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The Taliban flag flies along Afghanistan's borders

One of the Taliban tactics that most frustrated NATO forces in Afghanistan was the group’s tendency not to hold territory it gained. Following a Taliban attack over a particular town, for example, the insurgents would be most likely to disappear soon after, whether they had won or lost, blending back into the mountains and the Afghan population. This tactic denied coalition troops targets at which they could direct their superior firepower whilst maintaining a constant presence throughout the country.

As the American withdrawal gathered pace, observers agreed that the Taliban would likely begin replacing this strategy with full-throated attacks on towns and cities to be placed under permanent Taliban control. As predicted, fighting now rages between the Taliban and government troops for control of many provincial cities, including the country’s second and third-biggest cities, Kandahar and Herat. But the first targets on the Taliban’s list, and the ones it has had the most success so far in securing, are Afghanistan’s border crossings.

On the 9th July, news organisations reported that the Taliban had taken two crucial border crossings in the northwest of the country, those linking Afghanistan with Iran and Turkmenistan. Less than a week later, the Taliban seized control of the Spin Boldak crossing, which links southern Afghanistan with western Pakistan. Currently, about half of Afghanistan’s border crossings are under Taliban control.

The targeting of border crossings is a calculated move by the Taliban. Unlike assaults on cities, attacks on border outposts do not soak up large numbers of men or materiel. Following fierce fighting on the 16th July, when Afghan special forces made an aborted attempt to retake Spin Boldak, the largest border crossing under Taliban control, both sides reported just one death each, as well as the killing of Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui. Taliban troops lost to injury also remains in the dozens, as are the number of troops who fled over the border to Pakistan during the fighting – much to Kabul’s annoyance, Pakistan has offered refuge to both Afghan National Army and Taliban troops.

These are acceptable losses for the Taliban and easily offset by the windfall the border crossings offer. In 2020, some $2.75 billion worth of goods travelled through crossings now under their control. The Taliban have tried to keep this trade flowing and a former Afghani customs official told The Times that the cash-strapped insurgency stands to earn $2.75 million a day from import and export duties.

For Kabul, this is a big loss. The Afghan government will struggle to make back this lost customs revenue. Customs officials in Kabul are still attempting to tax imports that entered through Taliban-controlled crossings – much to the consternation of importers who now have to pay two lots of duties – but having to find and charge lorry drivers who have already entered the country is a far more difficult and expensive job than charging them at the border.

Less difficult to quantify is the prestige Kabul has lost along with its border crossings. The Taliban flag can now be seen flying from four of the five countries surrounding Afghanistan. These neighbours are now being forced to deal, at least in part, with the Taliban as well as the government in Kabul. Citing pressure from traders, Pakistan reopened the Spin Boldak crossing on the 26th July further frustrating the Afghan government.

Iran, too, has reopened the Taliban-controlled border crossings. While having a radical Sunni theocracy on its eastern border is a nightmare scenario for Tehran, Afghanistan is the fifth-biggest importer of Iranian goods. While American sanctions have discouraged much of the world from trading with Iran, a precious $3 billion worth of Iranian exports make it into Afghanistan each year.

Inland from the borders fighting for control of Afghan cities has intensified this month. A contingent of US forces remain and the Afghan National Army is still benefitting from their air superiority over the Taliban, but Biden has promised that all US troops will leave Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 11th September. If current trends continue, Taliban forces may have reached the outskirts of Kabul by then. In a sense, with the Taliban flag now flying all along the Afghan border, the siege has already begun.

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