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Taliban ’emboldened’ by its battlefield success in Afghanistan, U.S. envoy says

The Taliban‘s success in capturing territory and beating back government troops has emboldened the insurgent group as it launches an aggressive urban offensive, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan warned Tuesday, saying that the Afghan security force needs to quickly “find its military bearings” or risk further losses.

Speaking at this year’s virtual Aspen Security Forum, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad argued that there is no military solution to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, which has grown more violent as American troops complete their exit. He urged the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul to come together and form a consensus government, but he acknowledged the clear reality that the Taliban has gained battlefield momentum and subsequent leverage over diplomatic negotiations.

His comments Tuesday came as the Taliban and Afghan government battled for control of key cities across the country, including Lashkar Gah, capital of the strategically vital Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Afghan officials reportedly ordered civilians to leave the city Tuesday ahead of a major military offensive to push back against the Taliban advance.

“The situation is very concerning,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “Right now the government‘s primary focus is to find its military bearings, if you like, after the losses it suffered in recent weeks, and to develop a new military strategy and implement that strategy, believing that without that it’s in too weak a position to pursue a negotiated settlement.”

“And the Talibs have been emboldened by the developments in recent weeks in terms of the gains they have made, and are in a maximalist frame of mind,” he said. “But we believe there is no military solution.”

Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan native, has spent years at the center of U.S.-Afghan foreign policy. Under former President Trump, he served as America’s lead negotiator in historic direct talks with the Taliban. Those talks ultimately produced a February 2020 deal in which the U.S. agreed to withdraw all of its military forces in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.

After taking office in January, President Biden kept Mr. Khalilzad in his post at the State Department. While he delayed the timetable of the U.S. exit, Mr. Biden largely stuck to the deal Mr. Khalilzad struck with the Taliban, and the American withdrawal will be completed by Aug. 31.

But shortly after that withdrawal schedule was announced, the Taliban began an offensive that saw the insurgents overrun government forces across rural Afghanistan, including areas where the rebels had not previously been operating. Now the group has set its sights on provincial capitals and ultimately may mount an attack on the capital, Kabul, where the U.S. will maintain an embassy guarded by hundreds of Marines.

Relations between Washington and Kabul have become strained as the foreign troop withdrawal nears completion and the Taliban score battlefield gains.

“The reason for our current situation is that the [withdrawal] decision was taken abruptly,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in an unusual direct address to the nation’s parliament Monday. Mr. Ghani said he had warned the U.S. the withdrawal would have “consequences” for the nation’s security.

Provincial fighting

The situation for the U.S.-backed Kabul government appears most dire in Lashkar Gah, a city of roughly 200,000 people. Dozens of civilians have already been killed in fierce fighting, United Nations observers said Tuesday, and the government is taking dramatic steps to guard against further loss of innocent life.

“I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses. It is hard for us, too. But if you are displaced for a few days, please forgive us. We are fighting the Taliban wherever they are,” Afghan Army Gen. Sami Sadat said in a message to city residents, according to al Jazeera, urging civilians to flee the area immediately.

Taliban fighters in the city also reportedly seized more than a dozen local TV and radio stations, part of a growing effort by the insurgent group to control the flow of information in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban offensive has gained steam, the U.S. in recent days has carried out airstrikes in a last-ditch effort to stop the advance on key cities. But military observers and analysts stress that such strikes will become much more difficult once the American withdrawal is complete, as it will take much longer and be much more logistically difficult for U.S. commanders to fly in air power from elsewhere in the Middle East.

Critics also point out major ripple effects of the U.S. exit, including the withdrawal of thousands of military contractors who previously helped the Afghan Air Force repair and maintain its own fleet of helicopters and fighter jets.

“We didn’t just withdraw our 3,500 forces,” retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told the Aspen forum. “That resulted in the withdrawal of 8,500 [international] coalition forces who were doing a lot of the train-and-equip missions. … That resulted in, then, the departure of 15,000 contractors who are the critical elements in maintaining and sustaining the Afghan Air Force.”

“That is now really in danger of being un-maintainable,” he said.

Gen. Petraeus added that while he expected the U.S. to eventually regret its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, “I didn’t fear that we would regret it as soon as we are now.”

“This situation is seriously dire,” he added.

In its deal with the U.S., the Taliban promised to engage in good-faith negotiations with the Afghan government with the ultimate aim of forming a coalition government. Both sides still say that’s their goal even as violence grows across the country.

Mr. Khalilzad said that while he hopes the Taliban lives up to the promises they made, the U.S. is taking all necessary precautions. Those precautions include a major security presence for diplomats in Kabul and establishing so-called “over-the-horizon” military capabilities to strike both Taliban targets and radical jihadist groups that could find safe haven in Afghanistan.

“Especially with a group that we have been fighting for 20 years, it is not a question of trust,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “We obviously reached an agreement with them. … But at the same time, given the trust deficit that exists, we are taking measures to be able to secure our interests with appropriate preparations.”

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