By Paul Mutter
On 15 August, two weeks before United States (US) forces were set to leave Afghanistan for good, the Taliban entered Kabul after a lightning summer offensive that saw almost every provincial capital fall to their forces in mere days. A curfew was imposed, thousands crowded Kabul Airport to evacuate and President Ashraf Ghani fled to Tajikistan. Coalition intelligence estimates for the national government to “hold out” had already been shortened from two years to three months; even the latter proved overly optimistic. The Taliban has re-inaugurated its “Islamic Emirate” and now controls more of Afghanistan today than it did when the Coalition invaded in 2001.
Billions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in the name of training and equipping the security forces have come to naught. The Afghan army and national police forces, as well as the various militias summoned by former warlords and resistance fighters, collapsed in abysmal disarray at the beginning of August. Several high-ranking officials fled the country, others defected, while a handful were captured in fighting and even fewer resolved to continue the struggle.
The core of the Taliban strategy to retake Afghanistan was the recognition that the national government was not strong enough to prevent district- and provincial-level authorities from negotiating with their representatives. Even as the Taliban refused to directly negotiate with President Ghani’s government, it was negotiating with those local authorities. And the US did not prioritize the inclusion of the national government in the 2020 Doha peace conference that set a timeline for Coalition forces to leave Afghanistan. This signalled to all observers the national government’s inherent weakness; why respect an authority that did not command respect? The Taliban then began approaching officials at the district and provincial levels with terms of surrender, initially through bribes but increasingly open threats of violence. Such terms were offered in years past, but as the US withdrawal deadline approached without any apparent last-minute reversals, they became much more attractive. In the absence of a united front, talks were conducted through the prism of community relations, even to the point of Taliban outreach to ethnic and religious minorities it had long persecuted. These engagements, facilitated through local tribal connections that were more immediate than the relationship with the national government’s often-absent representatives, soon began to bear fruit.
The Taliban first focused on seizing as much control of terrain as possible in the months prior to the summer offensive to isolate major cities and transport arteries. The Afghan government unwittingly played into this by initially refusing to abandon outlying outposts, resulting in high casualties and the first mass surrenders. Areas that resisted hardest were subject to brutal reprisals while areas that came to an agreement saw soldiers given safe passage out. Local elites were co-opted into Taliban shadow governments or driven out or executed. This encouraged further negotiations to surrender. Even the loyalist US-trained commandos who sought to fight on but time and again were told by local elites that they were no longer welcome in an area because the fighting was about to end. The national security forces evaporated, changing into plainclothes and heading for home with their weapons. Those weapons that could not be carried off usually ended up in the militants’ hands, despite US efforts to destroy vehicles and storage sites with airstrikes. The Taliban then rushed the overland border crossings with other countries and the traditionally anti-Taliban northern provinces, isolating government forces and appearing to be everywhere at once. Morale among the anti-Taliban opposition plummeted and by the beginning of August, mass surrenders became normalised as deals made months before were consummated to avoid lengthy urban sieges. Fighting to destruction no longer made sense when resupply was impossible and commanders had already secured their golden parachutes. Kabul was rapidly encircled and as of this writing, only the geographically inaccessible province of Panjshir remains outside Taliban control.
Whether the Taliban can hold power, even in a decentralised system giving extensive autonomy to extant local elites, is another question entirely. In attempting to centralise power, the Taliban will face many of the same challenges that the former government did, and is not necessarily better equipped to handle them. The Taliban movement, too, is riven by divisions among different factions who jealously guard their bailiwicks and will want to expand them as they reap the spoils of national conquest. Its rule will never be fully accepted in some areas, whether on sectarian or ethnic grounds or, more commonly, general resistance to outside authority. Harsh measures will inevitably change the calculus of men who have surrendered but kept their weapons. It also must account for a rival vision of power from the Islamic State (IS), which was broken but not beaten in eastern Afghanistan in late 2017 following a de facto truce between Coalition and Taliban forces to focus on their common enemy. Large numbers of IS militants are believed to have escaped in prison breaks across the country engineered by the Taliban to free their own members, and few things would humiliate the Taliban more right now than successful IS attacks targeting what foreign interests remain in the country. The Taliban will also have to square with its Pakistani supporters, who have cheered its battlefield successes but have already found, with respect to border disputes, that good friends do not necessarily make for good neighbours. (A large number of al Qaeda-trained Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan militants also escaped from prison and seek to restart their campaign against the government of Pakistan.)
Taliban escalation in internal repression would also have an impact in the form of international isolation by Western powers. This would not so much be felt in terms of travel or diplomatic niceties, which the Taliban cares little for, but it would dry up the spigot of foreign aid that has been a source of so much unofficial income for local elites, who have long siphoned it off to enrich themselves and their tribes. (The Taliban’s border offensive was in part aimed at gaining control of import/export markets to monopolise those profits.) The irony is that institutionalised corruption has long enriched the Taliban and impoverished the national government; now the Taliban will have to figure out how to avoid the same outcome. However, in the near-term, the swiftness and scope of the militants’ victory will paralyse organised opposition, which will be even more divided going forward than before, during the civil war in the 1990s, now that the Taliban has successfully co-opted so much of the previous administration.
Paul Mutter is a US-based political and security risk analyst covering the Middle East and North Africa.