FP Newsletter: The Fight for Afghanistan’s cities.

The Fight for Afghanistan’s Cities

As U.S. forces exit Afghanistan, the Taliban are entering its cities. In the last week, insurgents have attacked the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar (Afghanistan’s second largest city), and Herat (its fourth largest). These offensives mark a dramatic escalation—until now, the Taliban were mobilizing around cities but not entering them—and signal a dangerous new phase of the war.

Civilians face the most immediate risk. According to the United Nations, civilian casualties broke new records in the first half of 2021. With Afghan forces and the Taliban fighting in densely populated areas, this toll will rise.

In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, the Taliban have reportedly taken over civilian homes and shot people in the street. But it’s not just the Taliban endangering civilians. Last Saturday, the Afghan Air Force bombed a private hospital in Lashkar Gah due to inaccurate intelligence about the location of insurgents. On Aug. 3, the United Nations reported 40 civilian deaths in the city during a 24-hour period.

The Taliban’s breaching of cities could end a long-standing stalemate. For years, the insurgents have enjoyed clout and control in rural areas, but the Afghan government has maintained control of its cities. The only exceptions were in 2015, when the Taliban briefly seized the northern city of Kunduz, and in 2018, when it nearly took the provincial capital of Farah in western Afghanistan.

The urban offensives also have demographic implications. If the Taliban seize cities, the insurgents would bring an even more sizable share of the population under their control. Given high levels of displacement, it’s difficult to estimate the number of Afghans living under Taliban control—but an overwhelming majority of Afghans live in rural areas, where the Taliban already hold sway.

For years, U.S. airpower played an essential role in helping Afghan soldiers repel Taliban forces from urban areas. This critical support will soon be lost. The Afghan Air Force has strengthened significantly in the last 20 years; it is the only branch of the Afghan military with a capacity advantage over the Taliban. But it’s under strain, and its capacities will diminish without U.S. training and advice.

There are two hopes for holding back the Taliban from taking Afghan cities. First, Washington will keep funding the Afghan military, including its air force. Additionally, in recent weeks there has been a resurgence of anti-Taliban militias capable of pushing back.

These militias have produced mixed results. The Taliban have made major inroads in Lashkar Gah, with residents reporting advances within meters of government facilities. On Monday, the group seized a state-run television station there. But in Herat, the Taliban face significant local resistance, including from militias raised by Ismail Khan, an ex-mujahedeen fighter and longtime warlord. Journalist Lynne O’Donnell interviewed him for Foreign Policy this week.

The fate of Afghanistan’s cities also depends on Taliban strategy. The group gained international legitimacy from the agreement it signed with the United States last year. To maintain that legitimacy, it may eventually pause its urban offensives, pressure the Afghan government to reenter negotiations, and leverage its strong bargaining position to force a settlement that gives it significant power. But if the Taliban conclude legitimacy isn’t all that important, they could intensify urban assaults and try to overthrow the government.

If there is a silver lining, it is the defiance of Afghan city residents against the Taliban. In Herat, people took to the streets on Monday and filled the air with cries of “Allahu akbar” (or “God is great”) to express their solidarity with anti-Taliban forces. Similar cries have echoed in Kabul and beyond. This defiance won’t drive the Taliban out of Afghan cities, but it does give a much-needed boost to exhausted Afghan forces facing what could be many more weeks of urban warfare.