US vows to isolate Taliban if they seize power as militants continue to advance

US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (C) and Qatari counter-terrorism envoy Mutlaq al-Qahtani (R) in Doha on August 10, 2021.
US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (C) and Qatari counter-terrorism envoy Mutlaq al-Qahtani (R) in Doha on August 10, 2021. © Karim Jaafar, AFP

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad brought a warning to the Taliban on Tuesday that any government that comes to power through force in Afghanistan won’t be recognised internationally as a series of provincial capitals fell to the militant group in quick succession.


US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad traveled to Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office, to tell the group that a military takeover of Kabul would guarantee they remain global pariahs.

He and others hope to persuade Taliban leaders to return to peace talks with the Afghan government even as American and NATO forces aim to complete their withdrawal from the country by August 31.

Khalilzad's mission in Qatar is to “help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan”, according to the US State Department.

He plans to “press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan”, it added.

Envoys from Britain, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, the United Nations and the European Union were also due to discuss the situation at the talks in Doha, a source told AFP. 

The insurgents have captured eight out of 34 provincial capitals in the country since August 6. Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan Province – about 200 kilometres north of Kabul – fell to the Taliban on Tuesday as did Farah city, capital of the eponymous province.

"The Taliban are now in the city," Baghlan MP Mamoor Ahmadzai told AFP. "They have raised their flag in the main square and on the governor's office building."

Taliban forces now control 65 percent of Afghan territory and are trying to deprive Kabul of its traditional support from national forces in the north, a senior EU official said on Tuesday. They are now battling the government for control of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province and Kandahar.

Soldiers flee Taliban advance

After a 20-year-long Western military mission and billions of dollars spent training and shoring up Afghan forces, observers are at odds to explain why Afghan forces have collapsed, with soldiers fleeing battle sometimes in the hundreds. The fighting has fallen largely to small groups of elite forces and the Afghan air force.

The success of the Taliban blitz has added urgency to restarting the long-stalled peace talks that could end the fighting and move Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration.

The new pressure from Khalilzad follows condemnations from the international community and a similar warning from the United Nations that a Taliban government that takes power by force would not be recognised. The insurgents have so far refused to return to the negotiating table. 

Meanwhile, the Taliban military chief released an audio message to his fighters on Tuesday, ordering them not to harm Afghan forces and government officials in territories they conquer. The recording was shared on Twitter by the Taliban spokesman in Doha, Mohammad Naim.

In the nearly five-minute audio, Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, also told the insurgents to stay out of the abandoned homes of government and security officials who have fled, to leave marketplaces open and to protect places of business, including banks. 

'It's their country to defend now' 

It was not immediately clear if Taliban fighters on the ground would heed Yaqoob's calls for restraint. Some civilians who have fled Taliban advances have reported that the insurgents imposed repressive restrictions on women and burned down schools. 

There have also been reports of revenge killings in areas where the Taliban have gained control. The insurgents have claimed responsibility for killing a comedian in southern Kandahar, assassinating the government's media chief in Kabul and a bombing that targeted acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, killing eight and wounding several others. The minister was not harmed in the attack.

The intensifying war has driven thousands of people to Kabul, and many are living in parks without adequate access to water and other necessities in the summer heat. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that its staff has treated more than 4,000 Afghans this month in their 15 facilities across the country, including in Helmand and Kandahar, where Afghan and US airstrikes are trying to rein in the Taliban onslaught.

“We are seeing homes destroyed, medical staff and patients put at tremendous risk, and hospitals, electricity and water infrastructure damaged,” Eloi Fillion, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“The use of explosive weaponry in cities is having an indiscriminate impact on the population," Fillion added.

“Many families have no option but to flee in search of a safer place. This must stop.”

The surge in Taliban attacks began in April, when the US and NATO announced they would end their military presence and bring the last of their troops home. The withdrawal is set to be completed by August 31 but the US Central Command has said the pullout is already 95% complete.

After almost 20 years of US-led military operations in the country, the Biden administration emphasised on Monday that it now sees the fight as one for Afghan political and military leaders to win or lose – and offered no sign of stepping up US airstrikes despite the accelerating Taliban gains.

“When we look back, it’s going to come down to leadership and what leadership was demonstrated – or not” by Afghans, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a Pentagon news conference.

“It’s their country to defend now. It’s their struggle.”  

Khalilzad, the architect of the peace deal the Trump administration brokered with the Taliban, was expected to hold talks with key regional players as well as unspecified multilateral organisations to see how to restart talks and halt the Taliban onslaught. 

He will also likely seek a commitment from Afghanistan’s neighbours and other counties in the region not to recognise a Taliban government if it comes to power by force. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, three countries recognised their rule: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Senior Afghan officials have also travelled to Doha, including Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the government's reconciliation council. Pakistan's national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, on Monday called for “reinvigorated” efforts to get all sides in the conflict back to talks, describing a protracted war in Afghanistan as a  “nightmare scenario” for Pakistan.

Yusuf, speaking to foreign journalists in Islamabad, refused to say whether Pakistan, which holds considerable sway over the Taliban, would recognise a Taliban government installed by force, saying instead that Pakistan wants to see an "inclusive" government in Kabul.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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