By Steve Coll and Adam Entous
The New Yorker
December 10, 2021
A trove of unreleased documents reveals the dispiriting record of misjudgment, hubris and delusion that led to the fall of the Western-backed government
On April 14th, President Joe Biden ended the longest war in United States history, announcing that the last remaining American troops in Afghanistan would leave by September 11th. In the following weeks, the Taliban conquered dozens of rural districts and closed in on major cities. By mid-June, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—the brittle democratic state built by Afghan modernizers, nato soldiers, and American taxpayers after the 9/11 attacks—appeared to be in a death spiral. Yet its President, Ashraf Ghani, insisted to his cabinet that the Republic would endure. In every meeting, “he assured us, and encouraged us,” Rangina Hamidi, the acting minister of education, said. Ghani reminded them, “America didn’t make a promise that they would be here forever.”
On June 23rd, Ghani and his advisers boarded a chartered Kam Air jet that would take them from Kabul to Washington, D.C., to meet with Biden. As the plane flew above the Atlantic, they sat on the cabin floor reviewing talking points for the meeting. The Afghan officials knew that Biden regarded their government as hopelessly fractious and ineffective. Still, Ghani recommended that they present “one message to the Americans” of resilient unity, which might persuade the U.S. to give them more support in their ongoing war with the Taliban. Amrullah Saleh, the First Vice-President, who said that he felt “backstabbed” by Biden’s decision to withdraw, reluctantly agreed to “stick to a rosy narrative.”
Biden welcomed Ghani and his top aides to the Oval Office on the afternoon of June 25th. “We’re not walking away,” Biden told Ghani. He pulled from his shirt pocket a schedule card on which he’d written the number of American lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11, and showed it to Ghani. “I appreciate the American sacrifices,” Ghani said. Then he explained, “Our goal for the next six months is to stabilize the situation,” and described the circumstances in Afghanistan as a “Lincoln moment.”
“The most important ask I have for Afghanistan is that we have a friend in the White House,” Ghani said.
“You have a friend,” Biden replied.
Ghani asked for specific military assistance. Could the U.S. provide more helicopters? Would American contractors continue to offer logistical support to the Afghan military? Biden’s answers were vague, according to Afghan officials in the room.
Biden and Ghani also discussed the possibility of a peace agreement between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban. American diplomats had been talking with the Taliban for years, to negotiate a U.S. withdrawal and to foster separate peace talks between the insurgents and Kabul. But the talks had fallen apart, and the Taliban seemed determined to seize Afghanistan by force. The likelihood of the Taliban “doing anything rational is not very high,” Biden said, according to the Afghan officials present.
While Ghani and his aides met with Biden, Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, conferred in Washington with Americans working in human rights, democracy, and development. She recalled being stunned to hear that many of the Americans had already “concluded that Afghanistan was a lost cause, and had sort of made peace with themselves.” They asked her what contingency plans she was making to flee Kabul and go into exile. After the official visit, she stayed in the U.S. through July 4th, and listened to Biden’s speech marking the holiday, in which he said, “We’re about to see our brightest future.”
“I ended up crying a lot that evening,” Akbar said. She returned to Kabul and went from embassy to embassy requesting visas for her staff.
On May 10, 1968, in Paris, the United States opened peace talks with North Vietnam. President Richard Nixon, who regarded the negotiations mainly as political cover for America’s withdrawal from the war, knew that the terms under discussion would leave South Vietnam, America’s ally, vulnerable. In October, 1972, Nixon asked Henry Kissinger, his national-security adviser, about the likelihood of South Vietnam’s survival. “I think there is one chance in four,” Kissinger told him.
“Well, if they’re that collapsible, maybe they just have to be collapsed,” Nixon said. In January, 1973, the United States signed a pact called the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam and withdrew all its combat forces. Two years later, North Vietnam and Vietcong guerrillas conquered South Vietnam. Helicopters evacuated the last American personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The Islamic Republic’s last chapter followed a strikingly similar course. For years, peace talks were stalled by the Taliban’s refusal to speak with the Afghan government. But in 2018 President Donald Trump, determined to end the war with or without the Afghan President’s involvement, appointed a special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to negotiate directly with the Taliban, which had representatives in Doha. Khalilzad was a sixty-seven-year-old Afghan-born diplomat, who had earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Chicago and had served in several Republican Administrations. From 2003 to 2005, he was George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Afghanistan. His instructions were clear: make a deal with the Taliban that would allow for a quick American military withdrawal.
In February, 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an accord called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan: the U.S. pledged to pull out all its combat troops by May of 2021 if the Taliban repudiated Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, entered into good-faith talks with the Islamic Republic, and sought to reduce violence in the country. The Taliban also promised not to attack U.S. and nato troops who were preparing to leave. They could continue to attack Afghan forces, however. Many of the provisions were not made public, and the Islamic Republic was not a party to the agreement.
By then, the alliance between Washington and Kabul—once bathed in the aspirational language of democracy, women’s rights, and nation-building—had become embittered by recriminations and mutual exhaustion. The peace accord between the U.S. and the Taliban made things dramatically worse. It contained a series of secret written and verbal agreements, including a contentious provision barring the U.S. from helping Afghan troops in their offensive operations against the Taliban. Ghani, who was largely cut out of the process, struggled to understand what the United States had agreed to and why, and, even when he did understand, he objected vigorously. Later, when the Taliban failed to deliver on commitments that it had made to the U.S., the Trump Administration ignored the violations. “Ghani felt lied to,” Hamdullah Mohib, his national-security adviser, said. “He was undermined.”
Throughout the negotiations, Ghani maintained back channels to American politicians who were supportive of the war, such as the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who had long called for America’s continued presence in Afghanistan. After Ghani’s talks with Graham, the senator would regularly call Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, who at one point accused Ghani of “mobilizing Washington against” the Trump Administration. The view of many State Department officials, including nonpartisan career diplomats, was that Ghani had little interest in negotiating with the Taliban. “He preferred the status quo,” Khalilzad said. “It kept him in power.”
In January, Biden inherited this fragmenting compact. He could prolong America’s military deployment, regardless of the deal, or he could continue down the exit ramp that Trump had built. Biden, who as Vice-President under Barack Obama had opposed sending large numbers of troops to fight in the war, was openly doubtful that Afghanistan could ever become a secure and governable nation. At times, he seemed as cold-blooded about the Islamic Republic as Nixon had been about South Vietnam. His decision to abruptly withdraw the remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan, culminating in the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country—and the chaotic evacuation of more than a hundred thousand people from Hamid Karzai International Airport—is an indelible part of his record. For Afghanistan’s population of about thirty-eight million, the defeat has been incomparably more consequential. The Taliban are reimposing strict Sharia law on the country, which has lost billions of dollars in foreign aid, and the nation is now gripped by a spreading famine.
The debates and decisions in Washington, Kabul, and Doha that preceded the Islamic Republic’s fall took place largely in private. Hundreds of pages of meeting notes, transcripts, memoranda, e-mails, and documents, as well as extensive interviews with Afghan and American officials, present a dispiriting record of misjudgment, hubris, and delusion from the very start.
