Fri 17 September 2021

George Fairhurst reports from Kabul where Afghan civilians fear a looming catastrophe as the Taliban gain ground and President Biden leads the retreat from the ‘forever war’

A white blimp flies high above the city of Kabul. Launched by NATO, it hovers above Afghanistan’s capital 24 hours a day, scanning for imminent attacks – a symbol of America’s supervision over the Afghan people and their government. But while the blimp remains, after 20 years of war, America and their allies are swiftly departing. And in their place, Taliban control over the country has surged, civilian casualties are spiking, and there is a grave disruption of the humanitarian system.

During the past few weeks, the US, the UK and NATO partners have been steadily and assuredly withdrawing thousands of their troops. The speed of NATO’s withdrawal is matched by that of the Taliban advance. As of 17 July, it was reported that they control 222 (56%) of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, with 112 (28%) being contested – leaving 18% in control of the government (which include most provincial capitals). 

Mapping Taliban Control of Afghanistan, current position on 29 July. Source: Long War Journal 

Throughout the relentless push of the Taliban, the Afghan Government has idled, which has played into the hands of the Taliban. On paper, the Government’s troops and equipment outmatch that of the Taliban, but this has translated to the mobilisation of a much lesser force on the ground. Statements from civilians and Government sources alike claim that many soldiers have given in peacefully and, in some cases, even defected. This is largely attributed to the low morale of the ANA, who complain of a lack of food and ammunition supply from the government. 

There are also claims that commanders who, following by example of ministers, have fled to the major cities or further afield, abandoning their troops. Such claims are bolstered by a source in the Afghan Ministry of Defence, who stated that he has processed dozens of visas and passports for the families of ministers and high-ranking military personnel, allowing them to evacuate the country. 


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The dissatisfaction with the Government and their apparent self-interest is shared among civilians. It is hard to meet an Afghan who believes that the government works for the interests of the people. When asking about their government, you are met here with claims that “they are looking to line their pockets as quickly as possible before they leave, taking as much as they can with them” and statements of a similar trend.

With the Taliban 50km to the north and 60km to the east, foreign residents and Afghan civilians believe that Kabul will not remain a safe place for long – especially not for those who have cooperated with the American forces. One compound, for instance, was housing 600 guests in April – now there are only around 30. One civilian working in an ex-pat community detailed how he fears for his life as, if people found out he was working with Americans, he would be targeted by the Taliban. He explained how the Taliban had planted a bomb under his neighbour’s car, killing him, because he worked as a security guard at a government building. 

Outside the Major Cities

The greatest risk, however, is for civilians living outside of the major cities. One such victim – a farmer who hit a roadside improvised explosive device (IED), losing his right leg, and receiving severe shrapnel wounds to his chest – explained to me that there had not been an explosive incident in his village for 20 years, but in the last three weeks, there had been three incidents, in which seven people had died. 

This farmer also reported that people are fleeing Logar in their hundreds, coming to the city of Kabul, because of the heightened fighting in the provinces. Similar reports from Bamyan and other districts surrounding Kabul, were easily sourced, with displaced persons citing the conflict as their reason for fleeing their homes. To reach Kabul, however, is no easy feat. Cars and buses must travel across miles of roads contaminated with IEDs, through contested districts where the exchange of fire between the Afghan Army and the Taliban is becoming more intense, posing a major threat of being caught in the crossfire. 

These transportation risks have also had a detrimental impact on the ability of humanitarian organisations to provide care to those who cannot reach the cities. The ICRC, Norwegian People’s Aid, HALO trust, and other organisations, all share a concern that such increased clashes and IED contamination, and the necessity to negotiate with new authorities for access through contested regions has suppressed their ability to provide critical services and supplies to the provinces. These difficulties are augmented by the Taliban’s control of almost all major logistical land borders, and the main source of supply, in and out of the country. 

In addition to the difficulty of travelling by land, transporting supplies and staff is becoming progressively hazardous by air. One source – a pilot, who flies staff and equipment for two of the largest NGOs in the country – claimed that he was receiving an increasing number of no-fly commands, even around major cities, due to the intensified fighting. For instance, in Lashkar Ghar, he reported that the ANA are 500m away from the runway, and the Taliban is 1km away. If a bullet was to hit a fuel tank, he said, it would likely be lethal for pilots and humanitarian staff. He claimed that there are reports of bullets already striking humanitarian planes: luckily none have hit critical points, so far. 

As the international humanitarian system struggles, the government will need to increase their humanitarian capacity – something that they seemingly haven’t done in over a decade. 

  12-year-old child paralysed with a bullet in his spine. Photo: George Fairhurst

Government health facilities remain too poorly equipped to meet the current needs of the Afghan people. They have limited equipment and limited specialist staff. Ministers claim that this is due to a lack of funding, but, when discussing the government system with one of the largest humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan – kept anonymous to avoid animosity with the government – they stated that “to try to make such facilities work would be like to try to move a mountain, due to bureaucracy, limited professionalism, lack of dedication”.

Whatever the reason – a lack of funding or a broken system – with the limited availability of care provided by the government, and the reduced capacity of international humanitarian organisations, the prospect of the rising number of war victims seems bleak.    

As the capacity to provide humanitarian aid decreases, the struggle to care for war victims will be augmented as casualties rise.

Siege Mentality

Intelligence analysts in the country believe the Taliban may hold siege over the major cities, cutting off critical supplies until the government gives in. According to some reports, the Taliban are already enacting this tactic on cities in the north and south of the country.

If this happens, there are fears that places such as Kabul with imploding with crime as people fight over food, medicine, and other resources. Alternatively, the Taliban may try to take the country by force, leading to the onset of a grisly civil war. 

The rise of casualties is not certain. In the best outcome, a peace agreement will be achieved and a ceasefire will be maintained – but with the draconian policies of the Taliban theocracy, it is unlikely they will find a middle ground with the westernised Afghan government. 

Whatever the eventual outcome, ‘the forever war’ – once dubbed ‘the good war’ – is coming to an end, at least for NATO. It seems as though Joe Biden and his allies have come to the same conclusion that Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith gave in an interview in Helmand, 2008: the war cannot be won militarily. With the Taliban on the verge of complete control over the country, it seems that Carleton-Smith’s prediction will come true, though it is a prediction that sharply jars with the claim by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, that the UK may be withdrawing most of its troops from Afghanistan but it was not defeated on the battlefield.

The truth is the war did fail. And what the UK and NATO are leaving behind from this failure is a country on the verge of catastrophe.  And the ones who will suffer the most are the innocent Afghan civilians who, for most, have grown up knowing nothing but war. As one civilian, who has lived through the Soviet invasion, the Taliban rule and now the ‘War on Terror’ put it: “The story of Afghanistan is war, this is just a new chapter”.

George Fairhurst is a researcher for Action on Armed Violence


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