Why the Afghan Military Collapsed So Quickly

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The surrenders seem to be happening as fast as the Taliban can travel.

In the past several days, the Afghan security forces have collapsed in more than 15 cities under the pressure of a Taliban advance that began in May. On Friday, officials confirmed that those included two of the country’s most important provincial capitals: Kandahar and Herat.

The swift offensive has resulted in mass surrenders, captured helicopters and millions of dollars of American-supplied equipment paraded by the Taliban on grainy cellphone videos. In some cities, heavy fighting had been underway for weeks on their outskirts, but the Taliban ultimately overtook their defensive lines and then walked in with little or no resistance.

This implosion comes despite the United States having poured more than $83 billion in weapons, equipment and training into the country’s security forces over two decades.

Building the Afghan security apparatus was one of the key parts of the Obama administration’s strategy as it sought to find a way to hand over security and leave nearly a decade ago. These efforts produced an army modeled in the image of the United States’ military, an Afghan institution that was supposed to outlast the American war.

in an accumulation of losses that started even before President Biden’s announcement that the United States would withdraw by Sept. 11.

It began with individual outposts in rural areas where starving and ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment, slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads, then entire districts. As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totaled around just one-sixth of that, according to U.S. officials — were apparent. These shortfalls can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, an infamous warlord and a former Afghan vice president who has survived the past 40 years of war by cutting deals and switching sides.

On Friday, another prominent Afghan warlord and former governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, who had resisted Taliban attacks in western Afghanistan for weeks and rallied many to his cause to push back the insurgent offensive, surrendered to the insurgents.

the Taliban were breaching the outskirts of the southern city of Lashkar Gah, a hodgepodge group of border force soldiers were holding the line. The police officers who were supposed to be defending the area had long surrendered, retreated or had been paid off by the Taliban, as has occurred in many parts of the country over the past year.

Equipped with rifles and machine guns, some dressed in uniforms, others not, the border soldiers beamed when their stubble-bearded captain, Ezzatullah Tofan, arrived at their shell-racked position, a house abandoned during the fighting.

He always comes to the rescue, one soldier said.

Late last month, as the Taliban pushed into Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, an outpost called their headquarters elsewhere in the city asking for reinforcements. In an audio recording obtained by The New York Times, the senior commander on the other end asked them to stay and fight.

Captain Tofan was bringing reinforcements, he said, and to hold on a little longer. That was around two weeks ago.

By Friday, despite the Afghan military’s tired resistance, repeated flights of reinforcements and even American B-52 bombers overhead, the city was in the hands of the Taliban.

Taimoor Shah and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi contributed from Kabul. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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Taliban Capture Zaranj, an Afghanistan Provincial Capital, in a Symbolic Victory

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban captured a regional hub city in western Afghanistan on Friday, officials said, the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgency since the Biden administration announced the full withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The successful takeover marks a significant milestone in the insurgents’ relentless march to increase their stranglehold on the Afghan government and retake power in the country. The Taliban have besieged a host of such cities for weeks, and the fall of Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz Province on the Afghanistan-Iran border, is the Taliban’s first breakthrough. And it handed the insurgents another crucial international border crossing, the latest in its recent campaign to control road access in Afghanistan.

A regional administrative hub is now completely controlled by the Taliban, an attention-grabbing addition to their steady drumbeat of rural victories in recent months. It was a considerable setback for the government, which has had to contend with simultaneous attacks on capital cities that have stretched military resources desperately thin.

The collapse of Zaranj at the hands of the insurgents was confirmed Friday by Rohgul Khairzad, the deputy governor of Nimruz, and Hajji Baz Mohammad Naser, the head of the provincial council.

coordinated attack by the insurgent group on the residence of the acting defense minister that left eight people dead. That assault highlighted the Taliban’s ability to strike in the heart of the Afghan capital as they continue their sweeping military campaign.

In northern Afghanistan on Friday, the Taliban attacked another provincial capital, Sheberghan, from five directions, burning houses and wedding halls, and assaulting the police headquarters and the prison. There were numerous civilian casualties, said Halima Sadaf Karimi, a member of Parliament from Jowzjan Province, of which Sheberghan is the capital.

Fighting also continued around the major western city of Herat, in Kandahar city in the south and in other provincial capitals.

The government’s response to the insurgents’ recent victories has been piecemeal. Afghan forces have retaken some districts, but both the Afghan Air Force and its commando forces — which have been deployed to hold what territory remains as regular army and police units retreat, surrender or refuse to fight — are exhausted.

In the security forces’ stead, the government has once more looked to local militias to fill the gaps, a move reminiscent of the chaotic and ethnically divided civil war of the 1990s that many Afghans now fear will return.

In recent weeks, the U.S. military has increased airstrikes on Taliban positions around crucial cities in an effort to give Afghan forces on the ground time to regroup. The strikes alone do little to change the situation on the ground, but have slowed Taliban advances.

The United States is supposed to complete its withdrawal by Aug. 31, at which point the Biden administration has said its military operations will end. That would give the Afghan government mere weeks to reconstitute its security forces to defend the cities and territory still under its control.

At a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Deborah Lyons, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Afghanistan, warned that without action, the country could descend “into a situation of catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels in this century.”

Afghanistan, she said, had come to resemble the battlefields of Syria and Sarajevo, with the Taliban making a “strategic decision” to attack urban areas, causing hundreds of deaths among civilians in just the last few weeks. The fighting, she said, comes on top of a punishing drought that has left 18.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

She added: “As one Afghan put it to us recently, ‘We are no longer talking about preserving the progress and the rights we have gained, we are talking about mere survival.’”

Reporting was contributed by Christina Goldbaum, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Michael Schwirtz.

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In One Afghan District, Peace From 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.

PANJWAI, Afghanistan — For a brief moment in a small patch of southern Afghanistan, the war has stopped.

After weeks of negotiations, the mayor of Panjwai, a sizable district in the strategically important Kandahar Province, said a 10-day cease-fire would begin Sunday morning.

There was no formal announcement or major decree, nor was there any involvement from the international community. Instead, the cease-fire in Panjwai was the culmination of a grass-roots movement led by farmers and townspeople exhausted after more than 40 years of war and the recent escalation of fighting in their district.

Their success in brokering the cease-fire offered a clear example of how local communities, driven by despair, have engineered their own ways to stop the fighting — even if it is just for a few hours — as Afghan and Taliban negotiators continue to struggle to find a way forward during peace talks in Qatar.

By Sunday morning, signs of the cease-fire were clearly visible in Panjwai. Barbed wire that usually blocked the road from nearby Kandahar city had been moved aside. Cars no longer had to cross hundreds of yards of sand and gravel before rejoining the pavement. Almost every stall in the district’s bazaar was open.

Nasir Ahmad, 25, said he heard insurgents talking on their radios as he crossed into Taliban-controlled territory for his construction job Sunday morning. The fighting would stop for now, he recalled hearing.

“There is hope,” Mr. Ahmad said.

The cease-fire was arranged by local negotiators, the local police chief and Taliban leaders. But some soldiers and police officers said they had not been informed of its existence, part of a pattern of denial from Afghan forces who have grown dismayed by faltering peace talks.

A local Taliban commander in Panjwai confirmed to The New York Times that the insurgent group had agreed to participate in the cease-fire and to abide by the hours laid out by Haji Mahmood Noor, the mayor of Panjwai. No fighting was to take place between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., primarily so farmers could return to their fields.

The Taliban’s current leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, was born in Panjwai, a district of upward of 80,000 people. Its valley is where the Taliban essentially took root. The cease-fire will undoubtedly help the group continue to hold the territory, which it seized in November, and to win over the population after its fall offensive destroyed the season’s harvest in parts of the province.

Small, unofficial cease-fires in Afghanistan are nothing new. Individual Afghan police outposts frequently cut agreements with the Taliban, and in the past some NATO forces have been known to do so as well. But they are rarely on the scale of the one in Panjwai.

Rumors of a cease-fire in Panjwai had been circulating for weeks as the weather warmed and pitched battles between Taliban and Afghan forces dragged on, local officials and residents said.

