Afghanistan Analysts Network
Afghan families displaced by fighting between Taleban and Afghan government forces take temporary shelter at a market in Mehtarlam, the capital of Laghman province on 24 May 2021. Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP.
While Laghman has long been contested, the surrender of security outposts and district centres marks a dramatic shift. The quick collapse of most of Laghman builds on over a year of squabbling between officials and local leaders, which saw the province cycle through three governors in under a year. AAN spoke to locals in Laghman. Interviewees describe lingering discontent with the former provincial governor, only recently replaced, which may have played a role in exacerbating in-fighting and contributed to surrenders in Laghman province. However, others say that people had no choice but to surrender, under threat of violent retributions from the Taleban, irrespective of the political squabbling in the background.
The provincial government retains a tenuous hold only on the provincial centre and one district. It has detained those implicated in surrenders, including top district officials – both military and civil – and tribal elders (according to the spokesman of interior ministry) who helped negotiate surrenders. The military detainees stand accused of surrendering outposts, district centres and abandoning a considerable amount of ammunition, military vehicles and other equipment to the Taleban without consulting the provincial authorities.
AAN tried to ascertain the number of security personnel present in the province during the fighting, but officials would not provide this information. However, a civil society activist in Laghman said that there were more than 300 military personnel in the four districts now controlled by the Taleban. He said that 400 more had gone to Alisheng from the provincial capital Mehtalam to fight with the Taleban but were surrounded there.
The Taleban now sit on the doorstep of Mehtarlam city, the provincial capital. While local sources have told AAN that fighting has abated in the area since May 23, there have been reports of some Taleban incursions, including several attacks on the city’s central jail, currently housing 484 prisoners. The Taleban are also well placed to pose a serious threat to the main Kabul-Jalalabad road from the areas they took over in Laghman.
In this report, we describe the political turbulence that preceded the surrender of district centres to the Taleban and provide a blow-by-blow account of Taleban ascendance in Laghman in recent weeks, including the surrender of security posts and district centres to the Taleban.
Laghman: A long-contested gateway to the east
Laghman is of great strategic importance to both the Afghan government and the Taleban. Located between Kabul and Nangrahar provinces, it sits on the main trade and travel artery between Kabul and Peshawar, the Kabul-Nangrahar highway that runs through the southern part of the province. The highway is Kabul’s gateway to the eastern provinces of Kunar, Nangrahar and Nuristan and the Torkham border crossing with Pakistan, one of the country’s highest revenue-generating customs points, accounting for 1.38 billion USD, or 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s total customs revenues, in 2020 (see this map). Despite bilateral tensions, Pakistan is a major trading partner and transit country for goods out of and into Afghanistan.
Today, Laghman is home to approximately 502,000 people, or about 1.5 per cent of the total population of Afghanistan, almost all of which live in rural areas. (See Afghanistan National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA) estimates here). Laghman is a majority Pashtun province, with Tajik communities concentrated in Dawlat Shah and Mehtarlam, and Pashayi communities (more about them here, footnote 4), predominantly in Dawlat Shah. According to an internal World Bank analysis of the, as of yet unpublished, 2019-20 National Income, Expenditure, and Labour Force Survey, a copy of which was shared with AAN, the province’s poverty rate is 62 per cent – far above the national average of 47 per cent.
There are five districts in Laghman province. The provincial capital, Mehtarlam, is a separate administrative unit which also incorporates rural areas. Only Qarghayi and Mehtarlam, the capital of Laghman, housing the provincial government and the province’s only large urban settlement, remain in government hands. Qarghayi district is located around 30 kilometres south of Mehtarlam and is the most populous district in Laghman province.
The four other districts have long been contested by the Taleban. Before the latest offensive, the government controlled Alingar, Alisheng and Dawlat Shah district centre and more than 16 security posts on the roads between Mehtarlam and Alingar and between Mehtarlam and Alisheng.
