Taliban sweep through northern Afghanistan, forcing government troops to flee across border to Tajikistan

Taliban sweep through northern Afghanistan, forcing government troops to flee across border to Tajikistan
Within days of the last US plane out of Bagram Airbase, the Taliban have swept through the northern provinces, driving government forces over the border into Tajikistan. / WIKI
By Ben Aris in Berlin July 5, 2021

The Taliban launched an assault on the northern regions of Afghanistan against government troops about a week ago and have rapidly captured most of the northern provinces. The government’s resistance appears to have collapsed as more than 500 government soldiers have fled over the border to Tajikistan in the last few days.

Also at the weekend, reports were coming in that the Taliban had moved on to the adjacent border with Uzbekistan and had capture the region surrounding it and possibly the border crossing too.  

The Uzbeks, in anticipation of a flood of refugees and at the US' behest, have erected a tent camp on their side of the border, which is currently still empty, according to reports.  

The violence is flaring up within days of the US pull-out from Afghanistan and as the last plane has left Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, leaving a security power vacuum in the country that the Taliban have rapidly stepped into.  

The locals are not taking the Taliban’s aggression lying down, and there are multiple reports of citizens taking up arms against the Taliban, although for the meantime it appears that the Taliban have the initiative in the northern provinces, which are separated from the capital Kabul and the south by a high mountain range.  

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is provoking a crisis in Central Asia as several of the countries are being affected.  

At the same time, the departing Americans have still been unable to find a location for a foothold in Central Asia from which to observe Afghanistan and possibly provide support to the government they have now abandoned. Talks are ongoing with several Central Asian countries, but caught up in a new Great Game and reluctant to hurt relations with either China or Russia, both of which are major players in the region and reluctant to see the US establish a toehold, none of the ‘Stans have shown much enthusiasm for hosting a US base.  

The fighting is likely to continue as the Taliban consolidate their hold on the northern provinces and move on to the major cities, including Mazar-el-sharif, the northern capital. The worst fears that the US departure could lead to a civil war seem to have come to pass within two days of their departure.  

Taliban sweep through the northern provinces

The situation on the ground is unclear, but there are multiple reports that the Taliban have captured much of the northern region, separated from Kabul and the south by a mountain range. Fighting has been going on for almost two weeks already, but has escalated significantly in the last few days.  

The Taliban launched an offensive in the northern provinces and two six regions in under 24 hours -- Takhar, Kapisa, Balkh, Samangan, Ghazni and Kandahar provinces – local sources told the local broadcaster Ariana News.

“Taliban have reportedly captured Kaldar, which is the district where there is the only crossing from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan. Unclear that the border post itself is captured, although it seems likely,” Peter Leonard, the editor of Eurasianet, said in a tweet, referring to the region where the town of Hairaton is located, the main crossing point between the two countries.   

Kaldar, in Balkh, fell to the Taliban last week but Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) in co-operation with local militia, led by the province’s former governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, regained control of the district on June 29, only to lose it again the next day to the Taliban.

Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said early June 30 the ANDSF had pushed back the Taliban in many areas across the country, but already seven out of 14 districts are under Taliban control in the province by the end of the week, according to Ariana News.  

In addition, the Taliban have also reportedly seized control of Khakrez district in Kandahar Province and heavy clashes are ongoing in Grishk, Garmsir, Marjah, Nad Ali and Nawa districts of Helmand Province, as well as in the provincial capital Lashkhargah.

Regular Afghans have been rallying to the government forces’ flag with reports of local militia taking up arms to defend against the Taliban onslaught. Dozens of women in Ghor Province announced on June 4 they’re taking up arms to join the uprising against the Taliban.

This weekend the government forces' resistance seems to have collapsed. Multiple reports say hundreds of ANDSF soldiers are fleeing over the border into the relative safety of neighbouring Tajikistan.  

On June 21, the Taliban took control of the main border crossing with Tajikistan at Sherkhan Bandar, while the Afghan soldiers defending the border regions appear to have been routed.  

Several hundred Afghan troops have already fled over the border to Tajikistan in the last week, but the number jumped to more than 500 soldiers on June 4 who crossed to the southern Tajik province of Khatlon amid yet another onslaught. The soldiers are said to have fled from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, which is seeking haven in Tajikistan in the last two weeks.

As 94 more Afghan soldiers were forced to escape to Tajikistan on June 4, crossing the border from Afghanistan’s Khwahan district in Badakhshan, the Tajik and Afghan presidents talked by phone the same day about the deteriorating situation along their mutual border, according to the Tajik president’s website.  

The total number of soldiers who have fled to Tajikistan in the last week is up to 545, according to Farangis Najibullah, a journalist with RFE/RL in the region.   

Uzbek border in danger

Now the fighting is spreading to the much shorter Uzbek portion of the border to the west of the Tajik border, where most of the fighting has been so far.  

