Security personnel inspect a damaged vehicle where rockets were fired from in Kabul, Afghanistan

Conflict

As the Taliban advances, life in Afghanistan becomes increasingly precarious

Since US President Joe Biden announced the unconditional withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan back in April, the Taliban has been taking over districts across Afghanistan. It has yet to reach major cities, such as Kabul, but how much longer can the Afghan security forces hold the group back?

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Security personnel inspect a damaged vehicle where rockets were fired from in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 20, 2021. At least three rockets hit near the presidential palace on Tuesday shortly before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was set to give an address to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Credit:

Rahmat Gul/AP

Zarifa Ghaffari was a young child the last time the Taliban controlled  Afghanistan.

Some 20 years ago, the Taliban enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work.

Related: Rocket fire in Kabul signals deepening insecurity as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan

Now 27, Ghaffari has a career that would’ve been unimaginable back then — she holds a top position with the Ministry of Defense in Kabul.

She’s an example of how far the country has come since the Taliban was ousted from power. But now these freedoms are under threat as the militant group overtakes one district after another.

The Taliban has swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seizing strategic border crossings and highways and threatening a number of provincial capitals — advances that come as US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan.

Taliban officials say they don’t want to monopolize power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a newly negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.

This week, top US military officer Gen. Mark Milley told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban has “strategic momentum,” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover.

Related: ‘This is the first time I am holding a gun’: Afghans take up arms to fight the Taliban

But he also said that such an outcome is not inevitable: “I don’t think the endgame is yet written.”

Enayat Najafizada, a former adviser to the Afghan government, says the next few months are critical for the country’s future.

“The best-case scenario is that there’s going to be a military stalemate on the battlefield. The Taliban come back to the negotiating table.” 

Enayat Najafizada, Institute of War and Peace 

“The best-case scenario is that there’s going to be a military stalemate on the battlefield. The Taliban come back to the negotiating table,” said Najafizada, who heads the Institute of War and Peace, a think tank in Kabul.

“The worst-case scenario is that the Taliban keep overrunning districts and provincial capitals and the Afghan state collapse[s] and the Afghan government collapse[s]. The collapse of the Afghan government will lead to a bloody civil war.”

Najafizada says government security forces were caught off guard by the Taliban offensive.

He says the group has what he calls “powerful fighting machinery” — bolstered by two decades of fighting experience against the Americans and Afghan government forces.

And now, they’re using a familiar military tactic: “So, what the Taliban did since April [is] that they have overrun key highways, key ports, neighboring districts to lay siege to key provincial capitals.”

Targeting ports and border crossings gives the Taliban control over imports and exports, bringing in much-needed income.

Related: As US withdraws troops from Afghanistan, it will remain ‘fully focused’ on peace, says negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad

Highways are also worth a fight because they can limit movement and choke off provincial capitals.

That’s why he never travels outside of Kabul anymore and generally stays off the road.

“If you’re found with a contact or telephone number of an Afghan official in your phone, then you’d be in trouble. A lot of cases have happened that people traveled on the highways to neighboring provinces, and they were caught by the Taliban and were either kept in captivity or were executed by the Taliban.”

That is something that Ghaffari, at the Ministry of Defense, knows first-hand.

She’s educated and outspoken — exactly the type of woman that the Taliban would like to keep out of power.

In fact, they’ve already tried to silence her.

Related: Afghan amb to the US on the Taliban: ‘They are not interested in peace but power’

Ghaffari says she gets constant death threats. She’s survived several assassination attempts. And her father was murdered in front of his house last year.

“I lost my dad and I don’t want to lose anyone else [in] my family. Like my fiancé, like my siblings, like my mom.”

Zarifa Ghaffari, Ministry of Defense

“I lost my dad and I don’t want to lose anyone else [in] my family. Like my fiancé, like my siblings, like my mom.”

Government employees have been targeted by extremist groups for a long time. But as the Taliban takes over more of the country, the fear is intense.

Her office is in Kabul. But her fiancé and family live in the neighboring province of Meydan Wardak, and she has to take the highway to visit them.

“To travel out of my office I have to take care of all security issues. I have to have my bodyguards with me, I have to carry too many guns, I have to commute with an armored vehicle because otherwise — I will lose my life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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