This essays argues that the major reason for the fall of Afghanistan was Taliban fighters’ surprisingly quick move into Afghan provinces and the capital Kabul in August 2021 in a matter of weeks rather than months. It cannot be doubted that the Taliban had prepared for this move in advance, making deals with local Afghan leaders where possible, and using violence or twisting arms where required. Their organised and speedy advance was not foreseen by the intelligence community, nor by diplomats who were assisting the US and UN-led peace process in Doha, New York and other cities for a political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.
The unexpected refusal of the former Afghan government to confront Taliban militarily added to the failure of expectations for holding the ground and preventing a total collapse of the government and its institutions. Had a civil war ensued, which seemed imminent, it would have been bloody, dirty and prolonged. It would have threatened the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and gone deep in the country along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. It would have inevitably forced the UN Security Council (UNSC) to mandate the creation of a UN Peace Keeping Force in Afghanistan replacing US and NATO troops with UN peacekeepers.
The seeds for such a scenario were sowed in the Doha peace talks, which began cautiously in 2018 between the US and Taliban. The talks did not initially include a road map for a political settlement of Afghanistan but focused only on Taliban ceasefire and phased US troops’ reduction and withdrawal. The former government of Afghanistan was not part of the Doha peace process from the very start of the talks except when the exchange or release of Taliban prisoners was discussed between the US and Taliban. It was only after February 2020 when a peace deal had been reached between the US and Taliban that the US and UN started talking about the political future of Afghanistan following the US troops’ withdrawal. By then, it was too late for the former government to extract any concessions from Taliban. On their part, the Taliban regarded the former government of Afghanistan as a puppet administration imposed by force from abroad whose days were numbered with the dates of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Despite the surprise takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and an expected new and peaceful beginning announced by them, the country remains exposed to armed conflict and proxy wars in a post US/NATO troops free Afghanistan, reinforced by the geopolitical location of the country in the arena of great power rivalry for political influence and global trade routes. They have been tied in so many knots of international conditionalities that their goose appears to be dressed up for an easy meal. But no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.
Everyone from military analysts to political leaders, war veterans, intelligence community, Afghans, Indians, Americans and Europeans is asking one question: “Why were Taliban able to retake Afghanistan so easily and quickly when in the assessment of Afghanistan’s friends and supporters, the former government of Mr Ashraf Ghani was well armed and claimed to be under control of the situation?”
After the collapse of the former Afghan government on 15 August 2021 with dramatic scenes of Taliban fighters taking photos in an empty presidential palace in Kabul and saying they were waiting to hear from their leadership what was the next task for them, President Biden said in a televised address to the Americans that evening that he stood by his decision to pull out US troops from Afghanistan by September 2021. But he also blamed the former Afghan government for surrendering to the Taliban and refusing to fight against them, despite the superior firepower and aircover of the Afghan armed forces which the US had ensured after spending $82 billion in creating, funding and training the Afghan military in the last twenty years.
The Big Conversation
Western analysists are trying to find answers to the question what went so wrong in Afghanistan that an investment of over 2 trillion dollars, spent over the last 2 decades did not produce any results when it came to defending the country against a tribally based and loosely organised group of hard core militants not backed by any country in the world. A number of reasons are being advanced. These include the US decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and its bad timing, backing the wrong horse in the race, failure of military intelligence, the rising influence of Taliban in those areas of Afghanistan where the writ of the former government was missing, rampant corruption of Afghan leadership at the centre and the provinces, a bad criminal justice system and poor governance, and fatigue on the part of the Afghan people to carryon fighting after the US troops left the country without giving an agreed political roadmap for the future of Afghanistan
A Fall Guy
There have been accusations against Pakistan from some retired Western diplomats, resident news reporters and NGO personnel, who served in Kabul, that Pakistani agencies created, armed and trained Taliban. But if the US, NATO and the UN could not find any evidence to support those allegations, revisiting these now is no more than a hogwash and amounts to passing the blame of failure to a weaker ally. These diplomats forget that working in a foreign country with the host government 24/7 for a couple of years creates sympathy for the host government of the day and they no longer remain impartial and neutral. This condition is known as “localitis’ in the Foreign Ministries of many countries. To mitigate this, governments keep rotating their diplomats and expatriates on their posts. Pakistan was and remains a partner of the US and NATO on the war against terror but like the US which changed its policy last year about not sending troops to fight in foreign conflicts, Pakistan has also taken a decision that it will not be involved in other countries’ wars in the future.
