Taliban presses ahead as U.S. troops withdraw Afghan government vows to overcome immediate difficulties

Afghanistan’s national security adviser says the reason behind the Taliban’s recent rapid gains is “teething problems” stemming from the withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces, which the Afghan government is working to overcome.

After an unprecedentedly long military campaign spanning nearly 20 years, President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the war-torn South Asian nation of Afghanistan by Sept. 11. NATO partner nations also subsequently announced the withdrawal of their troops.

The withdrawal, which began May 1, is mostly complete and is expected to end by the end of August. Since the international troop withdrawal began, nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts have fallen to the Taliban insurgency, and Afghan government forces, deprived of critical U.S. air support, have either retreated or simply surrendered.

Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Muhib told reporters in Kabul, “There are some minor errors that come with the withdrawal and the additional pressure on the Afghan Air Force …… These are teething problems that we are overcoming.”

The national security adviser explained that the lack of resources, especially related to the Afghan Air Force, made it difficult for authorities to maintain the delivery of necessary supplies to remote security bases after foreign troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Muhib insisted, “These areas are under pressure and the way the withdrawal is happening, the sequence and timing of its handover is a cause for concern.”

Bagram Airfield

On Friday, the U.S. announced it had withdrawn from Bagram Airfield, its largest military base in Afghanistan, overnight. It came as a surprise to many and has fueled uncertainty and confusion among Afghans who fear war.

The sprawling Bagram Airfield, located about 60 kilometers north of Kabul, is the centerpiece of the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan and has played a key role in direct operations against the Taliban.

U.S. troops allegedly cut power as they left Bagram and withdrew quietly overnight without informing the base’s new Afghan commander. Afghan commanders did not realize they were gone until more than two hours after the U.S. forces left.

But U.S. forces insist that the handover of the base and other such facilities in Afghanistan was carried out in close coordination with the Afghan side.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Muhib denied that pro-government forces had turned back to the Taliban. They may have abandoned their posts because they ran out of ammunition and supplies,” he said. But by no means did anyone defect to the Taliban side.”

Although the Taliban have captured large swaths of territory, the Afghan national security adviser seemed confident that the government side still has public support. He signaled that setbacks on the battlefield are only temporary.

This is war and there is pressure,” he said. There are times when the situation is in our favor and sometimes it’s not.”

Fleeing into Tajikistan

Muhib said Afghan soldiers who fled across the border into Tajikistan in recent days after being attacked by the Taliban “are being sent back” and will rejoin government security forces.

Authorities in neighboring Central Asian country Tajikistan have confirmed that some 1,600 Afghan soldiers from the Afghan battleground province of Badakhshan have taken refuge in Tajikistan over the past two weeks to escape a Taliban offensive.

The development prompted Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon on Monday to order the mobilization of 20,000 reservists to strengthen border defenses along the border with Afghanistan.

Mountainous Badakhshan also shares borders with China and Pakistan. Taliban forces took control of Wakhan district bordering China, the Taliban claimed Tuesday, and the Taliban reportedly brought nearly all of the province’s 28 districts under the insurgents’ control.

In February 2020, under then-President Donald Trump, the U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban that set the stage for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. But U.S.-mediated peace talks between the Taliban insurgency and the Afghan government have now stalled after they began last September.

Muhib insisted Tuesday that Kabul is ready and willing to find a negotiated solution to the conflict with the Taliban, consistent with the wishes of Afghans and the international community, but the Taliban insurgents refuse to do so.

However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, when asked who he thought was responsible for the stalled peace talks, told Voice of America that the Taliban group was “ready and determined to move forward with the peace process, but the other side is not willing to do so.

Washington has said it will continue to provide economic and financial assistance to Afghan security forces. The Biden administration said Sunday that the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan will remain open. A U.S. force will remain to protect the diplomatic mission, officials said.

Fears of refugee crisis

The deteriorating security situation that followed the Taliban’s rapid advance has Afghanistan’s neighbors worried that the unrest could create a new wave of refugees pouring into the countries.

Pakistan still hosts three million Afghan refugees who fled 40 years of war. Pakistani officials say they have tightened border security controls and are at risk of not admitting new refugees.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid was quoted in local media Tuesday as saying, “But if the situation deteriorates, we will set up resettlement points along the borderline and impose strict controls and surveillance to bar refugees from entering the mainland.”