Taleban takeovers in two steps
As in much of Afghanistan, after US troop withdrawal started on 1 May, fighting intensified in Laghman province. On 19 May, Dawlat Shah was the first district in Laghman to come under Taleban control. Afghanistan-wide, its fall was only preceded by Burka in Baghlan that fell to the Taleban on 5 May, and happened simultaneously with the fall of Jalrez and Nerkh in Maidan Wardak.
In the same month, the Taleban in Laghman also overran several security posts in Alisheng and Alingar districts and directly threatened Mehtarlam. On 6 and 9 July, the Taleban captured Badpakh and Alisheng districts, respectively. The government, however, claimed they had shifted the district centres to a safer location rather than letting them fall to the Taleban (see Salam Watandar report here). On 12 July, the Taleban claimed to have captured Alingar district which was confirmed by our sources in Laghman.
Dawlat Shah’s district centre, located about 40 kilometres north of Mehtarlam, surrendered first, on 19 May. The district is now completely under Taleban control. The Taleban have surrounded the district centre for the last nine months. According to a local source, this nine-month-long resistance collapsed when government support did not arrive, after which the local ANSF (ANA, ANP and NDS) surrendered to the Taleban. However, according to a 20 May BBC Pashto report, the government claimed this was a ‘tactical retreat’ from the district, not a surrender. Sources have since informed AAN that people from the district had been detained in relation to the surrender, though exactly who and how many people is unconfirmed. Another resident in Dawlat Shah told AAN that the tribal elders were not arrested in Dawlat Shah district, but he had heard that two tribal elders had been arrested in Mehtarlam city (he did not know their names).
Alisheng’s centre, located 20 kilometres north-west of Mehtarlam, had been highly contested for many years (read an earlier AAN report on the situation in the district here). It was captured by the Taleban on 9 July, following successful attacks on the district centre and is under complete Taleban control. A resident of Alisheng district told AAN on 27 July, that following the collapse of Dawlat Shah district around 11 government outposts on the road between Alisheng and Mehtarlam surrendered to the Taleban. He also confirmed that significant military reinforcements went to Alisheng district centre to help keep the district, but after the 11 posts surrendered to the Taleban this large military contingent was surrounded by the Taleban. After around one month of resistance they left the district with the help of community elders and went to Mehtarlam.
The provincial capital of Mehtarlam is clearly in the Taleban’s sights. On 24 May, the Taleban attacked Mehtarlam and managed to enter into some areas. Prior to this attack the Taleban had intensified operations around Mehtarlam, overrunning several outposts on its outskirts. On 23 May, the frontline had reached the city and by the afternoon, the Taleban attacked the central jail of Laghman, located in Mehtarlam (see Pajhwok here and BBC Pashto here).
Reinforcements sent from Kabul thwarted the attack. The government forces were personally led by the (then – since replaced) army chief, General Yasin Zia, and General Khushhal Sadat, the first deputy head for operations of the NDS. General Zia subsequently said they had pushed back the Taleban and inflicted severe casualties to the insurgents (see Pajhwok report).
It was not clear whether this was a Taleban attempt to take the city of around 113,000 inhabitants, a foray to liberate prisoners or an attempt to weaken strategic government positions to strengthen their grip for future action, as they have done in many other provincial capitals.
The provincial capital secured, the Afghan government then moved to punish security officials for the fall of districts. On 24 May , governor Rahmatullah Yarmal told journalists that the government had imprisoned 117 security officials accused of either dereliction of duty or having links with the Taleban in Laghman province. Their focus was on those district centres, security posts, and security officials who had surrendered to the Taleban in Alisheng, Alingar and Dawlat Shah (see VOA report). However, on 28 June, a civil society activist in Mehtarlam city told AAN that the government had released security officials who had been detained, citing “a lack of security personnel in the province”. He said they need to defend the province rather than arrest military officials.
On 31 May, residents of Mehtarlam said that the Taleban had warned them to evacuate from their houses in advance of another planned offensive against the provincial centre (see Etilaat-e Roz report). The Taleban then attacked Mehtarlam city but did not capture it.
