How the Taliban Took Back Afghanistan

On June 24th of last year, I browsed a report about a US intelligence assessment that the Afghan government would likely fall to Taliban forces within 6 to 12 months after the US withdrawal on August 31st. On August 10th, just 47 days later, a reassessment backtracked that estimation to 90 days. On August 15th, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the presidential palace as Taliban forces swept into Kabul, solidifying Taliban control over both the capital and the bulk of the country. Even the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, expressed surprise at the government’s rapid collapse: “We have reached a victory that wasn’t expected.”

The next few weeks brought a torrent of shocking images as the US hurriedly evacuated remaining US citizens and Afghan collaborators at risk of the Taliban’s retribution. On August 26th, ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate, carried out attacks in Kabul, killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members. ISIS-K has denounced the Taliban in the past for failing to enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic Law; even al-Qaeda considers ISIS-K’s methods too extreme.

All of this begs the important question: why did 300,000 Afghan government forces, supported by the US military and bristling with US armaments, fall so quickly to approximately 80,000 Taliban insurgents with Soviet-style small arms?

Intelligence analysts, diplomats, and political scientists have long warned about Afghanistan’s ethnic and social divisions preventing a unified Afghan cultural and political identity from forming. Without such a national identity, Afghan civil servants and armed forces have had little incentive to personally invest in creating and maintaining a cohesive state.

There are several layers to this dynamic. Afghanistan is primarily made up of seven ethnic groups: Pashtuns (42%), Tajiks (28%), Uzbeks (9%), Hazaras (8%), Aimaqs (4%), Turkmen (3%), and Balochis (2%). Though often divided along tribal lines, Pashtuns have historically used their numbers to assert authority over other groups in Afghanistan. At times, this has placed Pashto-speaking Pashtuns in conflict with Farsi-Dari speaking Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Hazara minorities. This had important political ramifications after Afghanistan transitioned to a republic in 2004. These ethnic divisions allowed Pashtuns to attain relative dominance in regional elections as each group largely voted for their own candidates. Substantive accusations of fraud also marred these elections. For many Afghans, this election corruption and lack of inclusive representation reduced the national government’s already tenuous claim to legitimacy

A long-standing aversion to a central state also presents considerable challenges in creating an Afghan identity. Afghans can hardly be blamed for their skepticism. For hundreds – if not thousands – of years, the geographic area of Afghanistan has been subject to a mix of oppressive and corrupt conquerors, kings, sultans, emirs, and illiberal regimes. Without a codified and enforceable system of national or state laws, groups and tribes have been largely governed by a mix of Sharia and local or tribal law. Further, there has never been a public education system in Afghanistan capable of nurturing nationalism: a shared history, culture, and identity to unite across ethnic and local loyalties. 

This brings us to a second major problem in Afghanistan: systemic corruption. Corruption in Afghanistan has been a bottom-to-top issue. Getting anything done in public and private life – from bank loans to business applications to passing through government checkpoints – has required greasing palms. The wages of entry-level Afghan civil servants and security forces are often too low for them to sustainably provide for their families. No official keeps all the funds they earn, as some of the funds trickle upward. Two surveys conducted in 2010 found that bribes paid each year amounted to between $2 and $5 billion – equivalent to around 13% of Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product. As almost $3.9 billion in US aid has poured into Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001, Afghan private firms and nonprofits have often colluded with top government officials to form self-dealing networks of personal enrichment. Such officials use their positions to grant beneficial contracts, cushy government positions, and legal protection for family, friends, and co-conspirators. With a central government still under construction, this system has lacked a watchdog to deconstruct these networks.

Nor were Afghan security forces sheltered from corruption. In a recent interview with the BBC, Afghanistan’s ex-Finance Minister, Khalid Payenda, denounced the prevalence of “ghost-soldiers.” He alleged that top security officials inflated their troop numbers to collect the wages of nonexistent security forces. Indeed, a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2019 reduced the security force troop count by over 42,000 – almost 10% of the total number at the time – in an effort to tamp down on the problem of ghost soldiers. By Payenda’s estimation, only 40,000 to 50,000 of Afghanistan’s supposedly 300,000-strong security force existed when the Taliban made its final push in 2021.

But this issue of corruption goes well beyond junior bureaucrats and crooked business owners. When Hamid Karzai rose to the Afghan presidency after the 2004 election, significant fraud occurred in the form of vote barring, ballot stuffing, and double, triple, and even quadruple voting using a single ID. The 2009 election was even worse. Karzai’s government used a variety of tactics, like proclaiming Taliban-controlled districts were safe, negotiating the entry of ballot boxes into those districts, stuffing the boxes with phony ballots, then shipping them out to be counted.

The US did little to stymie corruption in Afghanistan. There was no earnest accountability for everyday extortion and coercion. Rarely were the budgets of construction firms and logistics companies compared with the actual quality and quantities of the resources ordered. After the 2009 election, US President Obama sent then-Senator John Kerry to Afghanistan to negotiate with Karzai, and a deal was cut: Karzai would still win the election, but by a smaller margin. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans shelled out bribes in both cash and dignity. They watched as circles of elite officials and business owners channeled aid to specific villages and enriched themselves. Afghan faith in the fledgling Afghan democracy buckled under the weight of national divisions and blatant election fraud.

Let me rephrase the question posed at the beginning of this post: why did the Afghan government fall so quickly to the Taliban? Perhaps the question we should ask is: was it reasonable for Afghans so deprived of dignity and faith to fight tooth and nail for a system with such endemic corruption and poor representation?

As with all my posts, I invite your commentary. Thanks for reading.

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