The first serious attempt to negotiate with the Taliban began in November, 2010. Nine years earlier, the U.S. had overthrown the Taliban’s government, which had harbored the Al Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban had mounted an insurgency to try to return to power, and Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to the region, hoped to persuade them to stop fighting and to enter Afghan politics. American diplomats and Taliban negotiators engaged in talks about a possible peace settlement. But the Taliban refused to work with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai—the country’s first-ever democratically elected head of state—seeing him as an illegitimate puppet. Karzai, in turn, objected to America’s conferring legitimacy on extremist rebels bent on overthrowing his government.
“You betrayed me!” Karzai shouted at Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, during a meeting in late 2011. Obama ultimately deferred to Karzai, and by mid-2013 serious discussions with the Taliban about power sharing had ended. Before Obama left office, he drastically reduced the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from its peak of about a hundred thousand. But he left eighty-four hundred American soldiers on a mission of indefinite duration, to strike Al Qaeda and a branch of the Islamic State, and to aid Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.
In 2017, President Trump appointed General H. R. McMaster as national-security adviser. McMaster recommended more U.S. airpower and intelligence aid to support Afghan forces, and a tougher approach to Pakistan, the Taliban’s historical protectors. Trump agreed to the strategy, and seemed to accept that peace between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic might not be achievable. “Nobody knows if or when that will ever happen,” he said that August. He promised that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan until they had defeated Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he said.
But when the strategy failed to quickly turn the war around Trump began looking for a way out. (Later, he complained, “I should have followed my instincts, not my generals!”) The following year, Trump fired McMaster and replaced him with John Bolton, an ardent conservative and Fox News commentator who had served in previous Republican Administrations. He also appointed Mike Pompeo, his C.I.A. director, as Secretary of State. During the summer of 2018, Pompeo consulted with Khalilzad, who, in September, became the Administration’s envoy to negotiate with the Taliban. “It was thought that nobody knows the Afghan situation, the Afghan players” better than Khalilzad, Charles Kupperman, then one of Bolton’s top advisers, said. Also, “there weren’t a lot of other candidates.” A diplomat on Khalilzad’s staff was told that Trump wanted to leave Afghanistan in six months, but that perhaps he could be persuaded to wait as many as nine months.
Khalilzad is a little more than six feet tall and has the quick, expressive smile of an ace salesman. “Zal is extremely likable,” Elliott Abrams, his colleague in the George W. Bush Administration, said. “Great sense of humor. Jokes all the time.” Other officials found him evasive, particularly when he was involved in complex diplomacy. “No shortage of talking, but a lot of difficulty in figuring out exactly what he’s talking about and why,” Crocker said, adding that Khalilzad reminded him of “a Freya Stark version of an Arab proverb: ‘It is good to know the truth and speak it, but it is better to know the truth and speak of palm trees.’ ” According to Bolton, Trump once remarked of Khalilzad, “I hear he’s a con man, although you need a con man for this.” Khalilzad brushed off such insults, citing an adage often attributed to Harry S. Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
In October, 2018, Khalilzad flew to Kabul, where he met Ghani at the Arg palace, an eighty-three-acre compound housing the Afghan President’s offices and residence. They had known each other for nearly fifty years. As teen-agers in Kabul during the late nineteen-sixties, they had joined the American Field Service high-school exchange program. (Ghani went to Lake Oswego, Oregon, and Khalilzad to Ceres, California.) Throughout the years, according to American diplomats who worked with them, their relationship began to resemble a sibling rivalry. When Ghani ran for President in 2014, he bridled at indications that Khalilzad might be exploring his own bid, which Khalilzad denied. In meetings, they bantered in a patois of Dari and English. In private, each seemed convinced that the other suffered from excessive ego and ambition.
Ghani was once a planner at the World Bank and a naturalized American. After the Taliban fell, he returned to Afghanistan, where he served as Hamid Karzai’s finance minister. He left government in 2004, and five years later, after giving up his American citizenship, he ran for President against Karzai and lost. When Karzai was ineligible for another term, in 2014, Ghani ran again, and he narrowly beat Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in an election marred by allegations of fraud. After negotiations, Abdullah became Afghanistan’s Chief Executive.
Ghani earned a doctorate in anthropology at Columbia, and he sometimes seemed to approach his Presidency as if it were graduate school. Between his two residences in Kabul, he cumulatively maintained a personal library of about seven thousand books, and during meetings he often referenced academic literature. He sought to empower those whom he referred to as Afghanistan’s “stakeholders”—human-rights activists, Islamic scholars, media companies, and businesses. He populated his wartime administration with other technocrats who had graduate degrees from universities abroad, and spurned traditional Afghan politicians and strongmen, who he thought had brought the country to ruin. American diplomats and military commanders continually pressed Ghani to align with Karzai, Abdullah, and figures such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had an armed following and a record of alleged human-rights abuses. Much of the strength of the military opposition to the Taliban resided with such individuals, and it was hard to see how Ghani could strike a deal without them.
“He’s just not a good politician,” James Cunningham, who served as the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul during Ghani’s first term, said. “There are lots of things I do admire about him, but he wasn’t able to find the political skills necessary to build coalitions and partnerships with people who disagreed with him.”
During his initial meeting with Khalilzad at the Arg palace, Ghani delivered a long PowerPoint presentation about the obstacles to peace. He envisioned that the Islamic Republic and the United States would negotiate together, sitting across from the Taliban, an idea that Khalilzad found plainly unrealistic. For nearly a decade, the Taliban had insisted that they wanted to talk only to the U.S., to secure the withdrawal of nato troops, which they regarded as an occupying force. Khalilzad and many other diplomats believed that peace negotiations between Ghani’s government and the Taliban would have to come after the U.S. had agreed to leave and the Taliban had pledged, in return, to engage in such talks.
After the meeting, Khalilzad flew to Pakistan, where he met with guerrilla leaders. When Ghani heard about the meeting, after it was over, he exploded. He was known for having a temper. “He would become emotional and start shouting,” Yasin Zia, a four-star Afghan general who was appointed chief of Army staff in 2020, recalled. “In a war, this type of behavior will not help you.” American diplomats sometimes regarded these flareups as manufactured outrage, designed to slow down any negotiations that might undermine Ghani’s authority.
The mutual distrust between Khalilzad and Ghani shaped—and distorted—U.S.-Afghan relations for the next three years.
The United States and the Taliban opened formal negotiations on January 22, 2019. The participants met in downtown Doha, in a cylindrical glass tower that houses Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Khalilzad led the American delegation; Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a diplomat who briefly participated in talks with Obama Administration negotiators, in 2011, helped lead the Taliban team. “War has gone on too long,” Stanikzai said, in an opening statement. “We have shed millions of gallons of blood. We want peace in Afghanistan through negotiations.” Abdullah Amini, a veteran adviser to U.S. military commanders in Kabul, who had lost many relatives during the long conflict, audibly wept as he translated Stanikzai’s remarks for the American delegation.
Khalilzad had conceived an accord that consisted of four parts: the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan; the Taliban would guarantee that Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups would not operate against the U.S.; the Taliban and the Islamic Republic would negotiate a power-sharing agreement; and there would be a ceasefire. The four parts were interdependent—or as Khalilzad often put it, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
At first, both sides were deferential. “We can withdraw half by the end of April,” Khalilzad said, referring to U.S. forces. Stanikzai was just as quick to offer assurances about counterterrorism: “We will guarantee that we will not allow Al Qaeda to attack you.” But when Khalilzad proposed a nationwide ceasefire and power-sharing negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul, Stanikzai balked. “We understand that we cannot rule Afghanistan alone and we need help in reaching a negotiated settlement,” he said. But he first wanted a deal ratifying a U.S. troop departure in exchange for the Taliban’s counterterrorism promises.