Fighting in Laghman picked up again in July. Alingar, with its centre located around 25 kilometres to the northeast of Mehtarlam, came under Taleban attack.
On 20 May (the day Dawlat Shah district fell to the Taleban), a one-month ceasefire was signed between the district government, tribal elders and the Taleban, following mediation by tribal elders. The ceasefire was negotiated to allow people to collect their crops as it was wheat harvest season, as well as to allow students to sit for exams. In addition, the parties to the conflict agreed not to carry out ground and air attacks, nor to allow their fighters to enter the territory controlled by the other party (see Deutsche Welle report) and VOA report. On 31 May, Alingar district residents said the Taleban had warned them to evacuate their houses as they planned to start an offensive on some outposts in the district (see Etilaat-e Roz report). Fighting ensued in violation of the ceasefire, though residents could not confirm which party broke the truce. By 12 July the government forces surrendered to the Taleban.
After the fall of Alingar, provincial government officials again set out to punish district security officials for the defeat. In a statement on 14 July, they announced the arrest of Habib ur-Rahman Mamun, Alingar district governor and Romal Naizai, the acting district police chief, as well as the battalion commander and the provincial deputy director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) (the latter newly appointed, names unknown), on charges of abandoning the district and surrendering ammunition to the Taleban without consulting the provincial government. According to the statement, the district officials had asked for assistance and, when possible, the provincial government had sent reinforcements, but district officials had nevertheless surrendered the district to the Taleban and deserved “severe punishment” (see Khama press report).
Badpakh (also spelled Badpash; it only became an official district in 1391/2012), located nearly 100 kilometres east of Mehtarlam, fell to the Taleban on 6 July. The next day, the Taleban sent a WhatsApp message to the media saying they had captured Badpakh district and said a government airstrike had caused civilian casualties in the district. A resident of Badpakh district confirmed to AAN that the district had been surrendered to the Taleban without a fight, but that government forces had later bombarded the ammunition, vehicles and other military equipment they had left behind to avoid it falling into Taleban hands. He did not confirm whether there had been any civilian casualties as a result. Another resident of the district gave a different account, saying that government officials were in negotiation with the mediators, with some mediators speaking to the Taleban, when all of a sudden, a helicopter landed and carried all of the military personnel and later the government bombarded the ammunition, vehicle and other military equipment.
Most of Badpakh’s rural areas have long been under Taleban rule. The government controlled only the district centre, police headquarters and a few security outposts, which sit atop a strategic point in the mountainous terrain that should be difficult to capture militarily without sustaining heavy losses. However, these were surrendered to the Taleban in early July. A former NGO employee working in the district recounted that since its formation, “the district governor could only travel to and from the provincial capital on military flights. He would wait up to three months for such a flight to travel to his duty station and back again,” indicating only weak and sporadic non-military government presence. He said this was also the case for government employees and NGO staff could only travel to the district on military flights transferring provisions or high-ranking security officials (read an earlier AAN report on the situation in the province here).
Reasons for the fall of much of Laghman
Interviews with people living in Laghman paint a complex picture of what drove the fighting – or lack thereof – and why the Taleban could so quickly capture these long-contested districts. At least four people in Laghman told AAN that infighting among the province’s political elite had played a significant role in pushing Laghman towards war and the quick collapse of the districts. Other sources point to the influence of tribal elders, while others point to the already significant strength of the Taleban and their ability to intimidate and sow fear.
Government officials have admitted that many government outposts were surrendered to the Taleban without a fight, through surrenders and ceasefires mediated by influential tribal leaders. In a series of tweets on 13 June, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior Tariq Aryan said that a number of influential local actors were mediating between government forces and the Taleban, leading to the surrender of several security checkpoints to the Taleban, adding that negotiated surrenders are “against military rules and regulations.” According to Aryan, several people had been detained and arrest warrants had been issued for others (see also this report in the Kabul-based daily Hasht-e Sobh). People in Laghman told AAN that this announcement had disheartened the province’s tribal elders, who had often been asked by the government to mediate with the Taleban, and now felt they had been betrayed.
