WASHINGTON — The Taliban are advancing at lightning speed across Afghanistan as U.S. troops withdraw. They now control a third of the country, are fighting for control of 42 percent more — and may even be slowing their advance on purpose.
A Taliban commander in Ghazni province told NBC News that he and fellow fighters were surprised at the speed of their advance and had avoided capturing some targets so as not to run afoul of the U.S.
According to Afghan media reports, eyewitness accounts and statements from local Afghan officials, the Taliban are advancing in rural areas and near Kabul. They now hold almost twice as much of Afghanistan as they did just two months ago, raising fresh doubts about whether the Afghan government can survive once U.S. forces depart by Sept. 11.
Since May 1, days after President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Taliban have captured 69 of the country's 407 districts, including territory in northern provinces once seen as off-limits for the insurgency and a stronghold for the government, according to Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal. The Taliban now hold 142 districts, and are fighting for control of about 170 more.
"The Taliban are putting significant pressure on the Afghan government by their operations in the north," said Roggio, who keeps a running tally of how much territory the Taliban controls.
By seizing ground in far-flung areas in the north, including a border crossing with Tajikistan, the Taliban are forcing the Afghan security forces to balance stretched resources as they try to hold off the insurgents elsewhere in the country, including in provinces near the capital Kabul, he said.
"The Taliban has nearly doubled the number of districts it controls, has captured key areas and military bases, and demoralized segments of the Afghan security forces and the government," Roggio said.
In the country's north, the Taliban have taken control of more than 40 districts since the start of May, including a key district in Kunduz province on Monday, allowing them to encircle the provincial capital.
In a war that has often been a slow grind, the situation on the ground has changed on a daily — sometimes hourly basis — in recent weeks. Some Afghan government units have abandoned their weapons and vehicles without a major fight, as local officials reportedly negotiated surrender agreements with the Taliban.
The Taliban's battlefield victories come as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, are due to meet Biden at the White House on Friday. The visit "will highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues," the White House said.
In an agreement between the Taliban and the United States negotiated by the previous administration, Washington had committed to withdraw all U.S. troops by last month. Biden opted to pull American forces out by Sept. 11.
The Taliban's progress has moved faster than even the insurgency anticipated.
The Taliban commander who spoke to NBC News, and the insurgency's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, said the group has intentionally avoided capturing entire provinces or provincial capitals, saying it wanted to abide by commitments under the 2020 agreement with the U.S. signed in Doha last year.
"We are bound to honor the Doha accord that we signed with the United States in the presence of the international community. We don't want to capture any province or provincial headquarters anywhere in Afghanistan by September 2021 when the U.S. forces leave our country," the Taliban commander said.
The Doha accord does not prohibit the Taliban from taking control of provinces or cities, but does bar them from targeting U.S. forces. The decision by the Taliban not to seize cities appears aimed at avoiding antagonizing U.S. and NATO forces as they depart.
Some Taliban fighters had recently reached the entrance of Mazar-e-Sharif but they were called back to their previous positions outside the city, he said.
The commander said that in some already captured areas the insurgency has had to scramble to take over governing duties because the Taliban can't keep up with the pace of their own gains.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group is not punishing or capturing government soldiers who surrender. . Such an approach would represent a change in tactics for the insurgency, which has been accused by human rights groups of executing and torturing captured troops.
"We neither imprison them nor punish the Afghan security forces who surrender peacefully. We let them go home, those who lay down arms and don't resist," the spokesman said.
'Everyone was crying'
With the Taliban on the march, some civilians are fleeing to larger cities still controlled by the government.
Somal Nazari left his village in Faryab province Sunday along with his young family as Taliban forces approached the city of Maymana.
"There were heavy sounds of weapons, there were AK-47s and everyone was running, leaving their homes," Nazari told NBC News by phone.
His three children watched on confused and upset as tanks and other military vehicles passed by their home, he said.
"Everyone was crying," he said.
Nazari, 30, left everything behind, stuffing a few bags with clothes and buying five plane tickets to Mazar-e-Sharif in neighboring Balkh province. He and other civilians said property prices were plunging, as people try to unload their assets before a possible Taliban takeover.
Having worked as an interpreter for foreign journalists and nonprofit organizations, Nazari said he is afraid for his family and does not hold out hope of being able to return home anytime soon.
"They are very sensitive with people who have worked for foreigners," Nazari said of the Taliban.
He is hoping to apply for asylum abroad but for now doesn't have the funds to move his family to another Afghan town or city. Meanwhile, the Taliban are drawing closer to Mazar-e-Sharif.
The Biden administration announced Thursday that it would be evacuating some former interpreters prior to the Sept. 11 withdrawal deadline.
Afghan government forces have struggled to clear out the Taliban from districts they had captured, suffering serious casualties. In northern Faryab province, elite Afghan special forces — the most capable arm of the Afghan military — attempted unsuccessfully to push the Taliban out of the district of Dawlat Abad last week. More than 20 Afghan commandos were killed in the battle, according to local media.
Afghan special forces also fought to dislodge the Taliban last month from captured territory in the province of Wardak, outside the capital Kabul, but the insurgents remain in control of those districts, according to media accounts
The Taliban's recent seizure of districts in three provinces — Wardak, Logar and Laghman — that surround Kabul signaled a potentially ominous sign for the government's staying power. If those provinces fall, then "the path to take Kabul is wide open," Roggio said.
The Afghan military's retreat has prompted a revival of former anti-Soviet, anti-Taliban militias, with Afghan President Ghani and other officials embracing the groups and calling for a united resistance against the Taliban. The call to arms for local militias seemed to underscore the Afghan government's perilous position, and carried the risk that the rival groups could plunge the country back into a wider, anarchic civil war like the one that raged in the 1990s.
The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the Taliban appeared poised to seize provincial cities once U.S. and NATO forces leave, and painted a bleak picture. "The possible slide toward dire scenarios is undeniable," she said.