MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – The fall was as fast as it was furious.
The sounds of gunfire contrasted by impassioned prayers ricocheted through the dark sky as hundreds – possibly thousands – of Taliban fighters on motorcycles stormed through the strategic northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Saturday night, celebrating into the early hours of Sunday.
But the dizzyingly quick overthrow of Mazar, a microcosm of what is sweeping across a crumbling Afghanistan, begs to jarring question: how did they take the key city and one that has notoriously boasted a staunchly anti-Taliban sentiment, so smoothly?
The Taliban cruised through seemingly with very little resistance or shots fired, just hours after rumors ran rampant that the first of three frontlines was breached.
However, one Afghan official who I reached by phone late Saturday afternoon assured me that the city would hold for at least another 48 hours. Make that closer to 48 minutes.
Perhaps most strikingly was the evident lack of air support despite the billions spent by the Americans to train and equip the highly-touted Afghan Air Force.
The fight was over barely before it has begun.
According to multiple intelligence and security sources, a deal to hand the city over was quietly struck between the Taliban and an Afghan National Army commander to hand over the city in advance.
Yet no other parties to the fight – including uprising forces commanded by local leaders Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur – were said to have been notified of the secret handover, leaving those left standing simply stunned.
“We are still trying to work out what happened,” an Afghan government official said. “Many are saying there was a plot, a betrayal.”
Less than 24 hours before Mazar fell, Afghan Special Forces Col. Safiullah Mohammadi noted that a large portion of battlefield losses stem from internal corruption within the government forces being paid off by the Taliban or sharing inside information.
“The corruption isn’t new,” he said. “But it has gotten really bad.”
Another Afghan defense official pointed out that the cash-swathed Taliban typically pays off as much of the leadership as possible in order to have the defect, another key battlefield tactic.
In its July 2021 report, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said more than $88 billion had been spent on Afghanistan’s security over the protracted conflict, with now little to show for such an investment.
Most of the Taliban victors biking around the Mazar streets donning traditional shalwakaniz dress on Sunday appeared to be between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. And while lacking the experience of many of their well-trained Afghan Army enemies, they overpower in sheer numbers of fighters and high morale.
Their rapid gains in recent times could also be attributed to the freshly acquired arsenal of U.S, taxpayer-funded weapons ditched by fleeing Afghan forces.
In the case of Mazar, thousands of Afghan military dumped their U.S. taxpayer-funded weapons with more than 10,000 soldiers fleeing toward the Uzbekistan border. And while Washington earlier this year pledged an additional $3.3 billion to fund Afghan security teams through 2024, it appears the central government will have long fragmented with the only major city – Kabul – left under the centralized system.
Meanwhile, an odd new reality washed over the strategic northern municipality on Sunday – this time with the newly-erected white-and-black Taliban flag hoisted high. There were no women to be seen in the streets, and instead, fresh faces racing motorcycles in a city that they have not controlled for twenty years. Mazar marked the first Taliban-run city to fall in the U.S. invasion after September 11.