanwhile, a car bomb was set off near the Afghan defense minister’s home in Kabul on Tuesday. The explosion and ensuing gunfire left six dead and at least seven wounded. According to officials, it targeted the defense minister’s home and that of a member of parliament in the Green Zone, one of Kabul’s most secure areas. Despite the rising Taliban attacks, no group took immediate responsibility.

Blinken and Ghani speak out. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned the Taliban’s actions, which he called “deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable” this week. He also said the group will not receive international recognition or support if it “seeks to take the country by force and commits the kind of atrocities that have been reported.”

But Afghan President ​​Ashraf Ghani has blamed the withdrawal of U.S. troops for the worsening violence, telling parliament on Monday that the “hasty” peace process “not only failed to bring peace but created doubt and ambiguity” for the Afghan people. On Tuesday, Blinken spoke with Ghani on the phone to reiterate the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan amid the deadlocked peace talks, and both men condemned the Taliban attacks. 

Worst-case scenario? While analysts feared the U.S. withdrawal would bring an uptick in violence, what has ensued is even worse than many anticipated. “It was inevitable that the Taliban would ramp up offensives after President Biden announced the withdrawal. But what has been surprising is the speed and intensity with which the Taliban have picked up their assaults and ratcheted up the violence,” said FP’s Michael Kugelman.

“This may be an effort to put unprecedented pressure on the government, to force Kabul into negotiations that result in a virtual surrender. Or maybe the Taliban are simply gearing up to try to take power by force. Either way, the violence is completely out of control.” 

What We’re Following Today

Dual Iranian maritime attacks? Iran-backed forces may have captured an oil tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, according to maritime security sources. The target was the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess, heading to an Omani port, and while Britain has said it is “urgently investigating” the seizure, the United States has said it’s too soon to determine what happened. 

Iran has denied any involvement, and the country’s senior armed forces spokesman, Abolfazl Shekarchi, dismissed the reports as “a kind of psychological warfare and setting the stage for new bouts of adventurism.”

The incident came as Iran was accused of carrying out another oil tanker attack off the Omani coast. On Tuesday, Britain, Liberia, and Romania said it was “highly likely” that Iranian drones were to blame for the deaths last Thursday of two crew members aboard an oil tanker in a letter to the United Nations Security Council. The United States and Britain have said they would respond to the attack, which Iran has also denied.

Exiled Belarusian found dead. Ukrainian police have opened a murder investigation after an exiled Belarusian activist was found hanged near his apartment in Kyiv on Tuesday. Vitaly Shishov, who led an organization that helps Belarusians flee the Lukashenko regime, had believed he was being surveilled since he left Belarus last year and said he had been warned of death threats. Ukrainian police said it’s too soon to determine whether Shishov’s death was staged to look like a suicide.

“It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe,” tweeted exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington would monitor the Ukrainian investigation.

Europe plans for vaccine boosters. Britain, France, and Germany are preparing to offer COVID-19 booster shots starting in September amid the rapid spread of the delta variant. Other European countries are considering similar plans. The move is controversial among some global health officials, including at the World Health Organization, who believe it would only deepen the gap between wealthy and poorer nations.

Others consider booster shots to be a means of protecting at-risk populations and preventing variants’ spread. FP’s Laurie Garrett recently argued in favor of boosters—and soon—given what scientists now know about the delta variant. “Anything less means ceding the battlefield to the virus,” she wrote.

Keep an Eye On

Delta reaches Wuhan. China has ordered mass testing for all 11 million residents of Wuhan, where the first coronavirus cases were reported in late 2019, as the contagious delta variant enters the country. Wuhan confirmed three new cases on Monday, the first local COVID-19 cases since May 2020. The cases in Wuhan and nearby cities are connected to delta variant cases in Jiangsu province, which are believed to have come from a passenger on a flight from Russia.

As new reported cases in China reach the hundreds while the delta variant spreads, the government has continued to implement strict lockdown measures. Officials have suspended public transportation and sporting events, implemented quarantines and travel warnings in multiple cities, and upped surveillance and cash incentives to alert the government to individuals potentially infected with COVID-19. 

The Beirut blast, one year on. On Aug. 4, 2020, an explosion at Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people and left parts of the city in ruins. A year later, the country is still reeling from the effects of the blast, citizens continue their search for justice, and the country’s caretaker government has yet another prime minister-designate, after Saad Hariri stepped down in July.

Offers of help from French President Emmanuel Macron, critics say, have been ineffective thus far and potentially harmful. But France has continued to offer assistance to its former colony despite criticism. For the anniversary, France has planned an international aid conference with the U.N. “to respond to the needs of the Lebanese whose situation is deteriorating every day,” according to the foreign ministry.

Odds and Ends

When Macron answered questions on TikTok from vaccine skeptics this week, the social media conversation quickly moved on from COVID-19 to his attire. Perhaps in an effort to appeal to the platform’s young user base, Macron swapped his usual suit and tie for a casual black T-shirt with a white geometric owl logo. Conspiracy theories ensued: Was the owl a nod to the exclusive all-male Bohemian Club, the internet asked? A symbol secretly connoting loneliness? And given that there are two French words for owl, was it a hibou (often associated with death or bad luck) or a chouette (a servant of the Greek goddess Athena, signifying wisdom)?

Regardless, entrepreneurs were quick to capitalize on the intrigue: The “Macron TikTok T-shirt” is now being sold for 19.99 euros (about $24) online. 

Chloe Hadavas is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas

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