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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > The Taliban Captured Kabul in 2021 but the War Was Lost a Long Time Ago

The Taliban Captured Kabul in 2021 but the War Was Lost a Long Time Ago

Nasrat Esmaty (MAPov06) shares his thoughts on who is to blame for the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Aghanistan and what will happen next.
Image: Shafiq Mureed
Image: Shafiq Mureed

I was dumbfounded by the pace at which villages, districts and then provincial capitals started falling to the hands of the Taliban. I was wondering how an insurgent group who are supposed to be "students" can overtop an army that has been in training and well-equipped for the past 20 years. Then, I would listen to President Ashraf Ghani's speeches/interviews or read Vice President Amrullah Saleh's tweets and Facebook messages, which were extremely reassuring, and take a sigh of relief that the government would recapture the lost territory.

However, such reassurances did not last long. I began to lose confidence in the army once the Taliban overran major cities, such as Kandahar, Herat, Balkh and Herat. As an Afghan, the worst image of war was not that of the Afghan army officers' death or displacement of my fellow countrymen, but rather the video of the Ghazni governor surrendering everything to the Taliban and driving his motorcade through a crowd of simpleton Taliban fighters who were making fun of him, “The Ghazni governor is running away”, and chanting their Talibani slogans. The governor stripped Afghans of pride, honor, resilience and fighting power. I failed to realize why the Taliban would capture an Afghan governor like Dawood Laghmani, Ismail Khan, a famous Jehadi leader in Herat, and a warmonger, such as Nizamuddin Qaisari in the north, and release them later. To the Taliban, such figures were trophies and killing them would have demoralized the resistance further. After all, they have a history of bloodshed with no remorse.

However, the final nail in the coffin of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was hammered when the video of President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country surfaced and the Taliban stormed the presidential palace as if it was a recreational park. Some of the fighters sat where President Ghani had sat and took pictures with their sophisticated machine guns, marking the end of a twenty-year tumultuous yet promising era.

The first question that begs asking is “Who is responsible?”

1.     The Afghanistan Government: It has to shoulder the bulk of responsibility.

 a.     The Afghan army failed in the fight against the Taliban, which they were hired, trained and equipped for, for 20 years. There is no justification for such a disastrous failure. In most provinces, the Taliban did not have to break sweat to gain control, which is disgraceful. Even the U.S. did not anticipate such extraordinary fall. The Afghan army, especially, the special forces unit and the commandoes commanded respect and fear from the enemies, so it is beyond comprehension for everyone including the U.S. how the Taliban could capture almost all the provinces in Afghanistan in the span of a couple of weeks. Indeed, there were deals made between the local governments and the Taliban, which Ghani, VP Saleh and their intelligence agencies are accountable for and need to explain.

b.     The Afghan political and diplomatic establishment failed calamitously to urge the U.S. and the world to stop the Taliban from fighting and committing heinous crimes and atrocities against the Afghan armed forces and civilians. Moreover, they failed to prevent or cause to prevent Pakistan from housing, training and equipping the insurgent groups that operate in Afghanistan.

 c.     The religious establishment in Afghanistan failed to nullify the religious validation of the Taliban campaign despite being in-charge of the religious affairs of the country. They could not convince the Taliban that their teachings and justifications were erroneous, that the Afghan government was legitimate, that killing Afghans was haram – the basic duties of the religious establishment in a country that has a ministry dedicated to religious affairs. They could not even convince Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, to issue a decree against the Taliban when the latter used suicide attacks as a means of engagement. If they did, it was too late. Moreover, the Afghanistan government had on its roster imams who openly called the government a puppet regime and the Afghans who worked with state as allies of the oppressors. Mawlawi Mujeeb-ur-Rahman Ansari is a peculiar example, who asked the Heratis not to fight against the Taliban fighters as the latter were fiercely fighting to capture Herat. The Afghanistan government was so weak that they could not even prosecute Ansari for violating national interests.