The seeds of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban were sown in the Doha negotiations which started cautiously in the capital of Qatar in 2018 and gained momentum in the spring of 2019. The negotiations were long and protracted and had no timeline. Eventually the US and Taliban reached an agreement in February 2020. In November 2020 at the end of his first term, President Trump announced a reduction in active US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. After Trump, President Biden followed on his predecessor’s policy of cutting down US involvement in foreign conflicts and decided that US troops will leave Afghanistan by May 2021. He later extended this date to September 2021. The February 2020 peace agreement agreed at Doha did not include the political future of Afghanistan after US troops’ withdrawal. The US assumed that the former government in Kabul will remain in-charge of Afghanistan and defend itself against the Taliban, who are already subject to sanctions’ measures under the 1988 UN sanctions regime, which is implemented through the 2011 UN Security Council (UNSC) Sanctions Committee . Taliban are still regarded as a threat to peace, stability and security of Afghanistan in the UN documents. In many capitals of the world, they are seen as a threat to human rights, liberty, peace and security of the world.
The Cost of Withdrawal
The exclusion of the former Afghan government from the Doha agreement of February 2020 meant that whatever the Taliban offered to the US in their peace deal was limited between them and the US, and did not apply to the former government of Afghanistan except when exchange of prisoners was involved. An intra Afghan dialogue commenced in September 2020 to reach a political settlement of the conflict but it was too late to extract any concessions from Taliban who were aware that the US would not be militarily supporting the puppet government in Kabul indefinitely. President Ghani on his part insisted that Taliban announce a ceasefire and agree to his government’s terms for a peace deal. Could this be a neglect on the part of the US not to include the political settlement of Afghanistan in the February 2020 peace deal is hard to say. But the historical record of foreign troops’ withdrawal from conflict countries is poor in supporting the claim that the departing powers care about resolving ongoing disputes politically and peacefully after them. Take for instance the recent examples of Somalia and Iraq. Going further back in time, the departure of the British from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 shows a similar pattern. There was no agreement on the boundary in Punjab or the status of Muslim majority princely states in the dominion. The partition itself was bloody and painful because no thought was given to peacefully manage the mass migration of Hindus and Muslims between the two newly independent countries. In Afghanistan two major mistakes were made: 1) absence of the former Afghan government in the Doha peace talks from the beginning, and 2) absence of a timely agreement on the political roadmap of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
The US assessment that the former Afghan government was capable of defending itself against the Taliban was wrong, even though Taliban had gained more firepower in the last few years and had captured many remote regions of Afghanistan. The US and NATO miscalculated that the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan would result in reduction of Taliban’s attacks and dampen their appeal to the people of Afghanistan as freedom fighters against foreign troops. But it was obvious that their fight was not against foreign troops only. They were after political power which was snatched away from them by force in November 2001.
The US was also wrong in concluding that if Taliban continued their attacks against the former government, it would mount a credible defence for at least between three to six months. During this period, the US and NATO countries among the P5 could move a resolution at the UNSC to establish a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. A friendly India at the UNSC would be too happy to support the passage of such a resolution by the Council on grounds of responsibility to protect. The US and its NATO allies would have also agreed to provide supplementary funding for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Afghanistan and a contingent comprising military and intelligence officers from many troops-contributing countries including from India and other non-Western countries would be effectively based in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban advance and overthrow of the former government by force. In August, a panel of experts set up by the UN Human Rights Council had suggested to the UNSC to consider invoking Chapter VII for Afghanistan. It allows the Council to respond to threats of peace, or acts of aggression by authorising military and non-military action. Decisions taken by the UNSC under Chapter VII are mandatory.
As an added option, the former government, in the event of a civil war and attacks on civilians, could request a Muslim country such as the UAE, Morocco or Turkey to provide troops to defend Kabul, Kandahar, Heart, Badakhshan and Mazar Sharif against Taliban attacks. Under international law asking a foreign government to send troops to supplement a country’s defence force against militants would be deemed legitimate which would push Taliban deeper in the quagmire of war crimes. But their quick takeover of Afghanistan before the end of August pre-empted all these options.
