It seems likely that the twentieth anniversary of the al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the United States – the event that brought the American military to Afghanistan – will be remembered for the start of the second Taleban emirate. After President Joe Biden announced the full, rapid and unconditional withdrawal of all international military forces from Afghanistan by 11 September, the Taleban launched major assaults on government-held areas; districts after district, and then provincial capitals toppled until finally, the group took Kabul on 15 August. The US may have expected a ‘decent interval’, a period of stability after its withdrawal, but, says AAN’s Kate Clark, its own strategy of recent years has been one factor – although not the only one – facilitating the Taleban takeover.Then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in the Qatari capital Doha.
Photo: Patrick Semansky/POOL/AFP, 21 November, 2020.
Just how fundamentally flawed was US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad’s strategy is now laid bare. It was driven by the United States’ desire to withdraw its troops, meaning the US had already given away its main bargaining chip before it came to the table. Even more dangerously, it gambled on the Taleban actually wanting to negotiate an end to the war rather than try for military victory.
Fatal flaws in the Doha deal
Stemming from that desire and that assumption came first, Khalilzad’s caving in to Taleban demands to exclude the Afghan government from negotiations. From those talks emerged the bilateral US-Taleban deal signed in February 2020 in Doha, a Trump-era agreement that Biden inherited. To get that deal, Khalilzad prised only vague promises from the Taleban – on their dealings with al-Qaeda and other international jihadist groups, to begin talking to the government – and just one strong commitment – that they would not attack the US and ‘its allies’. In return, the US conceded a swift timetable for the virtually unconditional withdrawal of international troops, that the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taleban prisoners, and that it would cease attacks on the Taleban. The US also agreed to work for United Nations sanctions to be lifted. This was never implemented and remains one of the few measures the Taleban has kept demanding – and so may provide a modicum of leverage over their future actions. (AAAN analysis and text of the deal can be found here.)
The Doha agreement was a withdrawal deal dressed up as a peace agreement. It bound the US and the Taleban not to attack each other while international troops withdrew. There was to be no cease-fire. Rather, the US had extracted just a ten-day period when violence generally was reduced in the run-up to the deal being signed. The Taleban were then free to attack their fellow Afghans again from 1 March 2020 onwards. AAN monitored how the Taleban cautiously ramped up violence over 2020, how they probed to see what they could do without bringing the US back into the conflict (see publications from March, April, August and October 2020 here and here, and a whole year review, here).
Khalilzad’s strategy boosted Taleban morale. It gave them legitimacy on the international stage, leant not only by the US but all the other countries whose diplomats flocked to Doha. The start of ‘intra-Afghan talks’ there in September 2020, was headlined by the meeting of Head of the Taleban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The many media outlets covering the event wondered if the Taleban had actually changed and whether this was the start of the end of the war.
In practical terms, the US strategy also helped the Taleban in their continuing war against the Afghan government and its forces. The US largely removed itself from the battlefield, sparing the Taleban their most dangerous enemy, while denying the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) US support except in extremis. The deal also ensured 5,000 Taleban prisoners were released. At times, the way the US pressured Kabul to comply with its agreement with the Taleban made it seem Washington was happier dealing with the political commission in Doha than the Arg in Kabul.
US planning appeared not to have allowed even for the possibility that the Taleban might be playing a double game – going along with the negotiations, while actually intent on a military solution, or that they might redouble their efforts to capture Afghanistan by force once the international forces left.
That US focus on putting almost all its energies into fostering intra-Afghan talks was sustained even when this was to the detriment of the ANSF and the government in Kabul. After the Doha agreement, for example, the US pressured the ANSF to take first a defensive and then an ‘active defence’ stance, ie the ANSF would take, at most, pre-emptive action. The ANSF was forced to wait passively for the Taleban to attack them and could only watch as the Taleban consolidated territory and spoke of the coming victory. Along with the withdrawal of US air support, the active defence stance was a disaster for ANSF morale and further encouraged the Taleban, as they were given virtually free reign. One of many soldiers and police interviewed by guest author Andrew Quilty in summer 2020 gave a typical account: “[The Taleban] aren’t stressed about air strikes anymore,” said the deputy commander of an ANP checkpost on the highway south of Maidanshahr. “They walk around in the open with their weapons… They’re very relaxed, checking everyone slowly and carefully.” The stance of the ANSF was only changed in the late summer in the face of mounting attacks by the emboldened Taleban.
