Most Afghans will want to put 2021 behind them, especially those who risked their lives to scramble onto foreign flights when the government collapsed on August 15th. But memories of that traumatic day will not fade quickly, especially while the blame game continues.
On 30th December, former President Ashraf Ghani gave his first interview to the BBC to explain why he fled, given that his escape is widely seen as precipitating the collapse of the Republic. Ghani himself did not shy away from blaming others, namely US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the US withdrawal with the Taliban.
This article was submitted by Ben Acheson. Acheson spent seven years deployed to Afghanistan, as Director of NATO’s political team and as Political Adviser to the EU Special Representative before that. His first book ‘Wolves Among Men: The Pashtun Tribes in Afghanistan’ is set to be published in 2022.
This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
Both men, and their personal competition, have dominated post-collapse media analysis and ‘lessons learned’ processes. But the almost singular focus on them is a mistake. It smacks of the same strategic narcissism – “the tendency to view the world only in relation to the United States and to assume that the future course of events depends primarily on U.S. decisions or plans” – that routinely undermined Western efforts in Afghanistan. It will prevent the right lessons from being learned and it risks reducing the blame that is levied at the Taliban.
But overlooking the Taliban’s role is not entirely new.
“The war is being moved from the south to the north” was the phrase uttered by anti-Taliban factions from 2015 onwards, as they flagged the Taliban incursion into Afghanistan’s (relatively) peaceful northern provinces. Such warnings were usually dismissed as the rambling of resource-seeking warlords or attention-starved provincial officials.
This was a mistake. Shifting focus from the south to the north was exactly what the Taliban did. They started by seeping into pockets of communities who felt disenfranchised by the post-2001 status quo. These pockets, often of similar ethnic background to the talibs, were used as launchpads to distribute violence into the north, thus overstretching the Afghan security forces and giving the Taliban more control of where, and when, fighting took place. It also eased pressure on the Taliban’s southern strongholds, enabling them to consolidate and even govern in some areas. Foreign journalists and researchers then flocked to Taliban-held districts, seduced by the chance to write about Taliban governance, which itself helped to manufacture a narrative of a viable government-in-exile rather than prototypical terrorists.
Inadvertently, the Ghani team also supported the Taliban strategy, especially with their efforts to isolate warlords who, while pro-Republic and anti-Taliban, were seen by the Presidential Palace as challenging Ghani’s authority. Ghani’s team doggedly tried to dethrone strongmen, purging them from government institutions, removing their titles and stripping their patronage opportunities. Western diplomats, Kabul bureaucrats and even a sizeable chunk of Afghanistan’s youth bulge largely accepted the political fallout as they too lamented the vice-grip of the so-called ‘jihadi generation’ who were famed for resisting the Taliban in the 1990s.
But what Ghani marketed as ‘reform’ often undermined the delicate distribution of power that keep the state afloat in the post-2001 era. While moving away from warlord-influence sounds laudable, hindsight says that it undermined efforts to defend the Republic. Warlords were still part of the bedrock on which Afghan security relied. This became clear when a final stand was needed in the summer of 2021 and there were few figureheads able to rally any resistance.
Yet the speed at which the Taliban toppled key cities, particularly in northern areas, was not solely down to Ghani’s weakening of the warlords. The Taliban’s own strategy – the classic Afghan divide-and-rule – should not be overlooked.
From 2015 until the Republic’s collapse in 2021, the most intense fighting often broke out in Kunduz, Baghlan, Faryab and Badghis provinces – northern areas well-outside of the so-called ‘Pashtun Belt’ and the southern battlegrounds that defined the early post-2001 era. Badghis is a perfect example to explain the Taliban’s strategy. While seen by internationals as little more than a remote, irrelevant dust-bowl, it was actually an important narco-gateway into Central Asia with ‘pockets’ of aggrieved communities that the Taliban could manipulate to foment localised ethnic strife.
Destabilising Badghis had the added benefit of severing anti-Taliban resistance in western provinces like Herat (including the large Tajik population led by notable strongman Ismail Khan) from the generally anti-Taliban populations in the north-west provinces of Faryab and Jowzjan (traditionally led by Uzbek powerbroker General Dostum). Stoking instability in these areas eroded the power of pro-Republic warlords at the same time as they suffered resource shortages due to the Ghani-led government’s efforts to politically isolate them. Western actors also tended to stay at arm’s length due to the chequered human rights history of many of the strongmen.
Map of Afghanistan’s provinces and Highway 1 route (Source: SIGAR 2017)
Put simply, the Taliban systematically severed contiguous anti-Taliban territories at the same time as the Ghani-led government worked to isolate local warlords and powerbrokers. This pattern was then reproduced across the north. Taliban tactics also amplified existing cleavages in the anti-Taliban leadership caused by the 2014 and 2019 Afghan Presidential elections, which pitted prominent anti-Taliban politicians against one another and caused deep wounds that undermined much-needed unity.
While this explanation only scrapes the surface of Afghanistan’s ethnic dynamics and the Taliban’s northern strategy, it highlights that there were more layers to Afghanistan’s collapse than just Ghani and Khalilzad’s egos or the US withdrawal.
The Taliban were not passive benefactors of a Republic that cannibalised itself or that collapsed because the US pulled the rug from under it. The Taliban set the conditions for the Republic’s collapse as much as anything else. They strangled northern population centres and suffocated pro-Republic strongmen into submission, fatally weakening any potential resistance. They did so while most foreign officials were consumed by political intrigue in the Presidential Palace, brinkmanship over contested election cycles and squabbling about the US withdrawal.
That the Taliban had a smart strategy is not difficult to see. What makes it hard to stomach is that they did it under the cover of Western strategic narcissism.