The Taliban may be poised to seize control of major cities in Afghanistan for the first time since the US-backed intervention ousted the Islamist group from power in 2001, serving and former Afghan officials have warned.
The warnings come amid growing concern about the emergence of a “pro-Taliban axis,” including Russia, Iran, and China, who see the group as a bulwark against the Islamic State terror group and would like to see US and other Western powers ousted from the country.
The resurgence of the Taliban was epitomised by the fall on Thursday of Sangin, the strategic town in Helmand province which 100 British soldiers died trying to defend.
The Taliban's seizure of Sangin was seen by many as inevitable. Western and government control of the town was always tenuous, even at the height of fighting in the area, and the Taliban already runs extortion rackets and makes money from poppy farmers and heroin processing labs in the area.
But its loss was still a major blow because of the town's strategic significance as the gateway to central and western Afghanistan. The town sits astride Highway 611, the road that connects Kabul with Kandhar and the strategic district of Greashak.
Control of Sangin will give the Taliban a launch pad for attacks on the provincial capital of Lashkargah.
Hashim Alokozay, the senator for Helmand and a native of the Sangin district, told the Sunday Telegraph abandoning the town was “the wrong decision.”
"The district of Sangin was surrounded for 14 months by Taliban. The forces couldn't get reinforcements and supplies. So the government failed soldiers. They left the district,” he said. “The Taliban will now be able to recruit more people into their ranks. So with the government leaving Sangin to Taliban... Lashkargah is surrounded."
The setback reflects the central government’s tenuous hold on not only on its outlying regions, but key areas like the economy.
As the West winds down its presence in Afghanistan, the central government has failed to effectively grapple with soaring inflation and unemployment, and a consequently a high crime rate
A resurgent Taliban - and increasingly other outside powers - are filling the vacuum. In some parts of the country under its control the jihadists are assuming the role of a Hezbollah-type group that finds legitimacy by supplying some services and security.
The group appear to be focusing on extending their control of Afghanistans rich mineral resources, including selling black market rubies, emeralds and gold from mines in Badakhshan and marble quarries in Helmand province.
And it is not just the Taliban who are filling a vacuum left by the diminished US and Western presence.
In February, what appeared to be Chinese military vehicles were photographed on patrol in the remote area of Northeastern Afghanistan that borders China’s Xinxiang province – the first sign that Beijing has felt compelled to secure its own interests in the country.
Meanwhile, Russia has stepped up talks with factions including the Taliban, and has even been accused by US military chiefs of supplying weapons to the militants.
Both Beijing and Moscow have interest national security interests in the country. China wants to prevent the country being used as a safe haven by Uighur groups fighting an insurgency in its Xinjiang province, and has struck an alliance with Pakistan. Russia is keen to contain the flow of opium and extremists into former Soviet Central Asia.
But some fear there are other motives at work.
"There is an emerging Taliban Axis comprising of Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran. They are united in two things: evicting US from Afghanistan and combating Daesh," Dr Dawood Moradian, director for Afghan institute for strategic studies in Kabul, said on Friday.
Amid an ongoing crisis in relations between Russia and the West, Moscow’s activity has raised particular concern in Washington.
"I've seen the influence of Russia of late - increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban," Army General Curtis Scaparotti, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, told a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday. Last month another US commander, Gen John Nicholson, said Russia and Iran were both pursuing policies there in part designed “to undermine the United States and Nato.”
The generals appeared to be referring to unconfirmed reports of weapons without serial numbers, including machine guns and grenade launchers, crossing the border of Tajikistan, where Russia maintains a military presence. They presented no evidence to back up the claims.
The Russian government has called the comments “absurd” and accused the generals of seeking to justify further military spending and find a scapegoat for the US’s failure to bring stability to Afghanistan over the past 16 years.
“General Scaparotti’s report does not deserve serious analysis,” the Russian ministry of defence said in a statement on Friday.
“Not one fact, figure, or document – just the same slogans, only now in new formats, and absurd accusations,” it added. None the less, Russia’s consultations with the Taliban are no secret, and Moscow may view the increasingly powerful group as a possible counterweight to Isil, which appeared in the country last year.
“As long as the Talibs have a conflict with Isil, it would make sense for Russia to have contact with them,” said Omar Mohammed Amir Nessar, an expert on Afghanistan at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Eastern Affairs in Moscow.
He dismissed the US claims of Russia going so far as to supply weapons as “information warfare.” “For one thing, there’s no guarantee the weapons you supply will stay with the faction you give them to,” he said.
Few experts believe Aghanistan will face a repetition of the collapse of central government that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Western powers, and the United States in particular, still maintain a military presence and financial support to the Kabul government.
And while the central authorities are weak and fractious, so are the Taliban, points out Sir William Patey, former British Ambassador.
"No one will want to inherit this crock of the proverbial," he said.
"We just didn't have the stamina - we always rush to hand things over to the locals, which is very laudable, but we did it before the institutions had been build. But this kind of thing really takes 20 or 30 years,” he added. “We're in for a long period of instability," he said.