That last quarter of 2020, just after ‘intra-Afghan talks’ had finally begun in Doha, was the most violent of any last quarter that UNAMA had monitored. Over the winter, there was also a campaign of unclaimed – but it seemed clear, largely Taleban-perpetrated – targeted killings of off-duty ANSF, judges and lawyers, government officials, journalists and activists, in Kabul and other cities. It appeared to be a systematic exercise to dishearten the ANSF and government officials, a demonstration that, even in the nation’s capital, there was no place of safety. Killing journalists and activists seemed aimed at silencing voices and removing – literally – potential civic opposition ahead of any attempted takeover. The Taleban may have judged that picking off individuals in unclaimed killings, rather than launching large-scale mass casualty urban attacks would be less provocative to the Americans. Yet, the result – terrorising the population and undermining the government – would be just as effective.
All through this time, Khalilzad’s assumption that the Taleban were pursuing a negotiated peace informed not only US policy but also that of its allies. Internationally, many institutions were commissioned to look into ‘post-peace’ scenarios – as strange a phrase to describe a future peaceful Afghanistan as ‘post-conflict’ has been to describe the Afghanistan of much of the last twenty years. Studies looked at how a future constitution might work, at disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), women’s rights, the economy and development. Peace-advocacy NGOs were given funds to build negotiating ‘capacity’ in the government, or advise on how to bring women into the peace process, or deploy technical support to the intra-Afghan talks. New bodies and a new ministry were set up in Kabul to guide and carry out the government’s peace strategy. The various political factions in Afghanistan wrote up their own plans for peace. Khalilzad’s strategy was spawning fantasy castles of research, advocacy and new institutions.
The Taleban’s attitude to the intra-Afghan talks showed every sign of their ‘running down the clock’, of avoiding any discussion of substantive issues and wasting time till the foreign forces left (see AAN reporting here). Despite warm words from the Taleban in Doha, on the ground, there were no signs that the Taleban were preparing for compromise. The leadership did not embark on the sort of work it would have to have done with its cadres if it had wanted to prepare them for an end to the ‘armed struggle’ – quite the opposite. On 25 March 2021, for example, just across the border in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, Emirate-era Taleban chief of the army staff, former Guantanamo inmate and member of the Taleban’s negotiating team in Doha, who trails credible allegations of the most serious war crimes, Mullah Fazl Mazlum (biography here), promised supporters: “The amir or leader of will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Sharia.” He said they would not “let the sacrifices of our martyrs be wasted. God willing, we will see the victory” and, as a concession, they would “grant them [some individuals from the current government] a ministry or some other post.”
Fatal flaws in the withdrawal
When President Biden announced on 14 April 2021 the full, rapid and unconditional withdrawal of US forces, he tied it to a US domestic political event – the twentieth anniversary of the al-Qaeda’s 11 September attacks on American soil. As so often, America’s Afghan policy was pegged to what might sound good to a domestic US audience rather than its consequences for Afghanistan – good or bad. Biden’s decision was sudden and, although not out of the blue, further undermined the ANSF. How to keep crucial tasks going, such as maintaining aircraft, had not been considered. US air support to the ANSF fell away. Although it was eventually ramped up, it came late in the Taleban’s offensive, too late to demonstrate the support which might have helped rally Afghan troops on the ground. The withdrawing US forces appeared to coordinate more with their enemies than with the allies they were leaving behind: witness the unannounced overnight vacation of the Bagram airbase, with the electricity left on a twenty-minute timer. The US appeared driven by a desire just to get the withdrawal done and over, a ‘ripping-off of the Band-Aid plaster’ and a hope for the best.
As the US prepared for peace, the Taleban prepared for war
Even as districts and eventually provinces fell, Washington clung to the mirage of peace talks. On 25 June, when more than a third of Afghanistan’s districts – 149 out of 421 – were in Taleban hands, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said they were “looking very hard at whether the Taliban is, at all, serious about a peaceful resolution of the conflict.” Scarcely believable were comments by Khalilzad on 3 August, when more than half – 248 – of Afghanistan’s districts were in Taleban hands, and after weeks of the government defending or losing territory, and the Taleban attacking and taking territory: he warned “both sides of a “protracted war” if they focused on a “military solution.” He urged the Taleban and government instead to “focus on finding a formula for the ‘formation of a new government that is acceptable to both parties’” (Radio Liberty report here). That same day, State Department spokesperson, answering questions from journalists, was also still denying events on the ground.