They went back and forth for days. “Washington insists on a comprehensive ceasefire,” Khalilzad said, in the final session. Eventually, the Taliban envoys said that if the U.S. pledged to withdraw they would stop attacking U.S. and allied nato forces, but that the Taliban’s war to overthrow Ghani’s government would continue. The Taliban would consider a ceasefire with Kabul only as an agenda item in future talks among the Afghan parties.
This was far from what American negotiators had wanted. U.S. forces were in Afghanistan partly to defend the Islamic Republic from its armed enemies; their mission’s name was Resolute Support. American commanders believed that it would be both dangerous and dishonorable to leave the war without a political settlement among the Afghans and a durable ceasefire. But Khalilzad was worried that a hard-line approach would stall the talks and encourage Trump to abandon the Islamic Republic even more abruptly. He suggested that they return to the dispute later.
Toward the end of February, Khalilzad arrived in Doha, at the Sharq Village and Spa, a whitewashed Ritz-Carlton hotel on the Persian Gulf. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founder of the Taliban, met him for lunch. Baradar had been the deputy defense minister in the Taliban government before it fell. After Hamid Karzai was elected President, Baradar, who had gone into hiding, engaged in back-channel talks about political reconciliation between the Taliban and the new Islamic Republic, according to Afghan and American officials. In 2010, a joint C.I.A.-Pakistani team arrested Baradar in Karachi, and Pakistan imprisoned him, later transferring him to house arrest. After Khalilzad became Trump’s envoy, he persuaded Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army chief, to release Baradar as a gesture of good will.
“I’ve studied you,” Khalilzad told Baradar, according to Lisa Curtis, an Afghanistan specialist on Trump’s national-security staff, who was present at the meeting. “I know you’re a man of peace.”
“I realize that I would not be sitting at this table if it weren’t for you,” Baradar replied.
Khalilzad and Pompeo saw Baradar’s role in Doha as a sign that the Taliban were serious about the talks. (As Pompeo once told Ghani, Baradar is “a very sophisticated player.”) The day after their lunch, Khalilzad joined Baradar in his hotel room, which overlooked a swimming pool where women were lounging in bikinis. “You must feel like you’re in Heaven,” Khalilzad joked, invoking the commonly held Islamic belief that the afterlife offers a paradise of water and virgins. Baradar walked to the window and pulled the curtain shut.
Negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban continued through the spring, first at the Sharq and later at Doha’s Diplomatic Club. Baradar did not attend regularly, but Khalilzad occasionally visited him privately in his hotel room. Khalilzad also maintained separate WhatsApp threads with members of the Taliban delegation and a few of Ghani’s aides, and occasionally messaged Ghani using Signal. His rapid diplomatic maneuvering made it hard for other officials at the Pentagon and the White House to follow what he was doing. One Pentagon official said that members of the negotiating team used to joke that “the most interesting exploitable piece of hardware in the world is Zal’s cell phone,” because he was constantly having discussions that no one else was privy to. “He called it improvisational,” the official said. “To the rest of us, it seemed more like chaos.” On April 19th, Ghani sent a letter to Pompeo complaining that he was being cut out of Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban, and that Khalilzad had spoken to him for a total of only six minutes during a sixteen-day stretch of negotiations.
The official sessions were attended by Stanikzai and other Taliban negotiators, including former Guantánamo detainees released around the time of the Obama-era negotiations. Morning meetings were scheduled to begin at ten-thirty; the Americans arrived early, and the Taliban usually drifted in late. By the beginning of the summer, however, the two sides were exchanging drafts of a final agreement. Khalilzad set July 14th as the date to announce the signing, and he began planning for immediate follow-up negotiations, in Oslo, between the Taliban and representatives of the Islamic Republic, to decide Afghanistan’s political future.
The Americans still hadn’t determined whether the Taliban would accept a ceasefire in its war against the Islamic Republic. In early July, Molly Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy, pressed Stanikzai on this topic, which she described as an issue “of extreme importance” to the “most senior American leadership.” Stanikzai would not budge, and he introduced a new demand: he wanted thousands of Taliban prisoners held by Ghani’s government released.
The Taliban envoys insisted that they needed the concession to convince their most hard-line factions of the benefits of peace talks. Khalilzad said that the U.S. would try to persuade Ghani to agree to this, and when U.S. military officers in the room realized that the Taliban might get their prisoners without the Americans getting a ceasefire, they wanted to walk out, Andru Wall, a Navy commander at Resolute Support, recalled. Khalilzad “plainly wanted a deal and seemed willing to give the Taliban almost everything,” Wall said. “It was not clear if we had any true red lines.” On July 3rd, the draft agreement was updated to include the release of “up to” five thousand Taliban prisoners. (In return, the Taliban would release a thousand Afghan government detainees.)
A week later, General Austin S. Miller, the commander of nato forces in Afghanistan, flew into Doha, and Khalilzad met him for breakfast. They were joined by Nader Nadery and Abdul Matin Bek, two young advisers to Ghani, who had spoken with Taliban envoys. Nadery and Bek reported that several Taliban had boasted contemptuously about defeating America. “They’re running with their tails between their legs,” one of the Taliban negotiators had exclaimed. Bek later told Khalilzad to “wake up.” “Please, for God’s sake, the Taliban are not in favor of negotiations, they are not in favor of a political settlement,” he said. “They’re really on a victory march.”
Khalilzad told him not to worry. “I’ve cornered them,” he said. “There will be a political settlement.” (Khalilzad denied that this exchange took place.)
There was nothing to announce on July 14th. On August 7th, at the Diplomatic Club, the negotiating teams discussed two secret “annexes” to the main draft agreement, to resolve the remaining disputes. One would detail the Taliban’s commitments to suppressing Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The other would attempt to link a U.S. withdrawal to a reduction in the war’s violence. Recognizing that the Taliban would not end its military campaign against the Islamic Republic, Khalilzad proposed that all sides temporarily halt fighting in five of the country’s thirty-four provinces so that the U.S. could safely begin its withdrawal. In the rest of Afghanistan, the war would continue, and, if the Taliban attacked Afghan units, American forces could intervene. If the Taliban stopped attacking Afghan units in any area, the U.S. would reciprocate, and there would be a local ceasefire. But since the U.S. had an “obligation” to defend its Afghan allies, Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy, explained, the scope of this reduction in violence would be determined by the Taliban. “You have the power,” she said. “If you don’t attack,” then “we won’t attack.” She acknowledged that the proposal was complicated. “We’d prefer a ceasefire everywhere,” she said.
The proposal was a prescription for confusion and further conflict. Both sides accepted that the U.S. would no longer engage in “offensive” operations against the Taliban. But the U.S. and the Taliban disagreed about the circumstances in which the U.S. could come to the defense of its allies. The Taliban argued that Miller’s forces could strike only guerrillas who were directly involved in attacks on Afghan forces, whereas Miller considered this interpretation too narrow, and concluded that he was also allowed to act in other ways, including striking preëmptively against Taliban fighters who were planning an attack.
