SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
U.S. forces and their allies may have largely left Afghanistan. But the country's four-decade-long war continues. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: This is, perhaps, the moment when the Afghan conflict entered a new phase - in April, when President Biden announced American troops were withdrawing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's time to end America's longest war.
HADID: Since then, the Taliban have overrun about half of Afghanistan. Officially, they're negotiating peace with the Afghan government. But on the ground, a mid-level Taliban commander tells us the goal is quite different. He spoke to NPR's producer Fazelminallah Qazizai over the phone. He requested anonymity because he doesn't want Afghan forces to identify him.
UNIDENTIFIED TALIBAN COMMANDER: (Through interpreter) These military achievements are so we can rule the country.
HADID: He goes on to say the strategy is to overrun key districts and encircle urban centers to force their surrender. The Taliban are also taking control of border crossings to deny the Afghan government revenue from customs duties and to compel neighboring countries to deal with them. One of the Taliban's greatest achievements was to overrun much of northern Afghanistan earlier this month. Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary showed a video of Taliban fighters strolling through a newly conquered green valley. They were crying out long live the Islamic Emirate, which is what the Taliban call themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).
BILAL SARWARY: The pace of the fall of major districts is not only surprising, it's quite shocking.
HADID: Shocking because northern areas were once the bastions of resistance to the Taliban. The Taliban commander we spoke to says that's why they targeted these areas.
UNIDENTIFIED TALIBAN COMMANDER: (Non-English language spoken).
HADID: To curb any nascent opposition. Taking the north also shows how the Taliban's fighting force has evolved. The north is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Taliban are largely Pashtun. But in the past few years, Sarwary says the Taliban have been recruiting from those communities.
SARWARY: Now they have, you know, people from Tajik, from Uzbek, from Turkmen communities. These commanders and leaders from these communities played a massive role in terms of places falling and places surrendering to the Taliban.
HADID: So in many cases, the Taliban fighters that seized northern areas weren't southern invaders, they were neighbors.
BILL ROGGIO: The Taliban often brought tribal elders and negotiated with a lot of these guys.
HADID: Bill Roggio is from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He says the Taliban are also benefiting from poor morale among Afghan government forces, many in isolated outposts, often going for months without support. He says tribal elders made this offer.
ROGGIO: If you surrender, we won't hurt you. You can go home. We're done. This was appealing to a lot of Afghans who were cut off.
HADID: And in another move that appears aimed at curbing resistance to their rule, the Taliban commander says in districts they've overrun, they're not imposing their harsh rules for now.
UNIDENTIFIED TALIBAN COMMANDER: (Through interpreter) We will not force men to wear beards or women to wear proper headscarves.
HADID: Yet, despite the Taliban's current surge, their victory isn't guaranteed. Enayat Najafizada is a Kabul-based military analyst. He points out that the government, unlike the Taliban, has an air force. And it is repelling insurgents from urban areas.
ENAYAT NAJAFIZADA: I think as long as the military, political and financial support of the U.S. and NATO continues, the Afghan government will be able to contain the Taliban.
HADID: As long as that support continues.
Diaa Hadid, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "GLASS AND STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.