 d.     The Afghanistan government failed to curb corruption, which alienated allies and the Afghan people. Corruption or political graft was so rampant and omnipresent that the world pleaded to and later warned both Karzai and Ghani regimes, but almost nothing happened. Karzai resorted to blame game while Ghani's administration mummed and perpetuated corruption without much heed to the international community warnings. In provinces where the Taliban had significant presence, Afghans sought them for swift justice, which was served.  

 e.     The Afghanistan government failed to tackle lawlessness perpetuated by warlord and bullies, which questioned the authority and influence of the central government on numerous occasions. While Karzai turned a blind eye to even heinous crimes committed by warlords and bullies, or even worse, offered them key cabinet and government positions, Ghani took action in a few instances only to retract his statements and skedaddle. There are many instances. However, his showdown with Atta Mohammad Noor over the latter's resignation as the governor of Balkh and rejecting Ghani's appointed governor; General Rashid Dostum over the latter's scuffle with Ahmad Ishchi and rejecting Ghani's appointed governor, and failure to prosecute bullies and criminals, such as the Kabul Bank defaulters, Hasib-e-Quay Markaz, Abdul Hamid Khorasani and the former football chief, Keramuddin Keram, proved to the people that Ghani is a weak leader and gives in to bullies.

 f.      The Afghanistan government alienated the international community and failed to forge meaningful relationship with its allies because of Ghani's ill-tempered nature, surrounding himself with clueless political advisors or corrupt officials, and failing to connect with the average Afghan at the grassroots level in peripheral cities and provinces. It is no secret that Ghani had anger management issues and would lash out at almost anyone that caused him to see red. While it worked with a few individuals sporadically, such a temperament imbalance caused him to alienate Afghans and foreigners. Unfortunately, he had never learned how to smooth his rough surfaces. While he would be patient with foreigners, he made his displeasure known to Afghans and media almost all the time. Some of his political appointees and closest advisors were not only clueless about the Afghan conflict and state of affairs but may have also cost him his presidency and legacy. For example, his ambassador to the U.S. and later national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, had a college degree in computer system engineering and a PhD in End-to-end 3D video communication. He was by no means fit to represent Afghanistan in the U.S. or have Ghani's ear in matters of national security, but Ghani held Mohib so dear that he sacrificed of what remained of his relationship with the U.S. after the latter accused the U.S. envoy Zalmai Khalilzad of trying to act as viceroy and further his personal political aspirations in Afghanistan. Similarly, the key cabinet members of the Ghani cabinet complained about the interference of the Director General of the Administrative Office and another political appointee, Dr. Fazl Mahmood Fazly. Dr. Fazly is a family doctor by profession and has mastered Islamic calligraphy. One of the reasons why Minister of Finance Arghandiwal resigned was because he had been fed up with Dr. Fazly's interference in the former's affairs. Dr. Fazly has been accused of installing members of parliament, an elective body, and a few other violations, which he never admitted to or got punished for. Some of the other appointees which only undermined Ghani's leadership and legacy were Masoom Stanikzai, Salam Rahimi, Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, Waheed Omar, Dawood Noorzai, Ajmal Ahmadi, Rangina Hamidi etc.

g.     President Ghani failed to beat Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO of Afghanistan and later Chairman of the Peace Council, with both claiming victory in September 2019's elections. Elections have never been fair or free in Afghanistan. However, it turned out to be a costly catastrophe in 2014 and 2019 respectively. The establishment of the extraconstitutional National Unity Government (NUG), with the blessing of by then US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 and its continuity in 2019 basically undermined the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of average Afghans. Moreover, the international community realized that despite the participation of almost all the key actors in the government, Afghans would not agree on a host of issues. Ghani and Abdullah acted as the wife and mistress of Afghanistan. Abdullah worked to oppose any decisions that would not directly benefit him or his team while Ghani would force his orders under the stamp of legitimacy to the fullest extent possible. Such internal discord involved government resources in proving authority and shaming one another, which the Taliban took full advantage of and made inroads in the peace talks as well as battles across the country.