Either way, the U.S. concessions to the Taliban would clearly be a blow to Ghani’s military. For years, Afghan forces had relied on U.S. bombers and artillery to back up their ground attacks, and to strike Taliban encampments and supply lines. Now Afghan troops would be on their own during offensive campaigns, and, if they were attacked, they would face uncertainties about whether or when U.S. forces would go into action.
But Khalilzad believed that he had forged sufficient common ground to close the deal. He shared a draft text with Ghani—although, initially, not the proposed annexes, because he was worried about those sections leaking. Ghani, predictably, objected to the draft, and he marked up the document with changes. Pompeo and Khalilzad ignored most of his edits and arranged to brief Trump on the deal on August 16th, at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Khalilzad joined Trump in a conference room, along with Vice-President Mike Pence, Bolton, and other national-security officials. He described the Taliban’s promise that they would not allow Al Qaeda to attack the U.S. When it was noted that Ghani was unhappy with the deal, Trump said, “Why are you wasting your time going to talk to Ghani? He’s a crook.”
Trump then asked Khalilzad if he could give the Taliban “something to make them coöperate.”
“What are you talking about, Mr. President?”
“No,” Khalilzad replied. “They’re on a terrorism list. We can’t give them money.”
Trump moved on to other topics before Khalilzad could explain that the Taliban’s war against Kabul was likely to continue.
On August 25th, in Doha, the Taliban accepted final annex drafts on counterterrorism and restrictions on fighting. The language prohibited the Taliban from attacking U.S. and nato troops as they withdrew. “If one American dies after the deal is signed, then the deal is off,” Miller told the Taliban envoys, according to an official who was present. As for the Taliban’s ongoing war against the Islamic Republic, Miller would take “necessary and proportionate measures” to defend Kabul’s troops when they came under attack, without engaging in “offensive” operations.
The Taliban envoys also offered verbal commitments that the American officials documented for their record. On counterterrorism, the Taliban representatives said that they “welcome continued U.S. operations” against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. If the U.S. bombed the Islamic State, “we will hang flowers around your neck,” they said; as for Al Qaeda, they told the Americans, “Kill as many as you want.” In a concession to Miller, the Taliban also agreed not to attack major Afghan cities or any diplomatic facilities.
In the end, the terms prioritized a safe American withdrawal. This was at a time when U.S. casualty numbers in Afghanistan had long been on the decline. U.S. and nato troops seldom participated in on-the-ground fighting; their main jobs were to protect the government, train the Afghan Army, and provide air support. These roles were critical to the war effort, but they were also relatively low-risk. Since 2015, fewer than a dozen American soldiers had died annually in combat in Afghanistan. The yearly death toll suffered by the Islamic Republic’s soldiers and police was estimated at more than eight thousand. According to the United Nations, the war also claimed the lives of several thousand civilians each year.
At the end of August, Trump came up with a plan to invite the Taliban to Camp David to sign the agreement. Then, on September 5th, a car bomb detonated in Kabul, killing about a dozen people, including Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, a thirty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant. That weekend, Trump ended the peace talks with a tweet blaming the deaths on the Taliban: “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”
Pompeo told Khalilzad, “You should come home.”
When Trump pulled out of the agreement, “I literally jumped for joy,” a senior White House official recalled. “I was thrilled when that tweet came out.” Many officials throughout the government, including Bolton and other national-security aides, thought that the terms of the deal wildly advantaged the Taliban, and some were opposed to compromising altogether. (“The idea that we could negotiate ourselves with the Taliban, excluding the Afghan government, was lunacy,” Charles Kupperman, who had become Bolton’s deputy, said.) But their victory was short-lived. Two months later, Khalilzad’s team secured the release of two professors from the American University of Afghanistan—an American and an Australian—who had been kidnapped in 2016 and held by the Taliban’s Haqqani faction, a group with ties to Al Qaeda. Earlier, Ghani had freed Anas Haqqani, a young member of the network. In the aftermath of these prisoner releases, Pompeo told Khalilzad to try to re-start peace talks.
On December 7th, Baradar met Khalilzad again in Doha, still seeking an American commitment to promptly leave Afghanistan. “Our main goal is the designation of a date and an announcement” for signing the agreement, Baradar said. They decided to sign the deal negotiated the previous summer. The Taliban promised to reduce violence for seven days before the deal was official, to demonstrate their commitment. Pompeo called Ghani to inform him that an accord was again at hand, and only then did Ghani learn that few of his objections had been taken into account.
On February 29, 2020, at the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort, Khalilzad and Baradar, sitting on a makeshift stage, signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. The accord stated that on March 10, 2020, “the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations” to seek an enduring peace, and the United States pledged to pull out its combat forces by May of 2021. Ghani, who concluded that he had no choice but to coöperate, issued a “joint declaration” with the Trump Administration, in which he endorsed the deal’s general goals while making it clear that he disagreed with the terms. At the ceremony in Doha, Pompeo told attendees that the agreement “will mean nothing” unless all its parties “take concrete action on commitments and promises that have been made.” Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, issued a statement from an unknown location, calling the American commitment to withdraw “the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation.”
The next day, Trump called Ghani. “We’re relying on you to get this done,” he said, meaning a power-sharing deal with the Taliban. The accord was “popular among the American people,” Trump went on. “It’s popular among my enemies as well.” Ghani replied that the key would be “verifiable action” by the Taliban to reduce their violence, but he said that he was prepared to send a team to negotiate with them.
“Great step,” Trump said. “We need to get this done. Call me if you need anything.”
Two days later, Trump called Baradar. According to an official who listened to the exchange, Trump told him, “You guys are tough fighters.” Then Trump asked, “Do you need something from me?”
“We need to get prisoners released,” Baradar said, adding that he had heard Ghani would not coöperate. Trump said that he would tell Pompeo to press Ghani.
Later that month, Pompeo met with Ghani in Kabul and urged him to be flexible about releasing the Taliban’s prisoners. But he also gave him an assurance: “The United States is your leverage. If we do not get what we want, we will not leave,” he said. “We will only leave when there is a political resolution.”
“This clarity that you will stand with us in the negotiation is something that we have never had,” Ghani told him.
Then Pompeo qualified his earlier statement: “The only thing that will change that is if we have no progress.” Ghani did not appear to absorb this warning. Later, he quoted Pompeo’s comment to a European diplomat, calling it a “turning point”—evidence that the U.S. truly would not abandon the Islamic Republic until there was a negotiated peace.
That spring, the Taliban submitted the names of the five thousand prisoners for whom it was demanding release before power-sharing talks could begin. A group of U.S. intelligence officers and other officials reviewed the Taliban names and produced an “objection list,” which contained several convicted murderers, including Nargis Mohammad Hasan, an Afghan police officer born in Iran who, in 2012, had killed Joseph Griffin, an American police trainer, at the Kabul police headquarters. Also on the list was a prisoner known as Hekmatullah, a former Afghan soldier who had killed three off-duty Australian soldiers while they were playing poker and the board game Risk. Their cases were just two of dozens of “insider attacks”—killings of off-duty soldiers and civilians, typically by Taliban recruits—that had come to shadow the American war.
Ghani’s advisers were developing their own list of several hundred prisoners who they said were problematic—murderers, kidnappers, and drug traffickers, some on death row. In late May, Ghani released just under a thousand prisoners, whom his advisers had identified as low-risk. But the Taliban held firm: release all five thousand or no negotiations. “The Talibs became adamant,” Khalilzad recalled. “They knew that we were so desperate that the intra-Afghan negotiations begin.”
