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The Taliban now control two-thirds of Afghanistan. How did it happen so quickly?

The Taliban on Wednesday seized three more Afghan provincial capitals and a local military headquarters in northern Afghanistan. The insurgents now hold some two-thirds of the nation as the U.S. and NATO finalize their withdrawal after decades of war. Bill Riggio, a senior fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editor of their Long War Journal, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    As we've been reporting, the Taliban continue to make gains in Afghanistan, seizing more and more territory, especially in the north.

    Stephanie Sy has more.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    William, the Taliban's seizure of nine provincial capitals and vast, surrounding lands now means that the insurgents hold loose control of two-thirds of Afghanistan. All this as the U.S. and NATO finalize their withdrawal by the end of this month, after two decades of war.

    So what has been the Taliban's strategy? How have they conquered this territory so quickly?

    For that, we turn to Bill Roggio. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editor of their "Long War Journal."

    Bill Roggio, thank you for joining the NewsHour.

    You have been watching this rapid succession of Taliban victories. We have a map that shows the regional capitals they now control, those nine black squares you see in the north and the west. The pink areas are Taliban-controlled. The lighter yellow is government-controlled, and you can see, Bill, the darker yellow is a huge chunk of the country. Those lands are currently under Taliban threat.

    What do you see as the insurgent strategy and objective?

  • Bill Roggio:

    Yeah, the insurgents — the Taliban's objectives is to seize control of Afghanistan, to reestablish Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, that's the name of its government prior to the U.S. invasion. It will do it by force or it will do it via diplomacy, and via diplomacy means the Taliban will accept the Afghan government surrender.

    The Afghan government isn't surrendering so the Taliban is taking it by force. It has focused on taking areas in the west and particularly in the north, these are strategic areas for the Afghan government. Many Afghan power brokers are based in the north, which is where they derived their power.

    And the Taliban could easily take much to have the south and east if it focused its forces there, but, instead, what the Taliban decided to do is to go straight after the government strength, and that's why seven of the nine provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan are in Taliban control, and the two provinces in western Afghanistan, they also are under Taliban control.

    The Taliban ultimately seeking to surround Kabul, strangle it and either force the surrender or militarily take the capital of Kabul.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    OK, let's parse everything you said out a little bit, because the north is typically not where the Taliban is the strongest, and yet, they have been able to take all the capitals. So, tactically, what has the Taliban done to lay the groundwork and set conditions to accomplish this?

  • Bill Roggio:

    The Taliban leveraged it's alliance with al Qaeda in order to gain control of areas. It used al Qaeda groups — associated groups, Tajik and Uzbek groups, to gain influence in the northern areas. So this was very effective. It allowed them to reach out to Tajik and Uzbek and Turkmen to increase the ranks, because the Taliban traditionally in the — at least in the 1990s which was primarily a Pashtun organization based in the south and the east, and instead, by expanding its influence and reach in the north to these groups, it's increased its combat power.

    This is the untold story of what has happened in the north. We have to remember that the north was the last bastion of resistance to the Taliban pre-9/11. Badakhshan Province, which is currently under Taliban control, was the headquarters of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban with the help of al Qaeda leveraged those assets and this is how we're seeing this remarkable success in the north.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Okay, that's the strategy, and I want to go back to al Qaeda in a bit, but I want to ask you about tactics. Did we also see that there was pre-positioning of, for example, weapons and fighters in those northern cities?

  • Bill Roggio:

    Absolutely. What the Taliban did since the U.S. handed over security to the Afghan forces in 2014, they focused on taking control of rural areas. U.S. generals, the commanders, they dismissed this and said we're going to focus on the population centers. The Taliban said that's fine, we'll work on the rural areas. We'll stage from there and we'll expand our control outward.

    This Taliban strategy is over a decade in the making. They explained it in English, by the way, so it was all out there to see. But, unfortunately, bad U.S. and Afghan and NATO strategy combined with solid Taliban strategy and, yes, they were stockpiling weapons, and every area they took control, they gained war material.

    And this is how we've seen this spread. It's gone from the rural areas and now it is inside the Afghan cities. Several provincial capitals are under threat right now. We may see two or three more capitals fall in the next 24 to 48 hours.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And you did say there was an approach toward Kabul. My question is, do you think the U.S. foresaw the level of coordination and efficiency on the battlefield that the Taliban has shown in the last week?

  • Bill Roggio:

    I think this is one of the greatest intelligence failures in decades — certainly, in U.S. military history. The Taliban organized this offensive, it planned it, it prepared, it organized, it recruited, it deployed fighters, it pre-positioned war material all under the nose of the U.S. military, NATO and Afghan intelligence.

    This story has to be told. It's what the Taliban did in the north, particularly, is significant. And everyone was caught off-guard. Remember that President Biden and his administration, basically it's their estimate that the Afghan government was able to hold out. Now they're talking the latest U.S. estimate is that Kabul could fall within 90 days.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There are mounting critiques now to have the U.S. withdrawal, but the U.S. mission, as you know, in Afghanistan, was explicitly to deny al Qaeda a safe haven after 9/11. So if the Taliban do return to power, do you think al Qaeda will again be able to plot attacks against the United States from Afghanistan?

  • Bill Roggio:

    Absolutely. The Taliban-al Qaeda alliance is as strong as it ever has been. The Taliban claims with that Doha deal, which really was a deal to get the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban claims that they won't let Afghanistan be used as a base of operations for foreign terrorist groups. But the Taliban made the same promise pre-9/11 and we all saw what happened then.

    The Taliban couldn't be trusted then. They couldn't be — they can't be trusted today. And you could be certain that al Qaeda will be seeking to leverage its relationship with the Taliban to plot attacks against the West.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So are — the negotiations that are taking place in Doha between the Taliban and the U.S. envoy who just arrived there yesterday, Zalmay Khalilzad, are they relevant at all or is the military taking orders from the folks in Doha or vice versa?

  • Bill Roggio:

    The negotiations in Doha are a smokescreen. It's designed to give false hope to the United States, to NATO and particularly the Afghan government that there will be a negotiated solution. The Taliban's position has been the same for — well, for two decades now.

    It has stated in English on Voice of Jihad, its website, numerous times, even seven days after signing the Doha agreement, that the only acceptable outcome of this war would be the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate with Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, its emir, as the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban and — the Doha group, and Taliban's Doha group is merely providing that screen.

    They're getting — you know, again, it's giving halls hope to everyone, tying up diplomatic efforts while the Taliban tries to take — the Taliban would accept a surrender of the Afghan government. Remember that would lead to peace — that would be the peace of the Taliban. But they'll take it militarily.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That is not a political settlement, surrender.

    Bill Roggio, thank you for coming on the NewsHour and sharing your point of view.

  • Bill Roggio:

    Thank you very much.

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