For example, in 2019, the government sought the support of tribal elders to negotiate the reopening of closed schools with the Taleban, which they succeeded in doing (see Shamshad TV report ). On 13 June, tribal elders also negotiated the release of Zohra Jalal, a Khost provincial council member who the Taleban kidnapped, along with her four sons, as they travelled from Kabul to Khost province. The group later released Jalal and her children thanks to mediation by tribal elders (see Taand website’s report).
After Aryan’s announcement, AAN sources confirmed that provincial government authorities had arrested and detained several tribal elders accused of facilitating the surrender of security outposts and district centres. These sources told AAN they were concerned the detention of local leaders might further undermine the government countrywide, as they might lose the support of tribal figures who no longer feel they can trust their allies in the government.
Sources in Laghman told AAN that the Taleban had threatened government forces via tribal elders in Dawlat Shah district, warning them to surrender or be killed. Against such threats, said AAN’s sources, civilians and their representatives had no choice but to surrender, while elders tried to ensure that as few people as possible were harmed. These reports are consistent with a 23 June Taleban statement (quoted in this Pajhwok report) warning people that it would “take action” against those who support the government in the fight against the Taleban and stressing that “the general public must not allow their children to serve such warlords.”
According to our interviews, although there was a gathering of ‘local uprising forces’ in which statements were made about resisting the Taleban, no other defensive actions were taken by these forces in Laghman province. Similarly, a local journalist told AAN that in his view, the local uprising forces which the government called for on 21 June to stand against the Taleban were unlikely to materialise, because of perceptions that the government cannot support its military forces. In the absence of support from the centre, people dare not take up arms against the Taleban and face the consequences of being on the losing side. Yet other sources in Laghman blame infighting among Laghman’s political elite for the quick collapse of the province’s districts (more on this below).
Undoubtedly, recent political turbulence has played a major role. Residents of Laghman province spoke to AAN about the drawn-out squabbles between powerful and well-connected members of parliament, successive provincial governors, and local tribal leaders. In particular, the province has recently been disrupted by public protests against governor Yarmal, a 31-year-old native of Kandahar province, over accusations that he favoured some tribes in the province over others as well as his firing of several long-serving provincial officials. On 15 June, the Kabul-based daily Etilaat-e Roz reported that Yarmal had removed 14 employees of the Mehtarlam municipality to “curb corruption and remove some who had been co-opted by the mafia” (see report). The officials, some of whom had been serving as civil servants for up to ten years, including the Nazifullah Alokozai, the mayor of Mehtarlam city, were linked to Laghman MP and political heavyweight Engineer Muhammad Halim Qarar. According to local sources, this had infuriated MP Engineer Qarar, a former Hezb-e Islami commander and a Pashayi tribal figure who supported President Ghani in the most recent election. After appealing unsuccessfully to Yarmal, Qarar gathered his supporters and staged protests against him. Yarmal was replaced on 15 June after serving a year as provincial governor of Laghman.
It is worth mentioning that by law, the mayor and other officials cannot be fired or hired by the provincial governor, but sources told AAN that it is common practice for provincial governors to use their power and links in the government to hire or fire officials. Notably, Yarmal faced similar challenges in his previous post as governor of Zabul, as reported by AAN.
On 15 June, by which time over half the province had fallen to the Taleban, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) announced that Abdul Wali Wahedzai would replace governor Yarmal (see here).
Yarmal’s case was the second time people in Laghman took to the streets to protest against a provincial governor, demanding his removal. Governor Muhammad Asef Nang who had preceded Yarmal, had suffered the same fate. Protestors against Nang complained of his inability to address increasing insecurity in the province (see Tolo News report).