Rather than put more pressure on the Taliban, the Trump Administration continued to focus on getting Ghani to bend. As they wrestled over the prisoner problem, Khalilzad visited Ghani at the Arg palace, carrying a message from Trump: “We are ready to work with President Ghani, but if there is a perception that the big picture is being sacrificed for small matters then we are ready to change our relationship.”
Ghani was unmoved. “The U.S. doesn’t owe us anything,” he told Khalilzad. “If you want to leave, then leave—no hard feelings.”
Ghani clearly preferred a long-term military alliance with Washington, and he spent much of his Presidency pleading with American envoys for more support. But the Afghan President chafed at the expectations placed on him by the U.S. Notionally, he was the sovereign leader of a constitutional democracy. He considered this a matter of high principle, and annoyed diplomats by often falling back on “legalistic and formalistic expressions of Afghan legitimacy,” as a senior State Department official put it. In reality, the state that Ghani led was deeply dependent on American money and military power. “They would give us hints about what they wanted us to do, but if we did not do those things then we would get heavy pressure,” Mohib, Ghani’s national-security adviser, said. Ghani’s suggestions that the Republic would be fine without the U.S. were either shows of bravado or simply wishful thinking.
That July, Trump decided that he would cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by roughly half, to about four thousand. Khalilzad was disappointed: he had expected the Trump Administration to conduct a formal review of the Taliban’s compliance with the Doha deal before withdrawing more troops, but it hadn’t. At that point, Khalilzad’s assessment was that Taliban compliance was mixed. They had refrained from attacking U.S. forces, as promised, and had reduced fedayeen-style assaults and truck bombings in cities and large district capitals. They delivered a three-day ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr in late May that mostly held up well. Yet they continued to attack Afghan forces, costing hundreds of Afghan lives.
Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Ghani in Kabul and assured him that the pullout didn’t mean that the U.S. was giving up on Afghanistan. “We have signed up for a conditional drawdown,” he said, using language that had been given to him by Pompeo: U.S. troops would stay until certain conditions had been met, and one of those conditions was that the Taliban and the Islamic Republic engage in negotiations. And yet it was obvious to everyone by now that Trump could overrule his generals at any time.
On July 29th, Khalilzad and Miller, the commander of U.S. and nato forces, met with Ghani at his residence, with new assurances from Baradar. They conveyed to Ghani that, if he released everyone on the Taliban list, the Taliban would very likely “reduce violence significantly” and start power-sharing talks right away. Ghani recoiled at the proposition. “If the U.S. wants to release people who have death sentences, and the biggest drug traffickers in the world, then you should take responsibility for it,” he said. “I’m not.”
Eventually, Ghani found a compromise that gave the Americans what they wanted. He called a loya jirga, a traditional consultative assembly, to decide the fate of the most problematic Taliban prisoners. In early August, the loya jirga approved the release of everyone on the Taliban’s list, including Hasan and the other prisoners on the “objection list.” (An Afghan intelligence official said that, weeks after Hasan was released, someone from the F.B.I. asked if she could be recaptured, but she had already fled to Iran.)
On September 12th, at the Sharq resort, intra-Afghan talks were formally inaugurated, six months after the Doha accord had specified. The group of twenty-one delegates sent by Kabul had been preparing for months, like athletes training for a big season perpetually delayed, and a German foundation had delivered seminars on how to negotiate for peace. But, at the Sharq, the Kabul team found that the Taliban were exceedingly stubborn. It took more than two months to resolve one agenda item. The Taliban “were feeling a kind of pride that they had defeated the United States,” Habiba Sarabi, one of the delegates, recalled.
At the same time, the guerrillas mounted offensives in Kandahar and Helmand that were clearly “violations in spirit, if not the written word” of the Doha accord, Miller said. During the last three months of 2020, after the prisoner releases, violence spiked across Afghanistan, and civilian casualties rose by forty-five per cent, compared with 2019. The onslaught “exacerbated the environment of fear and paralyzed many parts of society,” the U.N. reported. The Taliban also protested many American strikes carried out in support of Afghan forces, calling them a violation of the Doha accord’s annex on managing combat. Like aggressive corporate litigators seeking to drown their opponents in paper, the guerrillas filed more than sixteen hundred complaints to Khalilzad’s team, and used them to justify their intensifying military campaign against Kabul.
When Joe Biden ran for Senate in 1972, at the age of twenty-nine, he campaigned on his opposition to the Vietnam War. He did not claim that the war was immoral; rather, he believed that it was “merely stupid and a horrendous waste of time, money and lives based on a flawed premise,” as he later wrote in his memoir. Biden has approached the Afghan war with similar skepticism. In 2009, as Vice-President, Biden met Karzai, the Afghan President at the time, who urged him to work harder to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. “Mr. President,” Biden replied, according to Karzai and another Afghan present, “Pakistan is fifty times more important to the United States than Afghanistan.” In 2015, Ghani and Abdullah joined Biden for breakfast in Washington, where he told them that the Afghan war was “unwinnable.” According to Mohib, Ghani’s national-security adviser, Afghan officials were left convinced that if Biden were ever President “he will probably want to withdraw.”
After Biden was elected, in November, 2020, he named Jake Sullivan as national-security adviser and Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. Both men had years of experience working in government, and they were well acquainted with the miserable set of policy options in Afghanistan. It was unclear whether Biden would follow Trump’s deal to the letter, abandon it, or make adjustments in response to the Taliban’s violence. During the Presidential transition, Sullivan, Blinken, and other advisers sent Biden a memo reporting that the talks with the Taliban weren’t going anywhere. Khalilzad had apparently failed to get the Taliban and the Islamic Republic to work together, but Biden asked him to stay on as special representative at least through the spring. He knew all the players, and if the Biden Administration wanted to meet the Doha accord’s May 1st deadline for a full U.S. troop withdrawal, it would have to work quickly.
As soon as Biden took office, Mohib sought a meeting at the White House, but was told that only a phone call would be possible. Mohib, who had earned a doctorate in electrical engineering in Britain and had served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador in Washington from 2015 to 2018, had been Ghani’s national-security adviser for three years. Methodical, calm, and hard to read, he was intensely loyal to Ghani, whose ideas inspired him, but he was increasingly seen as the instrument—if not the instigator—of Ghani’s micromanaging.
On January 22nd, Mohib spoke on the phone with Sullivan. The new Administration sought to preserve Afghanistan’s social and economic gains, Sullivan said, including “democracy, rights of women, and rights of minorities.” If the Taliban did not engage in “meaningful and sincere negotiations” in Doha, “they will bear the consequences of their choices.” He added that he did not mean this with “a view to escalate the conflict but to take a hard-nosed look at the situation.”
Sullivan inaugurated an interagency policy review at the National Security Council: briefings and debates that would inform Biden’s decision on Afghanistan. The U.S. troop presence had fallen to twenty-five hundred. Miller, the Resolute Support commander, felt strongly that Biden should keep these troops in place beyond the deadline, pessimistic about what would happen to the Afghan military if U.S. forces left. Much of the discussion came down to whether it made sense to keep trying to forge a deal between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic, and, if so, for how long.
