The Taliban has seized two more key cities in Afghanistan, the tenth and eleventh provincial capitals to fall under its control in the past week.
The relentless pace of the insurgents’ advance has taken the withdrawing Western powers by surprise. Today the United States announced it was sending 3000 troops to the international airport in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to evacuate staff from the US embassy.
“We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
“The embassy remains open. We continue our diplomatic work. We will continue to do the priority functions.
“That includes supporting peace, security, assistance, co-operation on counter-terrorism, and consular services.”
The extra 3000 troops add to the 650 who are already in Afghanistan to protect the embassy.
President Joe Biden has set a deadline of August 31 for the US withdrawal to be finished. The latest US intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could fall to the Taliban in 30 to 90 days, much sooner than a previous assessment that it would take at least six months.
The United Kingdom is also sending 600 fresh troops to Afghanistan to help evacuate its citizens. It’s relocating its embassy from the outskirts of the Green Zone to a safer location closer to the centre of Kabul.
Today the Taliban took two more major cities, Ghazni and Herat. It also claimed to have “completely conquered” Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar.
Ghazni in particular is a strategic asset, as it sits on a major highway and is just 150 kilometres southwest of Kabul.
Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Biden insisted he did not regret ordering the withdrawal.
“Look, we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces,” he said.
“Afghan leaders have to come together. They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
It’s a fight they are losing badly.
They illustrate the territory the Taliban has gained since April 13, when the US announced its intention to withdraw by September 11.
Districts controlled by the Taliban are coloured red, contested areas are peach coloured, and districts under the Afghan government’s control are grey.
Speaking to PBS today, the Long War Journal’s editor Bill Rogio said the US had failed to foresee the level of co-ordination and efficiency the Taliban has shown in recent weeks.
“I think this is one of the greatest intelligence failures in decades, certainly in US military history,” Mr Roggio said.
“The Taliban organised this offensive, it planned it, it prepared, it organised, it recruited, it deployed fighters, it pre-positioned war material. All under the nose of the US military, NATO and Afghan intelligence.
“Everyone was caught off guard. Remember that President Biden and his administration, basically it was their estimate that the Afghan government was able to hold out. Now they’re talking, the latest US estimate is that Kabul could fall within 90 days.”
He warned that the Taliban’s resurgence could help al Qaeda plot attacks on the West again.
“The Taliban-al Qaeda alliance is as strong as it ever has been,” said Mr Roggio.
“The Taliban claims with that Doha deal, which really was a deal to get the US to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban claims that they won’t let Afghanistan be used as a base of operations for foreign terrorist groups. But the Taliban made the same promise pre-9/11 and we all saw what happened then.
“The Taliban couldn’t be trusted then. They can’t be trusted today. And you could be certain that al Qaeda will be seeking to leverage its relationship with the Taliban to plot attacks.”
The US committed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, contingent on a guarantee from the Taliban that Afghan soil would not be used by terrorists to plot attacks on the West. Mr Trump called it a “powerful path forward to end the war”.
The former president weighed in on the Taliban’s recent successes today, blaming the situation on his successor.
“If I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal,” Mr Trump said.
“I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable. It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that better than anyone.”
Axios has previously reported on Mr Trump’s phone conversation with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in March of 2020, which was believed to be the first between a US president and a Taliban leader.
Mr Trump claimed he had told Baradar US forces would return to Afghanistan and “hit you harder than you’ve ever been hit before” if the Taliban launched an offensive.
The Taliban disputed this, saying Mr Trump “did not exert pressure nor issue any threats and warnings” during the conversation.
When he left office, Mr Trump was still committed to finishing the US withdrawal by May 1. Mr Biden decided that timeline wasn’t feasible, and pushed it back by several months.
The US withdrawal is also copping criticism from less partisan sources.
Retired US Army General H.R. McMaster, a former White House national security adviser, spoke at an event organised by the Wilson Centre think tank in Washington D.C. today.
“We talked ourselves into defeat in Afghanistan,” Gen McMaster said.
“We are facing the growth, now, of a multigenerational problem with jihadist terrorism, and disengaging from it is not the answer, because it cedes the initiative and resources to our determined, brutal, murderous enemies.
“You still hear the same nonsense, utter nonsense today by leaders – good people who are the heads of humanitarian organisations or international organisations. ‘We just need the international community to come together and communicate to the Taliban how disappointed we are in their actions.’ Are you kidding me?
“Unless we back up what we’re saying, unless we back up our crocodile tears for the Afghan victims with action, it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference.
“Was (Afghanistan) still a violent place? Heck yes. Was it still dependent on international support? Heck yes. But if you want to look at whether or not we were winning back then, look at what’s happening in Afghanistan now.
“Was it worth it, with that relatively small effort, to prevent what’s happening now? I’d say the answer to that has to be: hell yes it was.”