A civil society activist, who asked not to be identified, told AAN that people usually protest against provincial governors for two reasons. First, they fail to pursue the province’s interests and only look after their own or their supporters’ interests. Second, they attempt to stem the illegal flow of money and other benefits to those in power. He described something of a lose-lose scenario – some people will protest against governors when they fail to work to improve the whole province, but if a governor attempts to do their job by ‘cleaning up’ and limiting corruption, powerful people with interests in maintaining the status quo provoke their followers to protest against them.
Political squabbles over access to jobs, status and resources are somewhat typical in Afghanistan and have a devastating impact on peace and stability. Residents in Laghman have told AAN that rifts between provincial elites meant there was poor coordination between the civil government and military forces, and now, following the detention of local elders, a lack of trust in the government.
Some of AAN’s sources went as far as to say that when Engineer Qarar’s demands went unmet by the governor, he used his influence with the tribal elders to undermine the war efforts and push for surrender to the Taleban. Allegedly, tribal elders under Qarar’s influence negotiated surrenders to cast Yarmal as a failure and ensure his removal. This is a serious allegation, which AAN has not confirmed, and which local civil society activities say should be treated with caution. However, it is not unique in its nature. Recently an audio recording leaked on social media purported to be First Vice President Amrullah Saleh accusing Badghis MP Amir Shah Naebzada of having links with the Taleban and persuading security officials to surrender (find the audio here).
Other reports offer an alternative explanation of the motivations of the tribal elders who mediated with the Taleban, highlighting the role played by fear. According to a New York Times report, on 19 May, the Taleban besieged seven urban Afghan military outposts in Laghman and told village elders to visit the outposts bearing a message: either surrender or die. The report quotes one of several village elders who negotiated the surrenders: “We told them, ‘Look, your situation is bad — reinforcements aren’t coming.’” It cites another elder who argued that without government support for the security forces, they could not survive, “so they have to surrender.”
Whatever the reason, following extended negotiations, security forces in Laghman surrendered all seven outposts, and over 120 soldiers and police were given safe passage to the government-held provincial centre in return for handing over weapons and equipment.
We cannot be conclusive about the motivations of governor Yarmal in firing provincial government staff and whether he was trying to address corruption or simply supporting his allies to secure favourable positions. It is also unknown whether MP Qarar’s provocations against Yarmal extended to support for the Taleban or if the role played by tribal elders was influenced by Yarmal’s actions and Qarar’s discontent. However, the instability and uncertainty that these political machinations have sown contributed to broad discontent and a divided provincial administration which was unable to unite against the Taleban assault.
The current security situation in Laghman
Eid ul-Adha (19-24 July) offered a short respite from the fighting to Laghman residents, as in many other parts of the country. However, it is unclear whether this was a result of an unannounced Eid truce in Laghman or not. In 2019, there was a similar nationwide suspension of fighting, which turned out to be the result of an unannounced ceasefire agreed to between the Taleban and the government. This led to speculation that this year the parties had agreed to a similar truce, however short-lived.
The fighting since May has taken a heavy toll on the province. On 14 June, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that 23,000 residents of Laghman province had been displaced from their homes, most of them from Alisheng, Alingar and Dawlat Shah districts. According to UNOCHA’s update, “New IDPs are scattered across the city [Mehtarlam], some staying in public buildings (such as schools) and others with host communities.”
Recent security developments
The provincial capital, Mehtarlam, remains under government control. After the Taleban attack on 24 May was repelled, fighting ceased for a few days, followed by sporadic fighting until the Eid holidays. On 13 June, a mortar was fired into Mehtarlam, injuring six persons. Security officials said that the Taleban fired two consecutive artillery rounds, injuring a police officer and five civilians. The Taleban have not responded to the allegation (see Pajhwok report here).
According to residents speaking to AAN, after the Eid lull, fighting started again, with government forces exchanging fire with the Taleban in the Pahlawan Baba area of Mehtarlam. However, they said it was not severe fighting and it did not result in more territorial changes.