“Sir, we’re not for staying forever,” Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Austin, the Defense Secretary, told Biden during the policy review. But they proposed extending the U.S. troop presence for up to a year, hoping to pressure the Taliban to take power-sharing negotiations more seriously. It was not clear why a short extension of the American deployment might facilitate talks that had repeatedly failed to advance. White House officials regarded the Pentagon’s scenario as just another way of recommending that the troops stay indefinitely. If the Taliban attacked nato, Biden might have to commit more troops or order a withdrawal under pressure. The Pentagon proposals were set aside, and the discussion shifted to what would happen if the U.S. pulled out.
Meanwhile, at the Sharq, in Doha, the talks between Taliban envoys and Kabul’s team offered little evidence that any diplomatic breakthrough was possible. Ghani’s delegates lived at the resort and had few ties to Qatar. The Taliban envoys, who had homes in Doha, as well as families and businesses, generally turned up at the resort “every two or three days,” and then only at night, Sarabi, the delegate from Kabul, recalled. “The time management was not good.” In early January, the Taliban delegations did not even appear for talks as scheduled.
By now, many of the Kabul delegates had lost any remaining faith that they had in Khalilzad. Sarabi accused him of “taking the side of the Taliban.” She said it was “very clear” that Khalilzad “wanted the Taliban to be the head of the government” as part of a transitional, power-sharing arrangement, and that he wanted Ghani to leave office. Khalilzad did believe that Ghani would have to give up power for a transitional government to be formed, but he said that he “never, ever” supported putting a Taliban leader in charge. To some extent, he blamed the impasse on Ghani’s intransigence. Later, Khalilzad said that his biggest mistake was failing to put even more pressure on Ghani to compromise.
In early 2021, Khalilzad and Blinken came up with a work-around. They would jump-start an “accelerated” peace process that would set aside the negotiations in Doha in order to leap to a final power-sharing deal between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban. Khalilzad helped write an eight-page draft of a so-called Afghanistan Peace Agreement, which was breathtakingly ambitious: it imagined a new constitution; a transitional government with an expanded parliament, to accommodate many Taliban members; reconstituted courts; a new body, the High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence; and a national ceasefire. He hoped that the Taliban and the Islamic Republic would agree to attend a peace summit in Turkey.
On March 22nd, Blinken met with nato foreign ministers, who insisted that the U.S. should be doing more to try to forge a political settlement in Afghanistan. Blinken called Biden and said that he wanted to explore whether a troop withdrawal could be delayed until after the summit in Turkey, even though the Taliban had not yet agreed to participate. This would show nato allies that the U.S. was listening, Blinken argued, but it would also mean breaking the Doha agreement.
Khalilzad met with the Taliban and argued that, if they wanted Afghanistan to enjoy international aid and recognition, they should accept a delay in the U.S. withdrawal so that a power-sharing agreement could be negotiated in Turkey. When Taliban negotiators observed that the Americans were talking about breaking the Doha accord, they did not directly threaten to renew attacks against U.S. and nato forces. But they made clear that “bad things would happen,” a State Department official involved said.
On April 5th, Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national-security adviser, called Mohib and said it was unlikely that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan before May 1st. But any extension, he said, would be “for a limited time.” The White House continued to hope that talks with the Taliban might ease the transition. “It’s important that the Afghan government speak with one voice,” support the peace process “unambiguously,” and adopt a “constructive and mindful attitude” toward talks with the Taliban, Finer said. Mohib shared the news with Ghani: the American era in Afghanistan would end soon.
Ghani and Mohib both assumed that Biden would schedule a withdrawal for after the summer fighting season, when winter snows would likely limit Taliban mobility. Nine days later, when Biden announced his decision, he described the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban as “perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself,” but proceeded to order a full withdrawal by September 11th. Ghani posted a statement on Twitter expressing “respect” for Biden’s decision. “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country,” he wrote. Within days, the Taliban made clear that they would not participate in Khalilzad’s peace summit in Turkey. The years-long diplomatic effort by the United States to broker peace between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic had failed.
For years, the Taliban had been operating shadow governments in various rural areas, but they had never conquered and held a sizable Afghan city. nato and, later, the Afghan Air Force had a monopoly on air power. The Taliban had no warplanes and no effective high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles, although they could bring down helicopters and low-flying planes with smaller arms. Whenever the Taliban massed for a major assault, or on the few occasions when they temporarily seized a city, they were vulnerable to devastating air strikes. After 2018, when Miller took command of Resolute Support, he had encouraged Ghani’s forces to redouble the use of élite Special Forces backed by air power. By 2021, the Afghan Air Force had eight thousand personnel and more than a hundred and eighty aircraft.
After Biden’s announcement, Miller began to pull U.S. soldiers from the country. As he did, the international contractors who maintained Afghanistan’s helicopters and fighter planes departed, too. “The companies are not going to keep people there if they don’t have blanket protection either from the U.S. or the nato forces,” Miller said.
This past May, Yasin Zia, the chief of Army staff and acting minister of defense, learned that Central Command, the U.S. headquarters in charge of the Afghan war, would attempt to provide aircraft “tele-maintenance” by video, on iPads, employing specialists in Qatar. “They said the mechanic from our side would sit in front of the Zoom and the person from Qatar would advise him to do this or do that,” Zia recalled. Central Command also planned to open an aircraft-repair shop in the United Arab Emirates, about a thousand miles from Afghanistan, but Afghan helicopters could not fly that far, and Afghan airplanes had to traverse Pakistani airspace, requiring complicated negotiations with the Pakistani military. A senior State Department official involved said that by June “you could see there wasn’t going to be anything there” to keep Afghan aircraft flying. Maintenance aside, the essential problem, according to a senior Defense Department official, was that “we were leaving.” The entire Afghan military was designed to operate around U.S. systems and expertise, and when that was gone the Afghan forces unravelled.
In recent years, the Afghan military had inherited dozens of bases. According to Saleh, the First Vice-President, the bases were “defendable but not easy to supply.” They were especially so as the Taliban captured more territory and closed off highways. That spring, Saleh wrote, in an e-mail, “There were days when I would get up to a thousand messages on my WhatsApp or phone from these besieged [bases] asking for help.” Many stranded soldiers posted stories of desperation on social media. “The desertion rates increased up to seven hundred per day, due to hunger, thirst, lack of medivac, lack of logistics and air support,” Saleh said.
In early July, Ghani and his advisers returned from their visit to Washington, where they had made a show of their fortitude and optimism. But, Mohib recalled, “we were quite desperate.” When the U.S. troop withdrawal had started, the Taliban controlled around eighty of Afghanistan’s approximately four hundred administrative districts, according to estimates by the Long War Journal. By July 10th, the Taliban controlled more than two hundred. They quickly seized border crossings leading to Iran and Pakistan, and with them lucrative customs revenue. Then they choked off major cities and conquered new districts close to Kabul. “We couldn’t control the flow of it, and we weren’t entirely sure what the Americans could or could not provide,” Mohib said. “And the collapse started very quickly.”
On July 23rd, Biden called Ghani.“I need not tell you the perception around the world, and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” he said. American generals had been trying to persuade Ghani to devise a new military plan that concentrated airpower on the defense of major population centers, such as Kabul. Biden proposed that Ghani hold a press conference the following week with well-known Afghan politicians, including Abdullah, Dostum, Karzai, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a leader of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority. Biden envisaged “all of you standing together” with Bismillah Khan, the minister of defense, “backing up this new strategy” to defend Kabul and major cities.
