Sweeping conquests test US hopes of more moderate Taliban

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Taliban fighters and Afghans gather inside the city of Farah, capital of Farah province, southwest Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Afghan officials say three more provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban, putting nine out of the countrys 34 in the insurgents hands amid the U.S. withdrawal. The officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the capitals of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Farah provinces all fell. (AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan)

Sweeping Taliban conquests in Afghanistan this week are challenging the Biden administration’s hopes that a desire for international respect — and for international aid and cash — will moderate the fundamentalist militia’s worst behaviors when the U.S. ends its war there.

Taliban commanders seized three more provincial capitals in Afghanistan and an army headquarters, officials said Wednesday, in a blitz that leaves up to two-thirds of the nation in their control as the U.S. finishes its withdrawal after two decades of war. The day before, President Joe Biden called on Afghans to “fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”

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While some Taliban commanders have behaved with restraint in newly captured territory, rights groups say others have acted much like the brutal Taliban the U.S. overthrew in 2001. That includes allegedly killing detainees en masse and demanding, in an allegation denied by a Taliban spokesman, that communities provide them with females above age 15 to marry.

Biden administration officials have kept up the hopeful claim that a desire for international approval might influence Taliban actions. U.S. envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad traveled to Qatar this week to make that point to Taliban officials directly, telling Voice of America that if the Taliban took over Afghanistan by force “they will become a pariah state."

Administration officials reject criticism by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opposes the withdrawal and dismisses what he calls “diplomatic carrots.″

Regardless of whether the Taliban heeds that warning, Biden shows no sign of slowing or reversing a decision to withdraw from the war.

The United States is ending its nearly 20-year combat mission in Afghanistan on Aug. 31 under a deal that President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban in 2020. The U.S. invasion beginning in October 2001 broke up the Afghanistan-based al-Qaida that had plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. It overthrew, with Afghan allies, the Taliban government that had refused to surrender Osama bin Laden.

Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the old Taliban government. The inward-looking rulers enforced the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, including banning entertainment like singing and watching TV. They staged public hangings at Kabul's main sports stadium.

Then-Taliban ruler Mullah Mohammed Omar made a gesture to the international community before 9/11 by ending cultivation of heroin poppies, something U.N. officials verified. But Omar told his ruling council he thought there was nothing his government could to do end international condemnation.

Omar’s Taliban council members at the time acknowledged the financial pain sanctions were causing.

For today's Taliban, U.S. talk of things like international inclusion, aid and reconstruction money might have mattered more had it come even a few years ago, said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The Taliban today have been emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal. Hopes of grabbing all or much of Afghanistan, with all the border import fees and other revenues a country offers, make international support less essential.

In talks in Qatar, "Taliban political representatives did express genuine interest in international legitimacy and all the benefits that come with it,” Watkins said. But “what the Taliban never did was indicate a willingness to compromise” their behavior enough to lock down any such global recognition or financial support, he said.

The prospect of the world recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government if their blitz succeeds “is a value to them," said Carter Malkasian, an Afghanistan expert who advised then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford during the U.S.-Taliban talks.

“However, that’s probably not going to cause them to give any kind of large-scale concessions,” said Malkasian, author of “The American War in Afghanistan: A History.”

What that hope of legitimacy could do is moderate the Taliban's behavior during and after their battlefield campaign, Malkasian said, so they refrain from some of the worst abuses of the past.

As the political leaders talk compromise and power-sharing, Pakistani officials who are familiar with private discussions with the insurgent movement say they want complete power. They also envision a strict religious government, accepting girls going to school and women working, but only within their Islamic injunctions. The Pakistani officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Some European diplomats are more skeptical than Americans that international opinion can sway the Taliban. So is Afghanistan's president.

“Yes, they have changed, but negatively,” Ashraf Ghani, who rushed Wednesday to Balkh province, already surrounded by Taliban-held territory, to seek help in pushing back the insurgents, told his Cabinet this month.

The Taliban have become “more cruel, more oppressive,” Ghani said.

Scenes of black-turbaned Taliban officials signing the U.S. withdrawal deal with Trump officials itself granted the Taliban new legitimacy. Eager to maintain trade and economic ties regionally if not globally, Taliban officials have been calling on Central Asian governments and diplomats in Russia and China, assuring the Taliban would be good neighbors.

The Taliban largely are honoring one key part of their deal with Trump, holding off from attacks on withdrawing U.S. forces.

The deal's core requirement for Americans says the Taliban can't again allow al-Qaida or anyone else to use Afghanistan to threaten the United States or its allies.

But an April Pentagon report said the Taliban maintained “mutually beneficial” relations with al-Qaida-related groups, and called it unlikely the militia would take substantive action against them.

Overall, “I don’t think the U.S. is going to get what it hoped for,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Afghanistan researcher and former U.S. development official in Central Asia.

The Taliban ”don't really have an incentive,'' unless their plans for any governing have changed, and it's not clear that they have, she said. “I think there was a lot of wishful thinking that the Taliban had changed, you know, in the fundamental sense.”


Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City and Gannon from Islamabad.

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