Qarghayi district has seen the least fighting between government and Taleban forces and is almost entirely controlled by the government. It has not been free from Taleban attacks, however. On 17 June a resident of Qarghayi district told AAN that the Taleban were attacking security posts daily. He said there is fighting every night on the Farmankhelo security post, about five kilometres west of the district centre. The source said that civilians had been injured and killed in the crossfire between the Taleban and government forces, including a child killed during fighting at the Baghyano security post in Kharoti village.
A civil society activist told AAN on 24 July that there were three reasons that Qarghayi district remained relatively safe. Firstly, its location on the Kabul-Nangrahar highway, which means the government pays more attention to this district compared to the province’s other districts. Second, the district’s geography – vast plains – afford few hideouts to the Taleban. Finally, locals are sufficiently united that they have been able to deter Taleban incursions.
Dawlat Shah district
Since Dawlat Shah district was taken by the Taleban in early July, a local source told AAN (on 24 July) that there has been no fighting, since there were no government forces left in the district. He said the Taleban have been treating the local population well and have repeatedly asked government district officials to return to their offices and resume their work. However, this has not yet happened as government employees fear the Taleban, he said.
Since Alisheng fell on 9 July, the government has mounted some counter-attacks. On 23 July, Sayed Maqsud Sahebzada, the deputy spokesperson of the 201 Silab Corps of the ANA responsible for Eastern Afghanistan, said that their air force had bombarded Alisheng’s district centre, as well as the Gardai Salab and Barakzai areas of the district, and neighbouring Ghaziabad district of Kunar province, killing 31 and wounding 37 insurgents in both districts (see Etilaat-e Roz report).
However, the Taleban continue to hold the district, but seem to be exercising only moderate control over the population. A tribal elder in Alisheng district told AAN on 25 July that the Taleban have told the people during Eid in mosques that they should not shave their beards. However, he said the Taleban have not punished people for shaving or shortening their beards so far. Also another resident said that the Taleban are treating the people well, apart from telling them to regularly go to the mosque and pray. The civil employees of Alisheng district are yet to return to restore services.
A tribal elder in Alisheng district told AAN on 2 August that the Taleban have so far not told female government employees not to go to work. No requirements for mahrams have been made so far. However, he said that last year the Taleban told the principals of schools under their control that the female teacher can continue their duty but the principals should not accept any more female teachers introduced by the education department. According to this tribal elder many girls passed the teaching exam in Alisheng and they should have been recruited.
A resident of Alingar district told AAN that there had been no fighting in the district since the Taleban takeover on 12 July. He also said that the Taleban addressed villagers in Meskinabad’s mosque and urged them to grow their beards. They have also instructed people to pay ushr [tax] to the Taleban in Meskinabad village.  This resident also said that the government employees have started working again in the district, including the education officer, head of the district information and statistic authority, head of the public health and head of the villages department. He said that the Taleban broke the lock of the education department and appointed their own person to run the education department, after the head of district education failed to return to work. The other employees remained on their posts. AAN confirmed this from a former head of the municipality in Alingar district.
A tribal elder in Alingar district told AAN that so far the Taleban had not prevented women employees from the education and health departments from carrying out their jobs, nor did they tell women to have a mahram with them when going to clinics.
Badpakh district remains under full Taleban control. One day after the district’s surrender, on 7 July, the Taleban sent a WhatsApp message to the media saying they had captured Badpakh district and alleging a subsequent government airstrike had caused civilian casualties in the district. No one has been detained following the surrender. There has been no fighting in the district since then.
Popular mobilisation against the Taleban
There has been no popular mobilisation in Laghman against the Taleban. However, a Tajik resident of Dawlat Shah district told AAN on 25 May that a Panjshiri commander had attempted to organise resistance forces in Laghman. According to this source, the commander had been calling local youth in Laghman and pressuring them to take up arms against the Taleban. However, he said that everyone, including him, rejected the commander’s entreaties. When there were jobs and other opportunities available, he and his peers had repeatedly contacted this commander and other Jamiat commanders to ask for their support in getting jobs or contracts, but they had not received help. “We will never again fight for the interest of others,” he said.