“I’m not a military guy,” Biden continued, “so I’m not telling you what a plan should precisely look like,” but, if Ghani agreed to this idea, “you’re going to get not only more help” from the U.S. military but foster a change in perception. “We will continue to provide close air support, if we know what the plan is and what we are doing,” Biden added.
Ghani said that he would hold the press conference, but that his forces needed more American planes to conduct air strikes on the Taliban: “What is crucial is close air support.”
“Look, close air support works only if there is a military strategy on the ground to support,” Biden replied. He said that he would have one of his top generals call Ghani immediately, to synchronize military plans.
Two days later, the Pentagon announced that it had begun to carry out intensified air strikes against the Taliban, which would continue in the “coming weeks.” Ghani staged an appearance with political leaders and travelled to provinces and military bases to rally the armed forces. On August 2nd, as he presented his government’s new military strategy to parliament, he lashed out at the Biden Administration. “The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly,” he said. Still, he forecast that his government would have matters “under control within six months.”
Ghani decided to travel to Tehran to attend the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi, the new Iranian President, on August 5th. For some years, Ghani had been negotiating a security and economic agreement with Iran. Before he departed, he talked with Blinken. They spent the first ten or fifteen minutes reviewing the potential consequences for U.S. foreign policy of an agreement between Kabul and Tehran. Blinken warned Ghani, “If U.S. laws are violated, that would jeopardize our support.” The discussion presumed the Islamic Republic’s prolonged existence.
When they turned to the war, Ghani launched into a soliloquy about American mistakes, particularly the long pursuit of negotiations with the Taliban. Ghani’s negotiators in Doha had informed him, he told Blinken, that “all the Taliban want is military victory. With enormous respect, our international colleagues have misread the intentions and character of the Taliban. . . . The current posture of the Taliban is ‘Submit, submit, submit.’ . . . Do your colleagues and your staff have any other sense?”
Blinken said that there still might be a way for Ghani to find a deal “without compromising yourself.” Khalilzad was working on a new proposal: a one-month ceasefire in exchange for both sides releasing three thousand prisoners. Ghani rejected this outright. If he released thousands more Taliban prisoners, “the country will break. . . . Our security forces will not fight ever again.”
On August 6th, the Taliban captured Zaranj, in Nimruz Province, in the south, the first provincial capital to fall. The next day, the U.S. Embassy urged all American citizens to leave Afghanistan. Ghani’s office continued to post progress reports on social media about Afghanistan’s modernization drive. The press releases conveyed more than a whiff of unreality. “Maybe it was a coping mechanism,” Akbar, the chair of the human-rights commission, said, but the daily pretense of normalcy “just seemed like a parallel universe.” On August 10th, Ghani’s official Facebook page announced new infrastructure projects, including one in the northern city of Kunduz, where the Taliban flag now flew.
When the Taliban conquered Afghanistan during the mid-nineteen-nineties, they sometimes seized Afghan cities with minimal fighting, accepting the surrender of enemies without inflicting immediate reprisals. Quick, bloodless changes of power were a recurring pattern in the Afghan civil war, reflecting combatants’ sense of kinship, even amid merciless violence. Surrender, parole, and temporary local truces were established practices, alongside revenge killings and summary executions. Last summer, Bismillah Khan reported that the Taliban were offering Islamic Republic soldiers money, and a letter of passage, to protect them from harassment after they surrendered and went home. By August, “money was changing hands at a rapid rate,” a senior British military officer said, with Afghan security forces getting “bought off by the Taliban.”
For weeks, the U.S. and its European allies had tried to avoid evacuating their personnel or Afghans who worked for them, for fear that this would look like a rush to the exits, but by early August the British military had evacuated an Afghan intelligence outfit that intercepted communications by the Taliban. Provincial capitals now toppled one after another; on August 12th, Ghazni fell. That evening, Blinken and Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Secretary of Defense, called Ghani to inform him that three thousand U.S. troops would fly in to seize the Kabul airport. The troops were not being sent to defend Kabul against a Taliban assault; they were meant to protect evacuating American personnel. The next day, the Taliban took the major cities of Kandahar and Herat. Dostum, under siege, left the country for Uzbekistan, as did Ata Mohammad Noor, another powerful and independent leader in the north.
Khalilzad and his team, still grasping at a deal that might halt a Taliban assault on Kabul, asked Ghani to appoint a delegation led by Abdullah and Karzai that would fly to Doha and work out an orderly transition with Baradar and his colleagues. The idea was that Ghani would accept whatever this delegation negotiated—including his own departure from office. Ghani said that he was willing to give up power, but only if there were elections to identify his long-term successor. The Americans dismissed this as wildly unrealistic. On Saturday, August 14th, amid reports that Taliban units were already inside Kabul, Ghani dropped his demand. Now he simply hoped for an orderly transfer of power endorsed by a loya jirga.
He told Blinken that he was ready to accept whatever his envoys and the Biden Administration agreed on with the Taliban. Blinken asked him to “get the delegation to Doha” as quickly as possible, “to show the Taliban this is a serious process. We need a ceasefire to process this.”
“Please lean as much as you can on a dignified process,” Ghani said. He remained adamant that any transfer of power should be endorsed by the Afghan assembly. “Please convey to the Taliban that this is not a surrender.”
“Dignified is exactly what we want as well,” Blinken said.
Ghani told him that if the Taliban rejected this last effort to bring about an orderly transition, or did not negotiate in good faith, “I will fight to the death.” He appointed the delegation that Blinken had requested—thirteen people, including a son of Dostum, and Karzai, Abdullah, and Mohib—and announced that they would decide the Islamic Republic’s fate in discussions with the Taliban. Ghani told Mohib that, with this decision, he felt the Islamic Republic had all but ceased to exist.
In the world’s failed states, Ghani wrote, in a book published in 2008, “vicious networks of criminality, violence and drugs feed on disenfranchised populations and uncontrolled territory.” That problem lies “at the heart of a worldwide systemic crisis.” Afghanistan was poor but stable and peaceful for much of the twentieth century, until the Soviet invasion of 1979, which ignited forty-two years of continual warfare, much of it caused by outside powers. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. funded and armed Afghan extremists fighting the Soviet occupation of the eighties. Pakistan armed and funded the Taliban’s rise to power during the mid-nineties. The U.S.-led invasion after 9/11 empowered corrupt warlords around Afghanistan in the name of counterterrorism and, after the Taliban’s fall, failed to prevent Pakistan from fostering the movement’s revival. By the time Ghani became President, in 2014, the resurgent guerrillas had enjoyed a decade of sanctuary and covert aid from Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service, and they had badly shaken the Islamic Republic’s capacity to govern and defend itself. In the U.S. and Europe, public opinion had soured on the war, leading to reductions of troops and aid. For all of Ghani’s efforts to bolster Afghanistan’s young democracy, it was never likely that he would overcome this history, certainly not after 2017, when the Islamic Republic had to cope with the reckless decisions of Donald Trump.
Ghani’s last decision as President, to leave his country, is difficult to fully assess. Last August, a former Afghan Ambassador to Tajikistan accused Ghani of stealing more than a hundred and fifty million dollars while fleeing Afghanistan, although the Ambassador offered no evidence to back up his claim. Ghani has described these allegations as “completely and categorically false.” In the U.S., the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has opened an inquiry, but the accusations remain a mystery.