While the Tajik border is mountainous, porous and thinly guarded, the Uzbek border is shorter in an alluvial plain and so easier to defend. Its easier terrain made it the choice of entry for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Eurasianet interviewees report that the northern territories around the Afghan town of Hairatan on the Uzbek border have been captured by the Taliban, but they have not entered the city yet. Other unconfirmed reports claim the whole province has fallen, including the border crossing.  

Uzbekistan has barred the way for Afghan troops to cross the border, saying it would break international law if they attempted the crossing without approval, and a spokesman for the presidential administration in Tashkent said on June 28 that there have already been several attempts. As bne IntelliNews reported, dozens of troops and government-loyal militia in Afghanistan sought refuge across the border in Uzbekistan on June 23, but were quickly expelled, according to the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.  

The Uzbeks are bracing themselves for a flood of refugees from the expanding civil war in Afghanistan and have set up a tent camp in the southern city of Termez some 18 km from the border to accommodate them, reportedly at the request of the US government. When bne IntelliNews visited the border crossing last year a large trading complex had been built on the Uzbek side where Afghan traders came daily from the city just over the border to buy goods and trade, and relations between the local Afghanis and Uzbeks were warm.  

Since taking office Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has identified Afghanistan as the most serious security threat to his country and has been actively working to bring peace to the country. During his speech to the UN, Mirziyoyev specifically called for the UN to set up an international committee to address Afghanistan’s problem and bring about peace and reformation of the country's economy. Now the country is falling back into chaos before any real progress has been made in providing Afghanistan with some relief.  

Termez-based journalist Abror Kurbanmuradov, who on July 3 visited an area near the Hairaton border outpost, told Eurasianet that he was not permitted to view the tents, but that officials with the security services confirmed the presence of the camp.

“The [State Security Services] officer said the tents had been put up in case of emergency or unexpected developments,” Kurbanmuradov said. “There is no one in the tents yet.”

The appearance of the camp comes while Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov is on a week-long working visit to the United States, where he is understood to have been engaged in talks with officials in Washington on how Tashkent might assist in coping with a fast-evolving security situation in Afghanistan. The visit is scheduled to wrap up on July 4.

According to a Bloomberg report on July 2, the Biden administration has reached out to Uzbekistan, as well as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, to ask if they might temporarily accommodate up to 9,000 Afghans who might face reprisals for working with US military forces. 

Eurasianet report that about 18,000 Afghans have reportedly applied for special immigrant visas, which would entitle them to later claim refugee status if they were to cross into Uzbekistan.  

It is unclear whether the Termez tent facility is intended for those visa applicants or for people fleeing the unrest affecting districts just across the Amu Darya river, formerly known as the Oxus.

Uzbek General Dostum to return to the fray?  

There were report that the ethnic Uzbek general Abdul-Rashid Dostum, who fought the Taliban in the first clash before the US invasion of the country, may return to the fray.  

Highly respected in the northern part of the country where he is based, he famously led the Afghan cavalry made up of ethnic Uzbeks who live in Afghanistan against the Taliban in the 90s.  

Locals are hoping that he will take up arms again in the latest bout of fighting, but there were reports that he has already disappeared. Some reported that he had already joined the fighting but was wounded and evacuated by helicopter to Uzbekistan and then to Turkey.  

The Afghan news agency Pazhvak, however, denied this information, saying that Dostum had left for an official visit to Turkey, where, among other things, he would undergo a routine medical examination. Several times a year he visits Turkey to undergo a similar examination the marshal has serious health problems due to diabetes, according to Pazhvak.  

Other reports in Afghanistan claimed that Dostum would return to his homeland after receiving a shipment of military equipment from the Turkish government to fight the Taliban. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly active in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where he hopes to project Turkish power to become a regional leader. Turkey armed Azerbaijan with military drones, which Baku used to devastating effect in its recent war with Armenia and has now sold to Ukraine.  

US departure

The Taliban assault has been triggered by the US pull-out on June 2 after a two-decade-long occupation of the country.

The quiet departure of the last plane from Bagram Air Base, which is an hour's drive north of Kabul, was just before the US independence day holidays brought an effective end to the longest war in US history.

The Pentagon said the turnover of Bagram to Afghan security forces was a "key milestone" in the withdrawal, but insisted the US military still has the authority to protect Afghan forces.

"Those authorities still exist," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. He did not give a timeline for when they might end, reports Reuters.

The Taliban thanked the US forces for leaving. "We consider this withdrawal a positive step. Afghans can get closer to stability and peace with the full withdrawal of foreign forces," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

In exchange for the US departure, the Taliban promised not to allow international terrorists to operate from Afghan soil. They committed to negotiate with the Afghan government, but talks in the Qatari capital Doha made little progress and the Taliban have refused to declare a ceasefire.