This was probably part of the attempts to organise popular resistance by the former governor of Balkh and senior member of the Jamiat Islami party, Atta Muhammad Nur; Abdul Rashid Dostum, the head of Jombesh party and Muhammad Mohaqeq, the People’s Islamic Unity of Afghanistan. Two months ago, they agreed to join forces to initiate a second resistance against the Taleban (see AAN’s report). The 1990s Northern Alliance resistance against the Taleban, largely staged in Panjshir, is commonly referred to as the first resistance. However, the recent resistance by these former commanders, especially in the north, did not result in notable successes. Instead, district after district fell to the Taleban.
Anecdotal reports suggest that part of the reason for this failure include a backdrop of eroded trust as well as a lack of responsiveness. For example, on 24 July, sources in Dawlat Shah district told AAN that some people had initially wanted to take up weapons and receive reinforcement from the Panjshiri commander who had urged them to take a stand against the Taleban. But the sources said it was now too late, since nearly all the districts had already fallen to the insurgents, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the people to receive “anything from anyone.”
Another interviewee from Dawlat Shah who lives in Mehtarlam told AAN that Dado Khan, a former commander of Hezb-e Islami then of Jamiat-e Islami, went to Panjshir after the collapse of Dawlat Shah to receive some ammunition and money to fight against the Taleban, but said he had received nothing from Panjshiri commanders. According to this interviewee there are three clans of Tajiks in Farajghan area of Dawlat Shah of which two were originally from Panjshir and still have strong relations with Panjshiris. However, this does not seem to have resulted in support that many hoped for.
The government in Kabul has reacted to the fall of four districts to the Taleban by appointing a new governor. However, it is far from clear that a political reshuffle will do anything to stem the severe military losses. The new governor steps into a divided and besieged provincial capital and a local government with low morale, resulting from the government’s arrest of top civil and military officials and tribal elders from the districts that surrendered. Even though many have since been released, critics say that the already exhausted and frustrated security personnel in the province are unlikely to stand against further Taleban incursions.
With trusted local leaders feeling frustrated, a newly appointed governor and two rival MPs still fighting over resources, it remains to be seen how long the government can maintain its tenuous hold on the provincial centre Mehtarlam or the Kabul-Nangrahar highway. Under these circumstances, Mehterlam in particular might be an easy catch for a new Taleban attack, while regaining ground to the north might be a challenge for government forces.
As for the Taleban’s next move, closing in on the highway in Laghman may be consistent with their strategy elsewhere in the country of capturing border points.  If they manage to take control of the rest of Laghman province, and particularly the areas near the main highway, they will be able to cut off access and revenue to Kabul from all of eastern Afghanistan, significantly increasing the pressure they can exert on Afghanistan’s capital. The Taleban already largely control the highways connecting Kabul to the north, south, and west of the country, leaving only the routes to the east and south-east under government control (see AAN map here). While the Taleban are likely to keep highways open to allow trade and travel for humanitarian reasons, they could cut off the government’s revenue streams and prevent government officials from travelling.
The loss of control of major customs points coupled with sporadic closure of highways has already caused the price of food and other consumer goods to rise across the country, bringing more pressure to bear on a population already struggling to cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Bank, poverty in Afghanistan “may increase from a baseline of 54.5 percent to up to 72 percent” due to the pandemic (see Khaama Press report and World Bank blog here).
To prevent further surrenders by ANDSF, the government would need to reinforce its military forces for a counter-offensive as well as bolstering the strength and morale of troops when or if they are once again surrounded. But despite this perilous situation for Laghman civilians and the capital, there is little sign yet of a new strategic direction from the government. The government seems focused on appointments and punishments of provincial and district officials, at a time when the people of Laghman are desperate for leadership. If the national and provincial governments are unable to overcome their political differences, it seems likely that it is only a matter of time before the Taleban win the remaining districts and the government loses all of Laghman province.
Edited by Hannah Duncan, Roxanna Shapour, Thomas Ruttig and Rachel Reid