Dispatch

More Provinces, Atrocities for Rampaging Taliban

Six more Afghan provinces fell over the weekend, and Kabul fears the “country will fall apart.”

By , an Australian journalist and author.
Men walk in Zaranj, Afghanistan.
Afghan men walk along a road in Zaranj, Afghanistan, the first provincial capital captured by the Taliban since the start of this year’s offensive, on Aug. 7. AFP/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan—As the Taliban’s white flag of victory flies over more provincial capitals in Afghanistan, people across the country are flooding into the capital to escape the escalating war, straining resources, pushing up prices for food and fuel, and fraying nerves. The clamor to flee the country is growing as borders are closed, choking the outflow of people and inflow of essential supplies.

The insurgents have encircled the country and besieged the cities. They now control most border passes into the landlocked country. Billions of dollars in customs revenues are being lost to the cash-strapped government. More than a million people have been displaced by fighting, and inflation has hit double digits.

Taliban abuses and atrocities in areas they overrun are spreading terror. By Monday, six of the country’s 34 provinces had fallen to the Taliban: Nimroz, Jowzjan, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Kunduz, and Samangan, in that order, since Friday. Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, and the eponymous capitals of Kandahar and Herat provinces are threatened, with insurgents present in all three cities. Social media videos appeared to show the Taliban close to Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province. Government security sources would only confirm the fall of Zaranj, capital of Nimroz, saying fighting is ongoing elsewhere.

KABUL, Afghanistan—As the Taliban’s white flag of victory flies over more provincial capitals in Afghanistan, people across the country are flooding into the capital to escape the escalating war, straining resources, pushing up prices for food and fuel, and fraying nerves. The clamor to flee the country is growing as borders are closed, choking the outflow of people and inflow of essential supplies.

The insurgents have encircled the country and besieged the cities. They now control most border passes into the landlocked country. Billions of dollars in customs revenues are being lost to the cash-strapped government. More than a million people have been displaced by fighting, and inflation has hit double digits.

Taliban abuses and atrocities in areas they overrun are spreading terror. By Monday, six of the country’s 34 provinces had fallen to the Taliban: Nimroz, Jowzjan, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Kunduz, and Samangan, in that order, since Friday. Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, and the eponymous capitals of Kandahar and Herat provinces are threatened, with insurgents present in all three cities. Social media videos appeared to show the Taliban close to Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province. Government security sources would only confirm the fall of Zaranj, capital of Nimroz, saying fighting is ongoing elsewhere.

Many inside and outside Afghanistan blame the Biden administration for the current catastrophe as the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, mandated in the bilateral deal that former U.S. President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban in 2020, is all but complete. As an interim measure, U.S. air support against Taliban positions around major cities has intensified in recent days, and U.S. President Joe Biden has promised more.

But the problem lies closer to home. U.S. and NATO combat missions ended in 2014, leaving the bulk of fighting to Afghan forces for more than five years before Trump’s so-called peace deal was concluded. The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did little to prepare, leaving ground forces without leadership, strategy, or even supplies as the Taliban became increasingly emboldened. 

“I’d like to believe it has been a stress test for the government—one that they have certainly failed so far,” said a source in the domestic charity sector who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak with the media. With its back to the wall, the source expects the government to find new mettle. “We will see a turnaround from this point, and the government will finally have learned that it can’t keep its hand out and its head in the sand forever.”

One immediate result of the Taliban onslaught is a massive internal exodus. From April through early June, more than 158,000 families in two dozen provinces had been displaced by fighting, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. With each family averaging six members, the estimate number of displaced people in just three months is now more than 950,000 people, said Shaharzad Akbar, the head of the commission.

In a presentation to an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, she described the first half of this year as the bloodiest for Afghan civilians since 2009, with 1,677 civilians, including women and children, killed and 3,644 civilians injured. “If the current rates of violence continue, I am heartbroken to note that there might be a grim new record of civilian harm by the end of this year,” she said.

Most seem to be fleeing toward the already-overcrowded capital, Kabul, although it’s impossible to know just how many are flooding a city built for 500,000 people that now houses an estimated 7 million people. 

“The situation is already pretty dire. People are moving into Kabul day and night from Mazar, Helmand, Sheberghan, from all over the country. Unless there is a cease-fire soon, we will continue to see these scenes,” Akbar told Foreign Policy.

The capital’s population could swell by another 3 million people in coming months, said Qais Mohammadi, a lecturer in economics at Kardan University, with the likelihood of civil unrest as people protest the lack of services like electricity. Inflation is running at 10 to 20 percent, he said; gasoline prices have nearly doubled since May, cooking oil is up 25 percent, and the price of wheat has jumped by one-third in the last month. Rents, too, are reportedly rising as population influx impacts demand.

“The economic situation will get worse. Prices have increased more than 30 percent. But it is not measurable in the conflict zones,” he said. “Supply is difficult, and anything available is selling at extremely high prices so the seller can also get out.”

Economic hardships are compounded by a return to the worst of Taliban atrocities from the 1990s. The Taliban have resumed their campaign of targeted killings, with the assassination on Friday of Dawa Khan Manipal, a former journalist, presidential spokesperson, and head of the government’s media and information center. Almost 100 journalists from across the country are in safe houses in Kabul, according to media advocates, having fled the provinces under threat of death

Many families are sending women and girls to the capital out of fear of Taliban atrocities following reports from across the country that women are being rounded up for forced marriageeffectively, sex slavery—to Taliban fighters. As the assault on the Nimroz capital of Zaranj intensified on Thursday, photos and videos circulated of Taliban battlefield atrocities, including captured soldiers tortured and bodies mutilated as well as reports of rapes, kidnappings, and summary executions in many battle zones. 

And the Taliban are returning to the extremist version of Islam they espoused during their rule over the country in the 1990s. One Afghan researcher who recently visited districts under Taliban control in Herat province, speaking on condition of anonymity, said women are being forced to remain in their homes and described the insurgents’ practice of turning up in large numbers demanding to be fed. People who resisted were shot, she said.

A letter circulating in Herat, seen by Foreign Policy, lists activities banned by the Taliban, echoing their extremist regime of 1996 to 2001. Some of these include girls banned from school, women confined to their homes and forced to wear a full hijab, and boys forced to learn rote recitation of the Quran. Other banned activities include consumption of drugs and alcohol, dog fighting, and women leaving their houses without a male relative.

Hazaras, a Shiite minority widely discriminated against, feel especially vulnerable. One community source in Kabul said the city’s estimated 2 million Hazaras were starting to arm themselves, and he predicted large militias would soon patrol western Kabul, where they are concentrated. Across the country, militias have sprung up to fight alongside security forces, raising concerns the scene is being set for a civil war.

As the chaos spreads, the U.S. and British governments have told their citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately. Those public warnings, at a time when visas to emigrate are increasingly hard to get, only exacerbate public panic, Mohammadi said.

“The borders to Pakistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan are closed. India is giving only medical visas. Visas to Turkey take a long time to process. Diplomatic missions are broadcasting to their citizens that they should immediately leave. This gives a last blow to the crisis—people believe the country will fall apart,” he said.

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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