It was in late July that Ghani and Mohib first discussed the possibility that they would be forced to flee. One of Ghani’s priorities was to remove his book collection from harm’s way. His preference was to retreat from the capital to eastern Afghanistan, where he had political and military allies. Mohib thought that if it became necessary to go abroad Tajikistan and Uzbekistan seemed the most plausible initial destinations, since both could be reached in a single flight aboard one of the Afghan President’s four Mi-17 helicopters. In August, Mohib asked Qahar Kochai, the director of the Afghan President Protective Service, to develop an emergency plan along these lines. But as the Taliban arrived at the outskirts of Kabul and the U.S. accelerated its evacuation of American and Afghan allies, Mohib didn’t know whether he and Ghani figured in Washington’s evacuation.
On the fourteenth, Mohib learned that one of his colleagues at the Presidential palace was on a list of at-risk Afghans approved by the U.S. Embassy for evacuation. That afternoon, Mohib spoke by phone with a contact at the State Department. During a discussion about peace talks, Mohib paused to ask, “Is there an evacuation plan for us, for me and Ghani?” The official asked for something in writing.
“I would like to request that I and PG be included in your evacuation plan in case the political settlement doesn’t work,” Mohib texted, referring to President Ghani.
The indefiniteness of the exchange unsettled Mohib. “I thought, My partners are not going to rescue us,” he recalled. He contacted a senior official in the United Arab Emirates, who assured him that the U.A.E. would provide for Ghani and his top aides. He said that the kingdom would dispatch an executive jet to Kabul on Monday the sixteenth, and that the plane would stand by at the airport, with pilots ready to fly on short notice.
Mohib belonged to a Signal group chat that included some of the country’s top intelligence and security officials. On the night of the fourteenth, bad news poured across the channel. Nangarhar had fallen to the Taliban, as had several other provinces. On Sunday morning, the fifteenth, Mohib walked from his official residence to Ghani’s office, for their daily staff meeting, at nine o’clock. The channel now reported that members of the Taliban had reached Kabul. The gunmen might be local Taliban who had decided to show themselves, they might be criminals posing as Taliban, or they might be the vanguard of an invasion force. There were also many reports that Kabul policemen, soldiers, and guards were taking off their uniforms and going home.
In Doha that morning, Khalilzad recalled, he met Baradar at the Ritz-Carlton. During their discussion, Baradar “agreed that they will not enter Kabul” and would withdraw what Baradar described as “some hundreds” of Taliban who had already entered the capital. Based on Ghani’s concessions the previous day, Khalilzad hoped to arrange a two-week ceasefire and an orderly transfer of power in Kabul, to be sanctified by a “mini loya jirga.” Khalilzad was in WhatsApp contact with Abdul Salam Rahimi, an aide to Ghani, and informed Rahimi of this plan. Rahimi told Ghani that the Taliban had pledged not to enter Kabul. Yet this was based on assurances from Khalilzad and the Taliban, and Ghani regarded both as unreliable sources.
The Arg palace and the U.S. Embassy were in Kabul’s so-called Green Zone, protected by blast walls and armed guards. Resolute Support monitored the streets from a surveillance blimp equipped with high-resolution cameras. At around nine that morning, Ross Wilson, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Kabul, concluded from a variety of reports that so many police and guards had abandoned their posts that the Green Zone’s web of security on the streets had effectively collapsed. He consulted with Washington and ordered the immediate evacuation to the Kabul airport of all remaining U.S. personnel at the Embassy compound. To protect against leaks that might reach the Taliban or the Islamic State, Wilson did not inform Ghani that the Green Zone was no longer safe or of the decision to vacate the Embassy. Defense Department officials maintained a list of Afghan generals and high-ranking defense officials who would be evacuated from the country if necessary, but the Pentagon regarded Ghani’s possible evacuation as an issue for the State Department. According to State officials, the matter was never formally considered.
August 15th was a hot morning. At around eleven, Mohib joined the President and a diplomat from the U.A.E. at an outdoor meeting area, on a lawn beside the President’s office. As they discussed their possible evacuation plan, they could see a swarm of American Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters on the horizon, their motors thumping in the distance like muffled drums. Then they heard gunshots coming from somewhere outside the palace grounds. Ghani’s bodyguards hustled him inside.
At noon, Mohib joined Ghani in his library. They agreed that Rula, Ghani’s wife, and nonessential staff should leave for the U.A.E. as soon as possible. Mohib’s U.A.E. contacts offered seats on an Emirates Airlines flight scheduled to depart Kabul at four that afternoon. Ghani asked Mohib to escort Rula to Dubai, then join the negotiating team in Doha, to finalize talks with Khalilzad and Baradar about the handover of Kabul.
At roughly one o’clock, Mohib received a text message that Khalil Haqqani, a leader of the Taliban faction named for his family, wished to speak with him. He took a call from a Pakistani number. Haqqani’s message, Mohib recalled, was, essentially, “Surrender.” He said that they could meet after Mohib issued an appropriate statement. When Mohib proposed that they negotiate first, Haqqani repeated himself and hung up. Mohib called Tom West, a deputy to Khalilzad in Doha, to inform him of the call. West told him not to go to any meeting because it might be a trap.
Mohib returned to Ghani’s residence at around two. He escorted Rula in a motorcade to a helipad behind the Dilkusha palace. They were to fly to Hamid Karzai International Airport, to make the Emirates flight. Three of the President’s Mi-17s were now at the Arg; the fourth was at the airport. He learned that the pilots had fully fuelled the helicopters because they wanted to fly directly to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, as soon as possible, as other Afghan military pilots seeking refuge had done in recent days. The pilots did not want to hop over to the airport with Rula, because they had received reports that rogue Afghan soldiers were seizing or grounding helicopters there. Kochai, the head of the Presidential guard, approached Mohib.
“If you leave, you will be endangering the President’s life,” he said.
“Do you want me to stay?” Mohib asked.
“No, I want you to take the President with you.”
Mohib doubted that all of Ghani’s bodyguards would remain loyal if the Taliban entered the palace grounds, and Kochai indicated that he did not have the means to protect the President. Mohib helped Rula onto the President’s helicopter and asked her to wait. With Kochai, he drove back to the residence.
He found Ghani standing inside and took his hand. “Mr. President, it’s time,” Mohib said. “We must go.”
Ghani wanted to go upstairs to collect some belongings, but Mohib worried that every minute they delayed they risked touching off a panic and a revolt by armed guards. Ghani climbed into a car, without so much as his passport.
At the helipad, staff and bodyguards scuffled and shouted over who would fly. The pilots said that each helicopter could carry only six passengers. Along with Ghani, Rula, and Mohib, nine other officials squeezed aboard, as did members of Ghani’s security detail. Dozens of other Arg palace staffers—including Rahimi, who was still talking with Khalilzad about a ceasefire, and had no idea where Ghani or Mohib had gone—were left behind.
At about two-thirty, the pilots started the engines. The three Mi-17s lifted slowly above the gardens of the palace, banked north, and flew over Kabul’s rooftops toward the Salang Pass and, beyond that, to the Amu Darya River and Uzbekistan. ♦
_(This is the first story in a two-part series.) _
Published in the print edition of the December 20, 2021, issue, with the headline “The Fall of the Islamic Republic.”
Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His latest book is “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Adam Entous became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2018. He was a member of a team at the Washington Post that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.