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The Taliban Have Been Sweeping Across Afghanistan As Foreign Forces Leave

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today President Biden reaffirmed that U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan fast. They'll all be out by the end of August.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown. And in this context, speed is safety.

KELLY: He said the U.S. has accomplished what it set out to do in Afghanistan - to kill Osama bin Laden and degrade other terror threats. Biden did acknowledge the Taliban is at its strongest since 2001 but said he believes Afghan forces can maintain control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Do I trust the Taliban? No, but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.

KELLY: It's a fact, though, that in some areas U.S.-trained Afghan forces are surrendering or fleeing the country, and the Taliban is sweeping in faster than anybody expected. This left us hungry to understand what is happening and where, to be able to visualize the conflict. On the line with us is NPR's Diaa Hadid. She covers Afghanistan and is here to lay out something of a radio map for us. Hey there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So before we get to the fighting, would you give us the big map? Afghanistan, of course, is a country that, here in the States, we hear about all the time. It's always in the news. But relatively few Americans have been there. Brief picture of - what's it look like?

HADID: OK. So imagine it like this. It's a landlocked country about the size of Texas. Population - approximately 40 million people. And if we go clockwise from the north, it shares borders with the 'stans (ph) - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. Further east and south, it shares a very long border with Pakistan.

KELLY: Sure.

HADID: And to the west, with Iran. Now, Kabul, which is the capital, lies broadly in the northeast, and it sprawls through a valley and hills that are ringed by the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush. The other large urban centers are pretty far apart. There's Mazar-i-Sharif in the northwest, Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south.

KELLY: OK. So I'm picturing the country - about the size of Texas, 40 million people, four major cities. With that map in our minds, where is the fighting happening right now?

HADID: Just about everywhere. In recent weeks, the Taliban have seized about a third of the country's 400 provincial districts. But most of the attention has focused on the north, and that's for a good reason. It's where the Taliban have made their most dramatic gains. They've seized control of three provinces, save for their capitals. And analysts tell me they've also seized control of mines and a border crossing. Now, and as they've advanced, Afghan forces have largely abandoned their posts and their weapons. So have a listen here to Bilal Sarwary. He's a journalist and analyst who's been closely following the fighting.

BILAL SARWARY: I think the pace of these mass surrenders, as well as the fall of major districts, is not only surprising; it's quite shocking because much of it is without a fight.

HADID: Yeah, shocking because these areas were traditionally the bastions of resistance to the Taliban from the '90s. And that's because of the country's ethnic makeup. The Taliban emerged from southern Pashtun communities, but the North is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. So this is Sarwary again.

SARWARY: So it was part of a very, you know, calculated Taliban strategy. They thought, we need to, you know, minimize the risk of future uprisings and opposition.

KELLY: That's so interesting 'cause you're touching on something that's been fascinating me, Diaa, which - the north is - we think of the Northern Alliance, you know, the warlords that fought so hard against the Taliban a couple of decades ago. The point that we just heard from Sarwary about a calculated Taliban strategy - expand on that.

HADID: Right. So it appears that this had been cooking for a while, certainly since President Joe Biden's announcement in April, that the Americans were withdrawing - apparently unconditionally. It greenlit the Taliban's decision to try to seize the country. And now we can see that this is what it looks like. They're trying to cut off expected resistance from the north. They're trying to seize control of moneymaking centers like mines, and they're trying to choke off the government by seizing control of border crossings.

KELLY: So that's the Taliban strategy. What about the other side? What do we know about why Afghan forces do seem to be giving up without much of a fight? I mean, these were forces that have been funded, that have been trained by the U.S. and allied forces for 20 years.

HADID: There's so many answers to that question, but let's home in on one - corruption. It seems that many soldiers, especially in these far-flung outposts in the north, they lack supplies, backup, sometimes even food. So morale was already low, and it fell even lower after the Americans withdrew, even as it boosted the Taliban.

And this, Mary Louise, is key. While the Taliban are largely a Pashtun movement, over the past decade they've been recruiting from northern ethnic groups. So in some cases at least, these Afghan soldiers weren't surrendering to invaders; they were surrendering to family and community elders. And that certainly makes a difference to a lot of what's going on. The Taliban even paid the bus fares for some of these Afghan soldiers. And they could see - it was clearly conveyed to them that if they surrendered, they wouldn't be harmed. This is Sarwary again.

SARWARY: People at a district village level said, well, why should we be fighting? At the end of the day, we are the ones living with the Taliban, living in villages, with our own families. So why should we fight?

KELLY: So what are you watching for as these next weeks and months play out here?

HADID: The next phase may well be the battle for provincial cities and capitals. Taliban fighters are surrounding them. They've largely left them alone for now, although they did overrun one city and free prisoners from a local jail. We've seen clashes at the edges of some cities, but they were repelled by Afghan forces because for them, defending urban centers is a priority.

KELLY: Well, let's end with the city - with Kabul. You told us it's in a valley. It's surrounded by the Hindu Kush. How big is it? Is there a comparably sized American city?

HADID: I'm not sure if there's a comparably sized American city, but we're speaking of a city of about 5 to 6 million people. It's certainly the largest city by far in Afghanistan.

KELLY: So it's big.

HADID: It is big, and it's sprawling. And it's also strategic. It hosts Western embassies and the airport. So the understanding so far is that this seems to be a red line for the international community. It's unlikely to fall anytime soon. That said, we can see in the weeks ahead the insurgents seizing districts around the city.

KELLY: NPR's Diaa Hadid, thank you so much.

HADID: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOGWAI'S "DONUTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.