On Saturday, Marshal Dostum met with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan in Kabul, the capital, where Marshal Dostum assured government security forces of his continued support, according to a palace statement. The government has remained mostly quiet about the military setbacks, aside from vague assurances in recent weeks that it had formulated a military strategy to defend cities and retake territory.
The warlord’s militias are just one part of a kaleidoscope of armed groups that are again gaining prominence as American forces aim to complete their withdrawal by the end of August and as the Afghan government tries to hold territory. The militias’ return is a chilling throwback to the 1990s, when an ethnically charged civil war helped give rise to the Taliban after the same armed groups brutalized the civilian population.
The fall of Sheberghan means that the Taliban will now be able to move their forces there elsewhere, most likely to other cities under siege in the north. The same situation is playing out in southwestern Afghanistan, where on Friday the insurgents seized Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz Province.
“Sheberghan and Zaranj can barely be called cities, given their small size, and while these are propaganda victories, the Taliban are still struggling to take the larger cities such as Herat and Kandahar,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant and an independent research analyst. “In those places, they are facing significant resistance and taking casualties.”
Zaranj, known for its little governance, lawlessness and illicit economy, will undoubtedly serve as a jumping-off point for future Taliban operations in the west and south. This is especially pertinent for the capital of neighboring Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah, which is dangerously close to collapse. Fierce fighting in recent days has turned parts of the city to rubble and has killed civilians.
That leaves the Afghan government with few options in either province: counterattack and try to retake what territory has been lost, or move forces elsewhere to defend other cities under siege.
American air support, which is supposed to last until the end of the month — or longer if the Pentagon receives permission to continue it — is launched from outside the country, meaning there are no longer enough resources to help defend every Afghan city under attack.