Spokesperson: We will continue to support the diplomacy. We will continue to rally the international community. We will continue to do all we can to achieve this negotiated settlement which the Afghan Government is behind, which the Taliban says it’s behind, and which, as I just rattled off, the international community is absolutely behind.
Question: You can say that the international community is behind it, but for three years we’ve been in Doha. The Taliban is not committed to the peace talks. It’s very, very clear. Just yesterday, Embassy Kabul said that the massacre of civilians could be war crimes. So why continue with the fiction of Doha when the Taliban is in civil war and, for all intents and purposes, they’re killing civilians as well as targeting officials? What is the point of being in Doha or even participating in it to give them the cover of being involved in peace negotiations?
Spokesperson: Doha is a tactic. We’re in Doha because we believe, the international community believes, the Government of Afghanistan believes, and the Taliban say they believe that diplomacy is —
Question: But it’s a failure.
Spokesperson: Is – has it achieved the results any of us want? Of course not, not yet. But we’re not ready to throw in the towel on diplomacy.
Question: Isn’t it political cover for withdrawal? You inherited the withdrawal. For what other purpose are we still there?
Spokesperson: The diplomacy began well before the withdrawal.
Question: Three years ago.
Question: And nothing has been achieved. They’ve never agreed to anything substantive in terms of a permanent solution.
The United States’ Doha deal gave the Taleban – and presumably its ISI backers – more than a year to plan their military strategy and put it into action. The Afghan government might also have been planning for the US withdrawal, but it did not. There was no apparent sense of urgency among Kabul politicians and no comprehension of the need to come together and prepare to defend the Republic after the American military left. Instead, they argued over who got to go to Doha, or sit on the various peace bodies that the Doha agreement had spawned and, following disputed elections, held rival presidential inaugurations – this, even as the US troops were starting their phased withdrawal – and then entered into disputes over appointments to the new government. The MPs delayed their approval of the 2021 budget as they and the Ghani government tussled over money – money for MPs’ pet development projects versus money going into unaccountable ‘contingency’ lines controlled by the president. Ghani clutched power increasingly to himself and his tiny inner circle, the very opposite of what the existential threat facing the Republic demanded.
Ashraf Ghani’s handling of the security forces, already weakened by two decades of corruption, further undermined them. He kept a sick defence minister, Asadullah Khaled, in post until May 2020, a man whom, because of his record of torture and rape (see this Human Rights Report), Ghani should have never appointed in the first place. Khaled’s good relations with the CIA and US military probably drove that appointment in the first place and kept him in post. Ghani replaced Khaled, finally, in May 2021. He also changed the minister of interior, twice, this year and at least one person with no experience in intelligence was promoted to a deputy director position in the NDS. One veteran from the MoD was scathing about this way of running the security services:
In any organisation, if you change the leadership three times, how can it function? Running a ministry is not an easy thing – [in the interior ministry] you need to know the police chiefs. You need to learn a lot to know personnel, departments, mechanisms, how the system is running, how to have a coordination.
There was also churn at the second-highest levels of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). Over half of the district police chiefs were changed this year, security responsibility for provinces was transferred from governors to ANA corps commanders and almost all of those corps commanders were changed, along with the chief of the army; some positions went through more than one person. The veteran at MoD said these personnel changes weakened the entire command structure:
[They] disconnected the lower level from the leadership. If a local commander in the field can’t contact his own leadership, if he gets no response, if he needs air support or direction or coordination at the provincial or district level… Changes of leadership create a vacuum of leadership. This was a big issue behind the takeovers.
It was government inaction in another sphere that also weakened the ANSF. There had been assessments of which districts were vulnerable to Taleban takeover, places whose centres were surrounded by Taleban and which were difficult to resupply. AAN was told one assessment, made at the start of the Doha process, pinpointed about 100 such districts, while another, at the start of this year, found 170. A little was done to consolidate forces in defensible territory – forces were quietly withdrawn from Bala Morghab district in Badghis province, for example, and from some difficult-to-defend posts and bases (see AAN reporting here), but the consolidation faltered. AAN was told by two sources that the Palace had wanted to hold out and not concede territory. It just meant that when the Taleban began to make probing attacks in May, the rapid fall of such districts proved to be a psychological blow to the ANSF and government officials. It was one reason why a trickle of falling districts became a torrent and the Taleban looked to be the victorious force. Who, in those circumstances, would want to fight?
