Why the Taliban Won And What Washington Can Do About It Now

At a Taliban checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2021
Stringer / Reuters
In the end, it took astoundingly little time after U.S. forces left Afghanistan for the Taliban to bring down its government: ten days. On Friday and Saturday, hour by hour, some of Afghanistan’s biggest provinces surrendered to the Taliban as the Islamist insurgent group carried out a terrifying blitz. And on Sunday, as the Taliban entered Kabul, the U.S.-backed government fled, leaving the Taliban in charge of the entire country.

Perhaps no one predicted that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces would fold so quickly. But for several years, there had been signs that the Taliban were becoming militarily ascendant and that the ANDSF suffered from critical deficiencies that the Afghan government ignored and was itself exacerbating. All the problems that allowed the Taliban to defeat the army so quickly in 2021 were on display in 2015, when the group temporarily seized Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan: poor morale, desertion, attrition, corruption, ethnic factionalism, bad logistics, and an overreliance on backup from Afghan special operations forces. And for years, it was no secret that ANDSF units were making deals with their supposed enemy—warning the Taliban of forthcoming offenses, refusing to fight, and selling the group weapons and equipment.

In other words, the dramatic meltdown of Afghanistan’s army only exposes the rot that had been festering in Kabul’s halls of power for years. No wonder the Afghan population trusted its government so little, and no wonder one Afghan city after another surrendered to the Taliban this week.

The United States and other countries made plenty of mistakes in Afghanistan. Pakistan duplicitously enabled the Taliban. But the principal responsibility for this tragic end to 20 years of state-building efforts in Afghanistan lies squarely with the Afghan leadership. The Taliban’s victory is thus a cautionary tale about the difficulties of stabilization: unless the United States exercises tough love toward its supposed partners, years of effort can go up in smoke in days.

A LONG TIME COMING

Over the past decade, as the United States gradually withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the job of running the country increasingly fell to the Afghan government, the ruling class in Kabul chose not to fix the military or improve governance. Instead, political leaders focused on acquiring power and money for themselves and patronage for their cliques. They constantly sought to generate political crises or administrative paralysis in order to extract more patronage and rents from the central government.

Part of the problem was delusional thinking. Afghan politicians persuaded themselves that the United States would never leave, ignoring repeated signals from the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and the Biden administration that Washington wanted out of Afghanistan. Beguiled by their own narratives of Afghanistan as the fulcrum of a presumed new Great Game between the United States, China, and Russia, Afghan leaders believed they could entangle the United States in Afghanistan in an open-ended commitment. They saw little reason to reform the ANDSF or respond to the needs of everyday Afghans. The United States and the rest of the international community, meanwhile, never fully prioritized inducing Kabul to do either. Nor could they get Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban so strongly and in so many different ways. And so the insurgents steadily gained power.

The meltdown of Afghanistan’s army exposes the rot that had been festering in Kabul’s halls of power for years.

The weakness of the Afghan government presented successive U.S. administrations with a dilemma. On the one hand, if Washington set a deadline for withdrawal, the Taliban would simply wait until U.S. troops were gone to launch a full-scale offensive against the Afghan army. And there was no guarantee that Afghan politicians would take the deadline seriously: they believed Afghanistan was geostrategically important, and they had seen multiple U.S. administrations pull back from withdrawing. Thus, there was no guarantee the Afghan government and politicians would subordinate their parochial interests to the national one and start undertaking the long-overdue reforms that would have prepared them to secure the country on their own. On the other hand, if the United States did not put any date on a withdrawal and instead made it conditions-based—as the Trump administration stated in 2016 it would do, even though it turned out the president himself never bought into the idea—then the Afghan politicians and government would have even less incentive to change their counterproductive ways.

Unwilling to reduce its power in any significant way or accept a change in the country’s political dispensation, the Afghan government didn’t want to negotiate with the Taliban. That remained true even after the Doha deal, the February 2020 pact in which the Taliban agreed to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 2021. Kabul was stronger then: the Taliban had conquered far less territory than it would in 2021, and U.S. troops in the country were still able to bomb Taliban forces and provide critical technical support to the ANDSF. But with every day Kabul waited to negotiate, the lifespan of this support shortened and Afghan forces weakened. Kabul, however, thought it could sway the Biden administration to throw out the Doha deal and keep U.S. forces in the country in an open-ended commitment.

At the same time, the Taliban didn’t want to negotiate either, knowing full well that after U.S. troops left, their military power, and thus their bargaining position, was only going to grow. That was exactly what happened, and by that point, the Afghan government hoped that the weakness of its forces would keep the United States from leaving. Many American commentators also wanted the United States to stay, arguing that a limited force of 2,500 to 5,000 U.S. troops should prop up the Afghan government and its forces.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

This spring, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. By the end of July, 95 percent of them were already gone. Once it became clear that Washington was finished with the war, the Afghan army grew even more demoralized than usual. But there never was a realistic scenario in which a limited force of some 2,500 to 5,000 U.S. troops, even assuming an open-ended U.S. commitment, could have altered the basic deleterious dynamics of an Afghan government and military that were unwilling to reform and a Taliban that was on the rise.

