After nearly twenty years the post 9/11 political order in Afghanistan established with the complete backing of the United States and its allies collapsed in the face of a stunning Taliban blitz across the country. The Taliban took control of the Presidential Palace as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country alongside his group of advisors effectively triggering the total breakdown of the Afghan state and its institutions. The unravelling of the Afghan government and its control over most parts of the country had gathered pace after the Biden administration announced its commitment to uphold the peace deal reached between the Taliban and former Trump administration and proceed on with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Even as the NATO military support gradually diminished, the most cautious estimates of the US intelligence predicted the Afghan government to hold ground against Taliban for more than six months. Yet defying all the odds the Taliban managed to capture Afghan provinces and all major cities in a matter of just two weeks. Here the logical question remains what went wrong in Afghanistan and was a Taliban takeover of the country inevitable?
The US led international intervention in Afghanistan happened with the decisive aim to dismantle the terror sanctuaries of Al-Qaeda and to capture its leader Osama Bin Laden. Yet gradually this US mission evolved into a nation-building exercise. In order to implement this agenda an Afghan national government was setup that led to the empowerment of a certain political class that used this opportunity to increase its political power and wealth and at the expense of institution building. Slowly a fiefdom culture emerged where every local strongman ran a system of patronage networks that benefited his group of supporters and marginalized all others. In addition to these structures of political discrimination Afghan civilians particularly in the Pushtun heartlands of South and East bore the brunt of continuous anti-Taliban operations, aerial bombings and extra-judicial killings by CIA backed armed militias. This estranged the rural population in these areas and translated into growing sympathy for the Taliban.
Eventually the US started to realize that it cannot resolve the Afghan conundrum solely by military means and it initiated a process of dialogue with Taliban representatives. Yet these negotiations remained inconclusive as the Taliban refused to engage with the Afghan government which they claimed as an American puppet and lacking legitimacy. Internally within Afghanistan political fragmentation and factionalism reached new heights as a political tussle ensued between President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
As the US neared a breakthrough in its negotiations with the Taliban, it was increasingly becoming clear that an agreement between the two sides would be followed by talks between Taliban and Afghan government eventually resulting in the formation of an inclusive interim government. Yet the Afghan government of President Ghani feared that any such arrangement would result in its departure from power and thus the dialogue between Taliban and Afghan government never made any headway. Instead, President Ghani made an offer of a fresh election which was rejected by the Taliban. Biden administration did pressurize President Ghani but to no avail. This was the critical flaw of the US. If the US had managed a power transition from Ghani government to an interim setup, the future would have been different. However it looked as if the US was just interested in the withdrawal of its own troops and not about the political future of Afghanistan.
With the US military umbrella over and Afghan security infrastructure weakened by insurgent attacks, corruption and desertions, its collapse was only a matter of time. As the Taliban launched their offensive a majority of government officials and military commanders following their instincts of being residents of a political marketplace cut out deals with the Taliban. The Taliban on their part effectively used tribal elders, clerics and relatives of these officials to broker these deals. For most of these officials and soldiers there was neither a reason nor a leader to fight for, something confirmed by the escape of President Ghani from the country.
The Taliban have prevailed over the hollow state structures created by US but now will need to deliver on issues like corruption, justice, drug production and must improve their previous record with regards to women and minority rights. Otherwise, they would be just a global pariah.