More could be said here about how corruption hollowed out the security forces. Fuel, food, medicine for wounded soldiers, jobs, all have been sold over the years, and this continued even as Afghanistan fell to the Taleban; on 1 August – less than three weeks ago – it was revealed that aviation fuel at the Zabul garrison had been sold, allegedly by the garrison commander. “These people,” said one resident, quoted by Tolonews, “have become accustomed to embezzlement.” More could also be said about Ghani’s failure to provide resources to popular resistance forces – the readiness was there in many places, but not the funding.
The end game
By the end, Ghani had few allies and was completely isolated. His micro-managing, inability to delegate, quick temper and fear of rivals had left the administration drained of talent, flexibility and decisiveness. Inaction, such as the failure to properly resource those organised to resist, sabotaged the defence of the Republic. The shell of government persisted: the Palace public relations team reported on presidential events that were increasingly and bizarrely disconnected from the unfolding catastrophe in the country – the launch of the e-cabinet on 1 August, a ceremony to launch electronic payment of salaries to state employees on 3 August, the approval of various security, health and infrastructure projects including the design and construction of the Khanabad electricity dam in Kunduz on 10 August, the president meeting Afghanistan’s Olympics team, and international youth day celebrations on 12 August.
Accounts of Ghani’s final weeks in Kabul are reminiscent of the last days of the last shah of Iran. Locked in a disaster of his own making, Ghani was out of touch with reality, and indecisive. His secret flight out of Afghanistan as the Taleban entered Kabul, without informing even the defence minister and leaving no transitional arrangements in place, will be a lasting ignominy.
In Afghanistan, the tide of war has almost always turned, not because of the military strength of the opposition but because of government weakness, with the withdrawal of external support sometimes also causing the conflict to tip. This has been the case again in 2021. The Taleban strategy did appear to be well-thought-out: first attack the weak districts, focus on the border towns to choke off government revenues, use a combination of menace and promises to get bloodless handovers where possible, keep up the momentum. In the end, the country fell like a house of cards. This was not inevitable. Even if the ANA’s resources and numbers were far weaker than they were on paper, Afghanistan’s army was still more numerous and better armed than the Taleban. There was a potential readiness to defend, and potential popular support that could have been mobilised. The ANA had, after all, largely been fighting the Taleban by itself since 2014, when the ISAF mission ended. Yet, the Republic had weakened itself through government ineptitude and state corruption, disunity among the elites and the insatiable desire to co-opt state resources by those in power. In the end, they were unable to imagine that the wolf at the door was real and to take action.
When the final withdrawal came, unlike the Soviet Union which had spent three years preparing the Afghan government to resist the mujahedin after its troops left in 1989, the US has spent its final years strengthening its enemy and weakening its ally. And while the US pressed ahead with its fantasy peace strategy, the Taleban were preparing for war.
The absence of contingency planning by the United States and other western powers – of a Plan B if the Taleban did prefer to fight rather than talk – is stark. Yet, this unfolding catastrophe stemmed not from intelligence failures, but a vain hope in the best-case scenario and a wilful blindness to the worst. They are only now scrambling to work out how to deal with the new de facto authorities in Kabul. A Taleban takeover, it seems, had not featured in their ‘scenario planning’.
Whether the Taleban’s second emirate lasts is another matter. At present, the situation seems highly unstable. The Taleban’s blitzkrieg may have brought rapid victory, but the movement now has to rule a population of 30 million during a drought year, and a pandemic, with the economy collapsing and the treasury empty. In many places, their takeover is resented and opposed, not least in Kabul. There, the Taleban found not the defeated people of a war-ruined city, as when they captured the Afghan capital from the warring mujahedin in 1996, but a people who are more educated, more connected to other parts of Afghanistan and the world, and used to a measure of freedom of speech and expression. They will be a restive population to rule. It was not so long ago that the takbir – Allahu Akbar – was being shouted by Kabulis in support of the ANSF and against the Taleban.
For now, though, Khalilzad’s Doha agreement and Biden’s decision to tie the US withdrawal to 9/11 gave the Taleban a timetable for action. Then, the fall of the Republic was more rapid than anyone had imagined. It means that on 11 September 2021, not only the Taleban but also the various violent jihadist groups in the world will be celebrating the twentieth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks and rejoicing in the second defeat of a superpower by Afghan ’mujahedin’.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 21 Aug 2021