One of the reasons for their quick movement was the uncertainty of US troops’ withdrawal date. President Trump lost the election in November leaving in limbo the claim that the US would reduce its troops’ presence in conflict countries. President Biden decided to follow through the announcement of his predecessor but in April 2021 he changed the May 1 deadline negotiated with the Taliban to 11 September 2021 to coincide with the anniversary of the Nine Eleven incident. The Taliban were not consulted about the extension and were unsure about September, lest the Biden Administration change this deadline again. The Taliban were also unsure about the outcome of negotiations at the Doha talks which resumed in 2021 involving the former Afghan government for a political settlement. Formation of an interim government of national unity which would include Taliban representation and calling new elections were not on the agenda of these talks. Meanwhile the agreements Taliban had made with individual provincial governors and army commanders individually to cooperate with them were drying on the vine. They had little option expect to move fast to achieve their military objectives in the summer.
While the actual situation on the ground in the years prior to Taliban takeover was mainly dictated by what happened in the military theatre, there was no shortage of diplomatic activity to seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. But these efforts were focused on strengthening the government in Kabul and asking Taliban to reduce violence and agree to a ceasefire, respect human rights, especially rights of women and minorities and not allow the areas under their control to be used for terrorist attacks against the US and its allies. In these negotiations, Taliban were no one’s favourite and suffered from their image as a backward and unorganised militant group.
The UN Secretary General (UNSG) periodically appointed Special Representatives (SR) to Afghanistan. The current SR is Deborah Lyons of Canada. She briefs the UNSC periodically on the situation in Afghanistan. She is also a member of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Mission was established in 2002 on the request of the Afghan government. Its mandate has been subsequently extended by the UNSC periodically to support the Afghan government, assist peace and reconciliation efforts and monitor human rights and protect civilians. This year in March, the UNSG additionally appointed Mr Jean Arnault of France as his new Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and the regional issues. The UN officials have worked closely with the diplomats and special representatives of the US and other NATO countries to support the presence and mandate of foreign troops in Afghanistan. The UNSC also implements the 1988 Sanctions Committee mandate in proscribing and delisting members of Taliban by the US and other governments.
Security Council’s Engagement
In the wake of the fast deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in August, the UNSC met on 6 August for a closed briefing and consultations on Afghanistan. Under rule 37 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, it invited the Permanent Representative (PR) of the former Afghanistan government to the UNSC to brief members. But India blocked an invitation to the PR of Pakistan to brief the Council on Pakistan’s consultations with the Afghan government and Taliban for promoting peace and security in Afghanistan. The UNSC did not issue a statement at the end of its meeting.
The Council met again on 16 August 2021 under the Presidency of India and issued a statement reiterating its earlier demands made to the Taliban. It took cognizance of the change on the ground after 15 August 2021 but did not mention Taliban. In a clear indication that recognition of the de-facto situation in Afghanistan was a long way away, the Taliban were referred to in the UNSC statement as “all parties”.
The UNSC statement copied the demands made by the US administration from the Taliban. These were earlier reiterated by the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who attended the resumed Doha talks on 12 August. These talks, however, collapsed due to the non-arrival of the Afghan High Council Representative at Doha on 15 August 2021. In that meeting Taliban were expected to agree to commit themselves to observe a comprehensive ceasefire, refrain from use of force, respect human rights, including rights of women and minorities, denounce terrorism and engage in an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process for a political settlement to maintain the status quo in Afghanistan.
The fact that this meeting did not take place and an agreement was not reached with the Taliban is the biggest failure of multilateral diplomacy on Afghanistan.
Taliban’s Military Strategy
The multiple layers of US and NATO military strategy supplemented by bilateral and UN diplomatic efforts to keep the Taliban under a straightjacket were timed out by the speed of Taliban’s move to different provincial capitals from end July to mid-August 2021 starting from the periphery and ending with the encirclement of Kabul on 14 and 15 August. On their part, the Taliban ensured that their peace agreement with the US concluded at Doha in 2020 was not violated. Technically, their agreement with the US had ended in May 2001 but they went along with the US extension in the withdrawal date without giving any commitments. They did not have any peace agreement with the former government to honour.