Elders and local officials from the Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai districts desperately tracked down Taliban and government officials, pleading for a cease-fire after Taliban offensives cut off thousands of families from their homes and crops.

At first, the Taliban were reluctant to agree with those from Panjwai, local officials said, while the elders were mostly ignored and sidelined by government officials in both Kandahar and Kabul.

“It was not working in the bigger circle, so we tried the smaller circle,” Mr. Noor said. He agreed to act as a go-between for a 12-man negotiating team consisting of local farmers and tribal elders, Panjwai’s police chief and other officials in Kandahar.

In recent weeks in the neighboring district of Zhari, the local government and the Taliban had already agreed to stop fighting so farmers could return to their fields and vineyards in a shaky truce that held for several days, local officials said. The cease-fire in Zhari helped lay the groundwork for the one secured by Mr. Noor and the negotiators in Panjwai.

That the cease-fire in Zhari and Panjwai had to be arranged on a local level spoke to a growing desire for peace in the absence of government oversight.

There are now fewer than 10,000 foreign troops deployed across Afghanistan. This means that Afghan forces, with fewer efforts to advise them, are frequently separated into distinct tribes — Army, police and Special Operations — that often fail to communicate with one another. Under these circumstances, local cease-fires can be used more effectively, and broken just as quickly.

With the war increasingly being guided at the local level, people like Mr. Noor and other district officials have gotten more involved after being pushed by local residents desperate to save orchards and vineyards hit by the recent offensives and in danger of being lost for decades if they are not cultivated.

“In these 10 days of cease-fire, I will water my farms. I will cut the extra branches of grapes, as we haven’t watered them for the last four months because of the fighting,” said Mohammad Hashim, 58, a tribal elder from Panjwai and one of the 12 negotiators who helped implement the cease-fire.

Mr. Hashim sighed and looked at his watch.

“This 10-day cease-fire is like 10 years to me,” he said. “We don’t have a minute to lose.”

The clock began ticking at 8 a.m. The first violation occurred three hours and 27 minutes later.

A small group of Afghan Army commandos positioned on a hill offering commanding views of Taliban-held territory were drinking tea before they cleaned and haphazardly fired a lone 82-millimeter mortar.

One of the soldiers said the group had been targeting a sniper, though they admitted that the last three hours had been mostly quiet. The mortar shell was in the air for what felt like a minute before it hit the ground with a distant crump. The commandos then returned to their tea. Nobody else fired a shot.

Random, unpredictable shelling from Afghan government forces was one of the main drivers of the cease-fire in Panjwai. The errant attacks have frequently hit civilians or farmers in their fields who are mistaken for Taliban fighters. This has turned places like Panjwai into a lottery of death, where people trying to get back to their homes are caught between whistling shells from above and homemade mines and roadside bombs planted by the Taliban from below.

The commandos on the hilltop said they had not heard of the cease-fire and had not agreed to one. Panjwai’s police chief, Second Lt. Juma Gul Ishaqzai, also denied the cease-fire, even though local officials, including the mayor, said he had agreed to it and helped marshal the district’s intelligence head and local army commander into the deal.

“This is a Taliban plan,” Lieutenant Ishaqzai said in an interview.

The wreckage of mangled Humvees and American-supplied pickup trucks littering the parking lot of Mr. Ishaqzai’s headquarters offered one possible explanation for his denial: How could there be a cease-fire when his men were still dying in a never-ending war?

But it was not one of Mr. Ishaqzai’s officers who died Sunday afternoon after the 82-millimeter mortar landed some 3,000 yards to the south of the hilltop outpost in Panjwai.

Mr. Noor, the mayor, said he had received a call later that afternoon from an informant living in the Taliban-held area that had been hit. He said the informant had told him that the mortar killed a man and wounded his brother, both members of a family with links to the Taliban, but he could not tell if they were insurgents themselves.

He said the informant had also told him the Taliban commanders had passed on a message to their fighters after the mortar hit: “Don’t fire back.”

Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting from Panjwai.

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