Panic sweeps Afghanistan as the Taliban surges

The Afghan national army stands guard at a checkpoint on the road near the Bagram airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 3 July 2021. [Getty]
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Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul
12 July, 2021
In-depth: Thousands of families are escaping the Taliban's march across northern Afghanistan, with some government forces fleeing to neighbouring countries as the militants advance.

The Afghan government has suffered a devastating blow in recent weeks as Taliban fighters sweep across the northeast of Afghanistan, taking control of scores of districts.

Sumya's* home district in northeastern Badakhshan was taken over by the Taliban just days after she had travelled to Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul last week.

“Before I left, the situation was fine but there was conflict nearby and I had to pass through Taliban checkpoints to get to and from work,” the accountant told The New Arab.

“It’s very strange, throughout my entire life I have just heard about the Taliban rule. Now, I don’t even know if it’s safe to travel back to my home.”

"Nearly 1,600 Afghan government troops fled across the border into Tajikistan over the last two weeks in a bid to escape the threat of an onslaught in clashes with the Taliban"

Sumya said in her home district she will now have to always wear a burqa and be accompanied by a male relative in public. She is worried she could be targeted because of being an educated woman with a job.

“No one is happy about this. My parents said they will wait and see what happens before they decide what to do,” said Sumya, who confirmed reports of a total lack of fight by government forces.

“Everyone is so angry. There are far less Taliban fighters than there are government troops and the Taliban are people who live in the mountains – government soldiers are trained.”

Sumya is weighing up her options – leaving the country is almost impossible for her but certainly a route she would take if she could.

On Saturday 3 July, a video emerged across social media of panicked government officials and their families boarding a flight as they fled Badakhshan’s provincial city of Faizabad.

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Nearly 1,600 Afghan government troops fled across the border into Tajikistan over the last two weeks in a bid to escape the threat of an onslaught in clashes with the Taliban.

"They did not want to surrender. They had asked for reinforcements but their call was ignored," said Abdul Basir, a soldier with a Badakhshan-based battalion which had members that fled across the border.

But Sumya said their behaviour was shameful.

“I don’t know what type of soldiers they are. How can they do this? They could have fought in their own region,” she said.

Provincial council member Mohib-ul Rahman blamed Taliban successes on the poor morale of troops who are mostly outnumbered and lacking supplies.

On Monday the Tajik government said 20,000 military reservists had been mobilised to reinforce its border with Afghanistan.

Local militia and government forces on the front lines in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan. [TNA/Charlie Faulkner]
Local militia and government forces on the front lines in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan. [TNA/Charlie Faulkner]

Propaganda has played a big role in the conflict. Sumya admits she does not completely disregard the notion that a deal has been reached with the US for the Taliban to take control of rural areas.

“The main purpose of propaganda is to confuse the target audiences to the extent that they get lost. The propagandists want to eliminate the will to resist,” the president of the Afghan Journalist Safety Committee, Najib Sharifi, told The New Arab.

“The Taliban are producing an extensive amount of propaganda. Unfortunately, a lot of it is being launched from Pakistan – you see a lot of Pakistani social media accounts orchestrating or supporting the propaganda of the Taliban.”

With so much information floating across social media and numerous websites, it can be difficult for people to distinguish fact from fiction.

"The Afghan government has suffered a devastating blow in recent weeks as Taliban fighters sweep across the northeast of Afghanistan, taking control of scores of districts"

“Journalists also struggle, especially when the government fails to disseminate information and provide the local media with access and official statements,” said Sharifi.

The narrative that the US and Taliban have done a deal over territory is a common belief in Afghanistan.

“Our troops are confused to the extent they don’t know who’s the enemy and who’s a friend. A lot of soldiers believe this is part of the plan to hand over bases and territory so there’s no point in fighting. It is tactical psychological warfare,” he said.

The Taliban has made significant gains since US President Joe Biden’s announcement in mid-April to withdraw remaining US troops from what he describes as the “forever war” in Afghanistan, declaring September 11 as the final deadline.

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Approximately one-third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan are now controlled by the Taliban. The insurgents have also captured major border towns - Islam Qala near Iran and Torhundi on the border of Turkmenistan.

Most concerning are the advances in the north of the country, which is home to the US-allied warlords who helped defeat the Taliban in 2001.

It is an equally desperate situation over in neighbouring province Takhar, where all districts have fallen to the Taliban except provincial capital Taloqan.

People from there have said they have family who are unable to leave – there are also fears that looting of empty homes will ensue – and the risks are too high for people to return.

Local militia and government forces on the front lines in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan. [TNA/Charlie Faulkner]
A local militia member on the front lines against Taliban advances in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan. [TNA/Charlie Faulkner]

According to locals, the front line is just a few kilometres away from Taloqan. Residents must endure nights filled with the distressing sounds of explosions, rockets and gunfire. People fear the city could fall any day.

Over to the west of Takhar in Balkh’s provincial capital Mazar-e-Sharif, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan have all closed their embassies in the city following a Taliban attack that saw the insurgents attempt to breach the city gate just a few kilometres away from the centre.

Many of the city’s residents have fled to safety in Kabul and neighbouring countries. Officials said educated and wealthy Afghans were the first to escape, whereas poorer members of society have had to stay put, many choosing to take up arms to protect their homes.

Mohammadi Juya, 30, is a governmental worker who has been fighting on a frontline in the north of the city for the last month as part of Abbas Ibrahimzada’s militia – a member of the Afghan parliament known locally as “Abbas Dollar” because of his wealth.

"Educated and wealthy Afghans were the first to escape, whereas poorer members of society have had to stay put, many choosing to take up arms to protect their homes"

“I am here to defend the city and our people. The government cannot defend the city alone, so we are here to help them. Like many others, I’m here voluntarily and I’m not being paid,” said Juya.

An uprising of local fighters has helped bolster the government security force’s efforts in protecting the city and has greatly boosted morale.

Of the 5,000 fighters pledged by political leaders and influential figures across the province, 1,500 have already been deployed to frontline positions together with government forces, according to Balkh governor Mohammad Farhad Azimi.

“We reinforced the security belt of Mazar-e-Sharif. The first belt was with government security forces and the second belt was created by ordinary people, the volunteer fighters. They are ready to defend the city and they are now working under the National Directorate of Security forces to defend the city,” said Azmimi.

*name has been changed to protect identity

Charlie Faulkner is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. She has previously lived and reported from Turkey and Jordan. Her work focuses on migration, economics, conflict, human rights, gender issues, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Charlie_Faulk