Having been left out of the Doha talks until November last year, and recovering from the shock that it will be all alone to fend for itself after the US and NATO troops had left Afghanistan by the end of the month, the former government in Kabul came under great pressure. Moreover, despite its bold claims to defend itself, its unpopularity with the Afghan government troops who had been underpaid, under fed and unmotivated did not help mount a defence of any sorts, let alone put up a good fight supported by air cover which the Taliban lacked. The Taliban capitalised on this weakness effectively. President Ashraf Ghani was not alone in his decision to leave the country. He had received credible reports that any armed resistance against the Taliban fighting machine would collapse like a pack of cards, leaving him and his close associates at the mercy of Taliban as war captives.
It is important to mention that Taliban had done elaborated planning before they moved to capture Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. They expanded their control in the rural areas by exerting pressure through threats and offering social services where the government had completely failed to run basic services for the people. By July 2021, they were already in control of half of Afghanistan. They made deals with the provincial governors for surrender in return for money and other inducements, perhaps including a general amnesty or a role for them under a Taliban government. The Taliban started from the North where they expected the hardest resistance and moved to the South. They also started from the periphery cutting out supply routes before coming to the urban cities. They capitalised on the demoralised Afghan army and coerced their family members to ask them to sell them weapons and not take up arms against Taliban fighters. The Taliban fought a perfect guerrilla battle of modern times.
At the same time, the Taliban kept their political representation in the Doha talks, showing willingness to talk to the representatives of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation even when their fighters were entering the palace of the former President who had fled the country on 15 August with the message that he did not want to cause any bloodshed by fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Afghan High Council Mr Abdulla Abdulla never reached Doha on 15 August 2021 to achieve what he had discussed with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ten days before: “to accelerate peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement that is inclusive, respects the rights of all Afghans, including women and children, allows the Afghan people to have a say in choosing their leaders and prevents Afghan soil from being used to threaten the US and its allies and partners.” It was too late in the day by a losing side to offer Taliban a power sharing arrangement and then not show up when they were ready to talk peace with the former government in Doha on the day Kabul fell to their fighters without any armed resistance.
Taliban’s political strategy is at present unknown. Perhaps the capture of Afghanistan came too soon for them. They are now trying to agree among themselves and with their allied partners a political arrangement for the future governance of the country reflecting their Islamic ethos and also meeting the expectations of the international community to be recognised as a legitimate, responsible and representative government. Afghanistan is a country with rich tribal, ethnic, sectarian and political diversity. If Taliban do not play their cards with political wisdom and inclusive governance, they could meet resistance from places such as Panjsher Valley where the First Vice President of the former government, Amrullah Saleh, former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, and Ahmad Massoud can become a problem for them in the future. The 300,000 Afghan army which melted away in the air still harbours hard core anti-Taliban commanders who can be organised by a disgruntled political group and used against the Taliban. Former President Hamid Karzai and Head of the still uncertain National Reconciliation Council, Abdulla Abdulla, are also potential threats to a Taliban government if they do not respect the political rights of minorities and repeat the mistakes of the earlier 2001 first Taliban government which made them unpopular in Afghanistan, as well as in the comity of the world. These potential pitfalls can be exploited by foreign powers who may want to settle scores with the Taliban for causing them humiliation and create small pockets of armed resistance witch overtime could become hotbeds of proxy wars, once again pushing Afghanistan into instability and conflict.
Capturing Afghanistan from the former government without a major battle was the easier part for the Taliban. Keeping Afghanistan united and peaceful and securing recognition from the international community to play their part as a government that respects international conventions and agreements and promotes democracy, peace and human rights is a much harder task the Taliban now face as they form the next government of Afghanistan. They also have a long road ahead clearing the political minefields inside the country and the institutional hurdles Western powers and multilateral institutions will place on their way. The country’s rich mineral wealth and sensitive geo-strategic location may also cause Afghanistan to remain unstable and in conflict for a long time before it can see the dawn of peace which has evaded the Afghan people for over half a century. But then, no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.
*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter