How did Kabul collapse like a house of cards without a fight against the Taliban?

In this article…

The Taliban have won with the judgment of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honor, property, and self-preservation of their countrymen
– Ashraf Ghani

This statement of Ashraf Ghani, two times elected president of Afghanistan shows that the national government in Kabul has fallen and the Taliban has taken over completely. On 15th August 2021, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself along with top officials fled the country to UAE as the Taliban entered the presidential palace and declared the war “over.” Ghani justified his stand of fleeing Afghanistan to prevent “a flood of bloodshed.”

The latest US intelligence report estimated that the Taliban would capture Kabul in 90 days as it was reported in Washington Post. But Kabul within few days even without a fight. The US administration has admitted that Kabul fell much earlier than their expectation. Nobody would have imagined that the Taliban could invade Kabul so quickly. Estimations were not wrong since there is a huge difference between a state actor and a non-state actor. How did this happen then?

How Taliban took control of Afghanistan?

Almost 20 years ago, the Taliban rose from a group of madrassa students in the 1990s under the leadership of Mullah Omar and with the help of Pakistan. After the 9/11 attack, the US entered Afghanistan and within a few months, it pushed the Taliban to the mountains and caves. Open war was an easy affair for the US. Since then, the guerrilla warfare started by the Taliban using suicide bombers had not only irritated but also sacked a lot of resources including money and sacrifices of the soldiers.

After 20 years, the US finally decided to withdraw from Afghanistan amid the pressure from the public at home. The process was started by the former US president, Barack Obama, followed by Donald Trump, and finalized by the Biden administration. This gave a sense of confidence among Talibani fighters who deem that they have defeated the hegemon power. Taliban increased the pace of invasion. They came out from hilly terrains and marched to the populated cities.

All cities in Afghanistan have fallen in the hand of the Taliban-like a house of cards even without a fight. Capturing Kabul on 15th August 2021 was the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Reasons behind falling Kabul like a house of cards

Now a very important question is popping up before us how can the Taliban capture the provinces of Afghanistan so easily and so quickly. What are the reasons behind them?

First, the lack of political unity has introduced a crack in the system. The last two presidential elections (2014 and 2019) were disputed. The US had to interfere in both the elections to glue Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. In this process, Mr. Ghani projected his Pashtun identity to gain credibility. Afghanistan is a sociologically diverse and complex country and such move of Mr. Ghani alienated other ethnic groups/war loads who have fought against the Taliban. For example, Tajik leader, Atta Md. Nur publicly challenged the government. Thus, these efforts have weakened the coalition formed against the Taliban.

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Second, there was a huge corruption within the administration. Foreign aid and assistance have not trickled down to the bottom. Even equipment has been taken apart, stolen, and sold off. It has not only demotivated forces, reduced coordination, and discipline in the army. According to the New York Times, the Afghan military is woefully underpaid, underfed, and under-compensated by the leadership in Kabul. Stanley Johny noted that when the first city Zaranj fell, soldiers surrendered because they were unpaid. In some places, the Taliban offered money to surrender and convinced them that the government in Kabul won’t back them up.

Third, the US-Taliban deal 2020 was unilateral retread by Washington. Even though that deal was largely in the favor of the Taliban, the Taliban was not agreed to the ceasefire and share power with the then Afghan government under the leadership of Ashraf Ghani. Airpower was the asymmetricity between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But after this deal, Airstrikes by the US reduced drastically and thus airpower became almost irrelevant. It has not only enhanced their confidence but provided the opportunity to move out from the mountains and caves to populated cities.

Fourth, the Taliban showed their cleaver leadership. They didn’t create an adversary in this process even after the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir. Largely, the Taliban kept away from India-Pakistan on Kashmir issues so that they could extract benefits from both. Parallelly, the Taliban reached out to regional players like China, Iran, and Russia to gain legitimacy in the region. Taliban is repeatedly offering India for the safety of their diplomats and expecting to change its stance toward the Taliban. But it is very difficult to take non-state actors like the Taliban at their face value.

Fifth, Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies claims that “It is the biggest intelligence failure since the Vietnam War, a campaign of devastating surprise attacks on the U.S. and its allies in 1968.” Taliban soon surrounded Kabul and cut off the supply lines that government forces needed. They used social media to pressurize local tribal leaders through text message campaigns. The US administration was in haste to withdraw its footprints from Afghanistan as soon as possible and thus, they were ignorant toward these developments.