The Taliban, of course, would have started attacking the remaining troops, thus forcing them to hunker down in the way their Afghan counterparts have done—or, far more likely, forcing the United States to increase troop levels to limit Taliban attacks. Washington would be back to waging a full-scale war against the Taliban, with all the casualties that would entail, with no end in sight. In five years or so, the United States would have faced the same awful situation it did this spring: having no identifiable path for defeating the Taliban or even just reversing their gains.

The Biden administration could have and should have set the withdrawal deadline for December instead of September, giving the Afghan military and government more time to prepare to step up. There was no guarantee the Afghan leadership would seize such a moment of truth; it didn’t after the deadline was set as September. Even so, more time would have given Washington a chance to push Afghanistan’s leaders to start making changes to the military’s force posture, fixing at least the most critical aspects of logistics, and given Afghan civilians a chance to adjust, including to flee. An extra three months would not have imposed too many costs on the United States. But even though the Taliban would have swallowed a December withdrawal, they would not have accepted much beyond that. Had Americans remained in the country longer, a full-blown U.S.-Taliban war would have been back on.

For 20 years, the United States and its partners tried a number of strategies to defeat the Taliban. Between 2001 and 2005, they relied on Afghan warlords to defeat the Taliban regime and suppress the ensuing insurgency while the United States focused on Iraq. As the Taliban kept growing stronger, the Obama administration surged the number of U.S. and NATO troops to 150,000. By 2014, backing Afghan militias and anti-Taliban uprisings came to be seen as the key to defeat the Taliban. Finally, the Trump administration simply hoped that if the United States and its allies stayed in Afghanistan long enough, the Taliban would make enough mistakes to do themselves in. None of these strategies worked.

Staying past 2021 and likely escalating would have tied down U.S. forces and their valuable intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and other critical support systems. The United States would have remained bogged down in Afghanistan, making China, Iran, and Russia privately happy to have Washington simultaneously mired in a hopeless conflict and taking care of their terrorism concerns there.

WHAT NOW?

The most immediate priority is to engage in tough diplomacy and bargaining with the Taliban. Washington should pressure the group to keep the Kabul airport functioning, so that evacuations can proceed. It should warn the Taliban against committing bloodshed in Kabul and emphasize that the group now bears responsibility for delivering order and humanitarian assistance in the city, where tens of thousands of refugees now roam the streets without food and shelter.

The United States and the international community should also continue providing visas to Afghans vulnerable to Taliban reprisals, not just those who worked with the United States but also civil society actors, human rights advocates, and journalists. To the Taliban, the United States needs to send a clear and consistent message in the weeks and months to come: they must not execute members of the former Afghan government or civil society activists, and they need to restrain revenge killings. Washington should press for as much inclusiveness in the Taliban government as possible, incorporating ethnic minorities, technocrats, and women. And it should demand that women be allowed access to schooling and health care, at least some jobs, and the ability to leave the household without a male guardian.

Yet the prospects for success are dim. The Afghan army’s speedy meltdown has made the Taliban flush with victory and even less inclined to compromise. The fact that the group has announced its intention not to form an interim government suggests it does not intend to share power. Nor does the spate of revenge killings it has committed in the provinces it conquered in the past few weeks bode well.

Had Americans remained in the country longer, a full-blown U.S.-Taliban. war would have been back on.

At this point, the United States has limited leverage. It can offer or deny the Taliban and their leaders economic aid, formal recognition, sanctions relief, and access to international financial systems and institutions. But this set of tools cannot alter the on-the-ground power realities. Besides, the United States’ leverage is already undermined by the fact that China, Iran, and Russia have made their peace with the Taliban. These countries are far more likely to pressure the Taliban to guarantee their counterterrorism and economic interests and share power and resources with their Afghan political clients than they are to urge the group to care about human rights and political pluralism. And so the Taliban’s behavior in power will depend heavily on Afghan communities’ own capacity to bargain with their new leaders.

On the counterterrorism front, the news is not entirely grim. Although the Taliban are most unlikely to sever their links with al Qaeda, they will probably not permit international terrorist attacks to emanate from Afghan territory. Not only would the United States demand that but so would China, Iran, and Russia. The Taliban will also continue to have strong incentives to battle the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Afghanistan.

But other than that, what lies ahead is not a happy picture. An Iran-like internal political and social order may be the best that can be hoped for in Afghanistan. In this system, the Taliban’s supreme council, their ruling body of 20 or so leaders, would sit atop a layer of technocratic institutions carrying out the actual business of governance. In a very optimistic scenario, Afghanistan’s leaders would even permit some form of legislative and executive elections. Technocrats would hold certain posts, and minority groups would be given representation in the government’s administrative and decision-making structures. It’s also conceivable that the situation for women could be prevented from hitting rock bottom: the Taliban would continue to let women have access to health care, education, and certain jobs.

After two decades, 2,400 dead Americans, and $1 trillion, this was hardly the outcome the United States hoped for in Afghanistan. But it was years in the making.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN is Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Why the Taliban Won And What Washington Can Do About It Now