The Taliban continue their advance through Afghanistan, with regional capitals falling one after another. Today’s WSJ headline reads, “Speed of the Taliban Advance Surprises U.S., Alarms Allies,” and the NYT asks, “Could the Taliban Take over Afghanistan?” Worrisome, but abstract. It’s difficult for the average Western reader to conceptualize how this conflict is taking shape, as Afghanistan’s geography and socio-political structure are . . . well, foreign.
These news reports tell of almost a dozen regional capitals falling to the Taliban in a brief span, which can leave a reader to wonder, “How many regional capitals are there, anyway; is nine a lot?” There are 34 total regional capitals, apparently. Numbers mean little outside of context.
Helpfully, there are maps, providing us with an illustrated reference and a soaring perspective. But maps suffer their own flaws, representing vast swaths of land as “owned” by one side or another but effectively uninhabited by either force.
The best combination of word, illustration, and scope I found comes courtesy of Vox’s Jen Kirby. Published August 11, she sat down with Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, to unpack what is happening in Afghanistan, why it matters, and the possible outcomes.
A fascinating excerpt describing the Afghan government’s minuscule presence in the vastness of the country reads:
So when we see the Afghanistan map with all the color-coded territory, it’s not so much that the Taliban has full control over those large swaths. It’s just that those little village outposts have fallen one by one, so there’s nobody around to stop the Taliban from closing in on the cities.
That’s exactly it. That’s not only what’s happening, but that’s also the significance of what’s happening. The fewer obstacles that stand in the Taliban’s way in the countryside, the fewer speed bumps they have on their way to the doorsteps of the cities — which is where they are now — around most of the country.
The New York Times ran a piece and got someone to go on the record with something I’ve been told over the last couple of weeks. One Afghan government official told them some of these districts fell when 10 Taliban fighters showed up. A lot of this was just the collapse of government authority, and if it could collapse in the face of 10 Taliban fighters, we have to be honest: It was barely there to begin with.
The Taliban's increasing hold over Afghanistan.#AFPGraphics map showing parts of Afghanistan under government control and territories under the influence of the Taliban, from April till August pic.twitter.com/x1U1QiFhg0
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) August 9, 2021
You can read the full and valuable interview here.