Dateline Afghanistan: Lessons Learnt and What Next?

Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam and Dr. Reyaz Ahmad Ganaie
18th August 2021

Picture Courtesy: AP

The Taliban’s takeover of the levers of power in Afghanistan is now complete with the relatively peaceful and resistance-free conquest of the capital city of Kabul on August 15, 2021, and with the de facto control of the country. While some analysts were skeptical of the ability of the Afghan security forces ( who were trained by the Americans) to keep the Taliban at bay, what they, however, would never have imagined is that it would take the Taliban just a few weeks to make significant territorial gains and eventually topple the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani.

While the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is still unfolding, it becomes pertinent to analyse and evaluate the factors that led to Taliban’s swift conquest of the country and the sudden fall of the Afghan government. As with any other major crisis, the Taliban’s blitzkrieg campaign and the consequent collapse of the Afghan government is a multi-factorial phenomenon. The first and foremost reason that really emboldened the Taliban to embark on its conquest mission was President Joe Biden’s announcement of completing the U.S. military exit from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the September, 11, 2001, attacks on the American soil. The withdrawal of U.S. troops, which had begun long before Biden entered the office, meant the absence of a strong security shield which was instrumental in keeping the Taliban threat under check and by virtue of which Afghanistan’s urban centres remained more or less secure. The presence of U.S. troops reinforced the counter-insurgency capacity of Afghan security forces. Their (US) withdrawal, however, meant that the Afghan security forces were left on their own to fend for themselves to contain the threat posed by an ever-increasing Taliban insurgency. One might argue that had the U.S. troops stayed put, the Taliban’s recent territorial gains wouldn’t have been this easy and quick to accomplish. Thus, reluctance on the part of the United States to prolong its boot presence on the ground weakened and diminished the security architecture of Afghanistan, which consequently enabled the Taliban to repeat what they had done in 1996 albeit with less bloodshed.

However, maintaining a sizeable troop presence in Afghanistan was ever becoming a difficult choice for the United States to hold onto given the compulsions of U.S’ domestic politics and the huge financial implications such a presence would have warranted. Thus, over the last two decades with four US presidents, there appeared to be a bipartisan consensus among the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States that a complete pull out from Afghanistan would serve U.S. interests the most. This reasoning paved the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In hindsight it can be argued that while the pull out may benefit the U.S. financially, it, however, comes at the cost of losing all  that was achieved in Afghanistan over the last two decades as well as its credibility as a trusted ally.

Secondly, what came to be known as the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) – nearly a three hundred thousand strong amalgam of Afghan National Army, Afghan Air Force, Afghan National Police and other special forces – proved to be no match to the offensive and menacing capabilities of the Taliban. ANDSF was built from the scratch following the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001. Almost the entire budget of ANDSF was taken care of through the financial support provided by the United States and other NATO nations. As an institution, ANDSF had always been wanting for resources in terms of training, equipment, replenishment supplies and salaries etc. Most analysts had doubted the capacity of ANDSF to repel successfully a Taliban onslaught. The events of the recent few weeks have brought out its weaknesses and shortcomings for the whole world to see. There was no proper command and control mechanism in place and forces were not in their best form in the absence of food and ammunition supplies. The ANDSF also witnessed large-scale desertion in the face of a looming threat of Taliban takeover and rampant corruption within the upper echelons of security forces and the civilian administration controlling it. Had the ANDSF been a bit more professional, capable and resource rich institution, it would not have been a cakewalk for the Taliban to make huge territorial gains in such a short time.

Third, Pakistan’s unstinted patronage of the Taliban meant that all the Taliban insurgents had to do was to wait for the United States to pull out from Afghanistan and then embark on a targeted campaign to capture power. Safe passage into Pakistan’s tribal areas, and tactical, financial and logistical support provided by Pakistan have been instrumental in sustaining the Taliban insurgency ever since their ouster following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s support has been the single most important factor responsible for helping the Taliban regroup, rearm, strategize and unleash its insurgency in Afghanistan.

Lastly, the lack of consensus and divergence of interests among and between Afghanistan’s regional neighbours has also contributed its fair share in destabilising Afghanistan and in negating the possibility of establishing enduring peace in the war-torn country. Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Russia, Pakistan and India have shown little enthusiasm to chart out a mutually acceptable regional strategy to solve the Afghan conundrum. Thus for some, opening channels of communication with the Taliban in the Doha talks became the priority while for others the Taliban continued to be seen as Pakistan’s proxy and a pariah entity not to be engaged with. Similarly, some neighbours whole-heartedly endorsed the U.S.-led reconstruction mission in Afghanistan and contributed towards the same, while others were more interested in seeing an early U.S. exit to ensure the expansion of their own sphere of power and influence in Afghanistan. This inevitably contributed in hampering the consolidation of the Afghan state and its regime and its capacity to sustain itself in the face of a Taliban conquest.

Afghanistan truly stands at a crossroads today. Inaction on the part of the United States and the larger international community would mean the reversal of gains made since 2001. The United Nations, the United States, and other stakeholders would do well to take immediate, proactive and concrete steps to secure Afghanistan from slipping into yet another vicious cycle of violence and bloodshed. After almost four decades of violence, all that Afghanistan and ordinary Afghans deserve is peace that can be sustainable.

* Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam is Professor (Retired), Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

* Dr. Reyaz Ahmad Ganaie, is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Lucknow Campus.


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