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3 capitals in 3 days: Is the Taliban about to take over Afghanistan?

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The Taliban’s capture of three regional capitals in three days suggests that the group is about to complete its takeover of Afghanistan in the very near future. Zaranj, Sheberghan, and now Kunduz are under its control, with battles raging for several others across the country at this very moment in parallel with negotiations for their peaceful surrender.

The Taliban’s dual military-diplomatic approach has proved extremely fruitful after the Afghan National Army (ANA) lost the US air support upon which it previously depended and consequently its morale. Even the anti-Taliban militias that are reportedly popping up in some parts of the country don’t appear to be powerful enough to reverse the dynamics since they lack any significant foreign support following the Taliban’s establishment of control over the vast majority of Afghanistan’s borders in recent weeks.

Doha talks: the last hope?

The upcoming talks in Doha on 11 August will likely be the last chance that Kabul has to agree to some sort of political solution for ending the kinetic phase of the conflict and thus avoiding the country’s looming humanitarian crisis that many fear might soon engulf the region if the war continues to rage on. The Taliban’s lightning-fast nationwide offensive is choking off Afghanistan’s main cities and making it all but impossible for the ANA to indefinitely retain its hold over them.

Even though many consider the majority of Afghanistan’s urban population as being opposed to the Taliban, they might have little choice but to submit to it under these increasingly difficult circumstances. All that the international community can hope for is that the group keeps its promise to protect minorities and women’s rights upon its probable return to power.

The only scenario in which all of this might be prevented or at least delayed for an uncertain length of time is if an external actor immediately provides much-needed air support to the ANA. The US can only do so much ahead of its impending military withdrawal by the end of the month, and India’s speculative plans in this respect are greatly impeded by geographic factors related to its need to fly around Pakistan through Iran in order to reach Afghanistan.

Even if it ended up doing this, it would be extremely difficult to maintain its air campaign without bases in either Iran or Afghanistan, plus Pakistan would be resolutely opposed to this as would other members of the Extended Troika like Russia which previously advised against any further foreign military interventions in that country.

The clock is ticking fast for Kabul

Time is quickly running out for Kabul and it might have no choice but to politically submit to the Taliban’s upcoming demands in Doha in order to avoid further bloodshed and suffering in the country. If it refuses to do so and no external actor provides urgent air support to the ANA, then it’ll probably only be a matter of weeks before the national capital falls as well, though it’s unlikely to surrender without a very vicious fight considering how many residents there are regarded as being fiercely opposed to the Taliban.

It’s therefore incumbent on the External Troika to do all that they can to convince Kabul to strike a deal with the Taliban no matter how lopsided it might be since the internationally recognized government doesn’t really have any leverage left to renegotiate the terms that might be proposed.

Assuming that everything proceeds along the trajectory of the Taliban completing its return to power through military or political means in the coming future, then the group has the responsibility to abide by its prior promises to cut all ties with international terrorist groups as well as respect minorities’ and women’s rights.

Some suspect that the Taliban wasn’t sincere when it made these commitments but only did so in order to advance its diplomatic aim of cautiously being welcomed into the international community. That same international community would therefore have to impose meaningful costs upon the Taliban for backtracking on those promises if it ultimately ends up doing so, but pressuring the group too much could also be counterproductive if it returns to its old ways out of spite after being severely sanctioned or whatever else.

Taliban setting sights on the International community

Moreover, the Taliban now wields considerable leverage over the international community insofar as it’ll likely become the gatekeeper of February’s agreement to build the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway that’s expected to geostrategically transform the Central Asia-South Asian space. It can always indefinitely delay the project’s implementation and thus undermine the regional stakeholders’ connectivity plans if they pressure it too much on human rights.

Those countries wouldn’t feel comfortable cooperating with the Taliban if it returned to its pro-terrorist ways but might compromise on their values when it comes to minorities and women’s rights, though only if speculatively forthcoming abuses weren’t anything near the level that they reportedly were during the 1990s otherwise they’d lose face amongst their peers for doing so.

What all of this means is that while the kinetic phase of the Afghan War might soon be drawing to a close, the diplomatic one might only be heating up since the post-war situation there remains unclear. It remains to be seen whether Kabul will agree to the Taliban’s peace terms during the upcoming Doha talks or stubbornly hold out until the very end. In addition, nobody knows for sure whether the Taliban is trustworthy, but it’ll truly be put to the test in the event that it returns to power very soon as expected.

The regional stakeholders’ connectivity interests are such that they might compromise on their values out of strategic pragmatism but won’t budge with respect to their anti-terrorist interests since their security concerns take precedence over their economic plans. Ultimately, everything seems to depend on whether the Taliban truly reformed or not.