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Sixth, America parochially understood the sociology of Afghanistan. It is drastically different from the western nations. After elections when there were differences between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the US tried to glue them so that a central force could be made stronger. Sociologically, Afghanistan seeks a decentralized system due to numerous tribes, languages, ethnicities, and religious sects. We should not forget that the northern alliance (Led by the Tajik group which was effective in containing the Taliban) was not made by the US (i.e. top-down) but it was evolved on its own followed by the support extended by the US, Russia, India, and others.

Seventh, Public pressure on the US administration was immense. Withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan has become the electoral demand in the presidential elections. It has further hastened the process of withdrawal. Probably, it is one of the reasons for mismanagement in the withdrawal process. The announcement of withdrawal has boosted the confidence of the Taliban and reduced the morale of the Afghan forces. American glue which was used to bind political forces in Afghanistan stopped working when it was clear that Americans are leaving.

Have the puritanical Taliban changed?

It will be very difficult to say whether the Taliban has changed or not. But based on their working mechanism and past records, the Taliban could not be taken to their face value. Currently, the Taliban is in the process to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Probably that could be the reason why the Taliban is pretending to be different from the earlier regime. A senior member of the Taliban, Waheedullah Hashimi, told news agency Reuters that – “We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.” It indicates that the Taliban will continue to rule as they have ruled during 1996-2001.

Stanley Johny has pointed out the 1996-2001 days – “Basic human rights were suspended. Women were not allowed to work and girls were not allowed to go to school. Women could not venture out of their homes without a male companion. Men had to grow their beards. Amputation, flogging, and stoning, were common. Kabul’s famed football stadium had been turned into a public execution ground. Music, TV, cinema, photography, painting, and even kite-flying were banned. The sixth-century monumental statues of Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed.” They haven’t disowned these beliefs since they bid to establish a “pure Islamic system”.

Near future of Afghanistan: What’s next for Afghanistan?

Taliban may have captured the throne in Kabul with the help of a barrel of guns and swords. It would not be an easy task for them to sustain the establishment. It is well said that every end of history is the beginning of new history. Taliban can’t eradicate the above-discussed challenges forever. Taliban will also try to rule Afghanistan with centralized power. It would be difficult to expect from the Taliban that they would share power with other ethnic groups because they have even denied the power-sharing arrangement in the US-Taliban deal 2020.

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Thus, it is very natural that other ethnic groups will resist the Taliban. The civil war in Afghanistan has started. Taliban may reduce violence after a while in power, but that doesn’t mean the bloodshed in Afghanistan will be ended. Open protest against the Taliban was witnessed in Jalalabad. Taliban opened fire on the public followed by the death of civilians. Panjshir province has never been conquered by foreigners. Tajik ethnic group/Panjshir resistance has started resistance against Taliban and revival of northern alliance in the leadership of Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud.

Apart from resistance, other challenges are also not easy for the Taliban to tackle – First, A drought has been seen in over 40% of the country’s top crop this year. Second, Amid the low production, many people fled to cities like Kabul when the Taliban advances. They don’t have shelter and food. According to the UN, nearly 4 lakh people have been internally displaced in Afghanistan. Third, The US has frozen $9 billion of the forex reserve of Afghanistan. Ajmal Ahmady, former head of the Afghan central bank has warned that skewed inflation is about to increase in Afghanistan since the forex reserve is sealed by the US.

Depreciation of Afghan currency would be an all-time high with costly imports. Thus, the near future of Afghanistan is not hopeful which could bring peace. There is a need for multilateral dialogue in the world to gain consensus which would bring permanent peace in Afghanistan.

Footnotes

  1. Washington Post | U.S. officials warn collapse of the Afghan capital
  2. Decoding Dream India | Why did the US fail in Afghanistan?
  3. Council on foreign relation | Strategic Reversal in Afghanistan 
  4. New York Times | How Did It Collapse So Quickly? 
  5. Hindustan Times | Taliban wanted India to retain its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan
  6. The Hindu | What’s next for Afghanistan? 
  7. The Print | ‘Forever spy’ Amrullah Saleh proclaims himself Afghan President
  8. India Today | Nearly 4 lakh people newly displaced in Afghanistan by conflict 
  9. The Hindu | How Kabul fell?
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