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Taliban gains Afghan territory, may seek ‘complete return to power’ amid US withdrawal

The U.S. military will soon complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. But the Afghan government is under constant attack from the Taliban and is struggling to hold onto its territory. This past weekend saw some of the militants' largest gains yet. Nick Schifrin and Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank, explain.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. will soon complete its withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, after 20 years of fighting.

    But the Afghan government is under constant attack from the Taliban and is struggling to hold onto its territory. This past weekend saw some of the militants' largest gains yet.

    Nick Schifrin explains.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's a saying often attributed to the Taliban: The U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban have the time. And now that the U.S.' time is up, the Taliban are expanding their offensive.

    Since the U.S. announced its withdrawal nine weeks ago, a senior Afghan official tells "PBS NewsHour" the Taliban have seized 40 districts all over the country. In total, the Taliban control more than 120 districts, and are fighting over an additional 180 districts.

    And, this weekend, Taliban fighters moved to the edge of provincial capitals Maimana and Faryab in Kunduz City. The Taliban haven't breached Kunduz City's outer security ring, but their presence breached residents' sense of security.

    Abdul Rahim is going to flee.

  • Abdul Rahim, Afghanistan (through translator):

    The situation in Kunduz is very bad, it is insecure, and there are so many wounded victims in the hospital. I am going to get my family out of there and go somewhere where it is safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Throughout the country, districts have fallen without a fight. This morning, the Taliban posted online a propaganda video of Afghan soldiers who surrendered. A Taliban commander hands out the equivalent of $60 for each soldier to go home.

    Afghan troops face horrific casualties. Earlier this month, in one 24-hour span, 150 were killed or wounded. The Afghan government tried to consolidate them to defend key districts, but they're struggling to hold their ground, especially since the Afghan air force is losing the U.S. contractors who usually maintain their helicopters.

    That U.S. withdrawal is more than halfway done. U.S. military officials tell "PBS NewsHour" the full withdrawal is planned for early July.

    But the administration is still discussing how many troops to keep in the region and how to continue training Afghan soldiers and servicing Afghan equipment. For the U.S., the focus is international terrorism.

    Last week, the military's top officials warned that al-Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan could threaten the U.S. within two years.

  • Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs Of Staff:

    If certain other things happen, if there was a collapse of the government or dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that risk would obviously increase.

    But, right now, I'd say medium in about two years or so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said he does not anticipate a repeat of the moment the last American left Vietnam, during questioning from New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    I don't see Saigon 1975 in Afghanistan.

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH):

    Good. I appreciate that.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    The Taliban are not the North Vietnamese army.

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:

    And I hope that's correct.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    Yes, the Taliban just aren't the north Vietnamese army.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Afghan officials say Afghan forces are trying their best to hold on. And across the country, citizen Afghans are taking up arms.

    But the last time the Taliban seized Kunduz City, Afghan and U.S. Special Forces seized it back. Afghan officials know, this time, there will be no American cavalry to the rescue.

    And to discuss the state of Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal, I'm joined by Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia at the think tank the U.S. Institute of Peace. He just returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he met a range of leaders in government and civil society.

    Scott Worden, good to see you again. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's look at what happened this weekend. What do these attacks on provincial capitals say to you about security in the country?

  • Scott Worden:

    U.S. Institute of Peace: Well, it shows that security is deteriorating. And that's what we heard from talking to Afghans in Kabul.

    The momentum of the Taliban has shifted. And, unfortunately, there's also a psychological boost that they are getting from the fact of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. And they're looking forward to the date when there are no foreign forces in the country, and they think that will give them a military advantage.

    So, I think that they have been strategically attacking districts to encircle key provincial centers. And they're continuing that momentum into Maimana, into Kunduz.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And how alarmed are people in Kabul when you talk to them?

  • Scott Worden:

    There's a strong sense of alarm.

    People are surprised by how much territory the Taliban have gained. And they are also, frankly, surprised that the U.S. was serious about its timeline in the February 29 agreement with the Taliban from last year, saying that we would leave, and we would leave soon. I think that was not expected to come to fruition.

    And people are really reconsidering their options.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you have a sense, when talking to people, that the Taliban believe they can win or try to win without going to the negotiating table?

    And does that mean that the Taliban is military wing really is in charge, much more than any negotiator has been?

  • Scott Worden:

    Well, I think that's the case.

    We did hear from people that are in contact with the Taliban that are tracking their deliberations and their strategies that the military wing has an upper hand within the movement. And they're saying, look at how much momentum we have. We should pursue a military strategy.

    Now, there is, I'm sure, an internal debate about what is the best way forward to achieve the Taliban's objectives. But, certainly, on the ground, people do not think that the Taliban have an incentive to negotiate right now.

    They also question whether the Taliban have been negotiating in good faith in Doha throughout. Of course, the Taliban have not laid out any clear vision for how they would govern Afghanistan and how they would protect rights or how they would conduct governance. So, there's a lot of skepticism amongst a range of Afghans that the Taliban want anything other than a complete return to power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We have talked about the military momentum that the Taliban have seized by encircling these provincial capitals and districts that we have talked about, and you pointed out, crucially, also a psychological momentum.

    That gentleman you heard from, Kunduz City, he wanted out, even if the Taliban actually hadn't gotten into the city yet. How can that momentum, both military and psychologically, be stopped?

  • Scott Worden:

    Well, I think there are a few things we need to happen. And the announcement that there would be a visit by President Ghani and by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of High Council on National Reconciliation to Washington, is a key step to show that the U.S. still supports the government, it still supports the state, and it does not support a Taliban takeover.

    Just because troops are leaving, that is a significant consequence to the Afghan security forces' readiness. But, at the same time, we are continuing assistance, military assistance, and economic assistance. So I think continued engagement and support for the Afghan government from the U.S. is key, also from the U.S. allies, and even from the region, because one thing that neither Iran nor Pakistan nor China nor Russia want is a Taliban takeover, or, worse, the bloody civil war.

    So I think there are strong interests among diverse powers that say the negotiating table is the ways to decide the future, not the battlefield.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And zooming into one problem the U.S. is trying to solve right now, as we mentioned before, its contractors who service Afghan pilots, Afghan helicopters.

    How important is it that the U.S. figure out how to keep those contractors in the country?

  • Scott Worden:

    Well, we heard that contractor support is crucial.

    The U.S. and the Afghan security forces had integrated operations in terms of supplies, training, planning. And removing the troops and removing the contractors interrupts that integrated planning structure.

    And so finding a replacement for American contractors, making sure that U.S. funds can be paid to foreigners to maintain equipment is essential for readiness, and, in particular, for the Afghan air force, because the main advantage the Afghan security forces have over the Taliban is airpower. So, if you can't maintain that, that advantage goes away.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Scott, in the minute or so I have left, as you know, Afghan officials who you speak to, who I speak to are withering about some of these recent decisions by both the Trump administration and the Biden administration.

    But do you also think that the Afghan government needs to provide more unity and stronger leadership?

  • Scott Worden:


    While the U.S. support has been critical, and the decision-making here has caught some Afghans by surprise, I also heard across the board disappointment that the Afghan political leaders across the spectrum are not more galvanized and united by this real crisis moment.

    There's still discussion about sharing — shares of power within the republic, the Afghan republic, and not focusing on the common enemy of the Taliban. So, clearly, the government needs to be more united to be stronger, both at the negotiating table and on the battlefield.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Scott Worden of the U.S. Institute of Peace, thank you very much.

  • Scott Worden:

    Thank you.

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