An Emboldened Taliban Is Capturing A Shocking Chunk Of Afghanistan

The Taliban now controls nearly a tenth of all districts in Afghanistan. With few U.S. troops left in the country, it's poised to capture far more

Oct 22, 2015 at 6:43 PM ET

The Taliban stunned many in the international community last month when it stormed the city of Kunduz, seizing the strategic stronghold from Afghan forces and freeing 500 militants from a local jail. But it was just the latest in a string of victories for the militant group, whose fighters have launched offensives throughout the country.

Emboldened and on the attack, the group that American-led forces ousted from power in 2001 is waging a spectacular comeback in Afghanistan, one that’s embarrassed the U.S. as it seeks to quietly exit the country. And rather than provide a glimmer of opportunity for the future, the turn of events is giving its war-weary people a new reason to flee. The Taliban now controls nearly a tenth of Afghanistan’s 398 regional districts, according to an analysis by the Long War Journal, a website run by national security experts which has tracked the group’s resurgence in recent months.

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It’s poised to capture far more.

“It is certainly on the offensive and certainly has momentum right now,” said Bill Roggio, who edits the Long War Journal and is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  “They’ve capitalized on a weak government and a weak military, one that has the same problems that aided the Taliban’s rise to power in the past.”

Since reportedly torching government offices and looting the Central Bank in Kunduz before withdrawing from the city, the Taliban has continued to upend regions across Afghanistan. Its fighters overran Ghormach along the Turkmenistan border on Sunday. Two days later, they seized Ghoryan in the western province of Farah. Roggio told Vocativ the Taliban has captured at least 13 territories in recent weeks. It has its sights set on another 35 contested districts. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if another five fell in the next week,” said Roggio. “Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they captured an entire province.”

While the Taliban’s recent gains have caught many off guard, its resurgence is more than a year in the making. Local reports of a pushback began to surface in Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold in the south, in the summer of 2014. At the time, the world’s attention was centered on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As ISIS spread its control over swathes of two countries, and a deal over Iran’s nuclear program grabbed headlines, the Taliban began probing vulnerabilities in the northern part of the country near Kunduz.

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The jihadist group has benefited from ongoing setbacks among Afghan security forces, still struggling to independently secure the country despite the years and billions of dollars spent by the U.S. to train them. At the same time, the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces has made areas even more vulnerable to the Taliban, experts say. While President Obama now plans to keep troops on the ground in Afghanistan past his presidency, few believe that the remaining 9,800 soldiers are sufficient to defend strategic areas, let alone beat back the Taliban.

With Afghan security forces weakened and the Taliban on the rise, some, like Roggio, also believe that the country’s decades-long refugee crisis will continue indefinitely. Millions fled the country during the Afghan-Soviet War which ended in 1989. And up until this year, Afghan wars produced more of the world’s refugees than any other country, according to figures compiled by the United Nations.

“Those who can get out will continue to get out,” said Roggio. “Those who are out will stay out. I think the refugee numbers tell you how bad things really are.”