h.     The Afghan government failed to involve influential political figures in the peace talks, so the Taliban always called the shots. The peace talks turned out to be a comical affair. First, Ghani and Abdullah would not come to terms on who should negotiate on behalf of the Afghanistan government. Therefore, the Afghan negotiating team comprised of fresh graduates, inexperience public servants or notorious politicians. The fact that setting the agenda of the peace negotiations lasted almost several months and that also on Taliban's insistence is testament to the fact that the Taliban did not want to negotiate. They wanted an obedient audience. The worst part of this ordeal was that Afghanistan always went to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. They almost begged the Taliban for cease fire and striking a peace deal.

 2.     The U.S. Government

 a.     The U.S. occupied Afghanistan without a plan. Almost everything was left to the mercy of Zalmay Khalilzad, their envoy. Installing Hamid Karzai as the first head of state was ill-considered as Karzai was neither a decisive leader, nor was he revered or feared amongst the Taliban or the warlords. Under Karzai, Afghanistan saw the emergence of a failed and corrupt state and the reemergence of the Taliban.  A decisive leader would have either propelled the Taliban to join the peace process early in the reconstruction of Afghanistan or neutralize them and their domestic and foreign supporters.

b.     The U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban, which gave the Taliban legitimacy, credibility and champion trophy. No matter how harshly Michael Pompeo criticizes President Biden, the onus of the tragedy in Afghanistan falls on Donald Trump, Michael Pompeo and Zalmay Khalilzad. For the life of me, I do not understand why a separate peace treaty needed to be signed despite the fact that the battleground was Afghanistan. The Taliban did not attack the U.S., Al-Qaeda did. The Taliban never had the authority or sway to push the terrorist organization in or out of Afghanistan. It was a marriage of convenience as Al-Qaeda needed refuge while the Taliban needed whatever financial support they could get from the terror group. The US-Taliban peace treaty was an agreement signed on paper, but, in Taliban's eyes, it was “certificate of victory” against the U.S. and NATO forces. It prevented the international community including the U.S. to fight against the Taliban and did not result in ceasefire between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, the two main warring factions in the equation. The worst article of the agreement was the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which the U.S. forced the Afghan government to do. While a few returned home, a good chunk returned to the battlefield emboldened and paid little heed to their fate as they knew their masters would secure their release. The peace treaty did not force the Taliban to a ceasefire with the Afghan armed forces, nor did it result in peace accord with the Afghan government. On several instances, the Taliban delegation refused to even meet with the Afghan delegation and when they finally met, the Taliban wasted months in agreeing on an agenda for the peace negotiations. The U.S. signed a treaty with the Taliban to secure the lives of thousands of American armed forces in Afghanistan, but left the whole country of 30 to 35 million Afghans to the mercy of the Taliban. The rest is repeated history. The Taliban started “target killing” the religious scholars, public servants, armed forces, NGO workers and whoever they pleased. Part of the reason why the Afghanistan forces did not put a fight against the Taliban is because of the US-Afghan treaty. Some Afghans must have thought if the U.S. was signing a deal with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban must be imminent and inevitable, so why risk lives to save the republic? The Afghan armed forces lost the war in spirit. The treaty between the Taliban and the Americans was so poorly conceived that the U.S. Senate summoned and grilled Khalilzad over different articles of the treaty.

c.     The U.S. and Afghan intelligence agencies had credible information about the Taliban and Haqani network training camps, safe havens and other sanctuaries, but the U.S. only eliminated Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. The whole world knew about the Pakistan's army and intelligence services role in the re-emergence of the Taliban, but unfortunately nothing was done to eliminate the roots of terrorism in Afghanistan. Every time the U.S. tried to exert pressure on Pakistan to draw the Taliban and the Haqani network out, Pakistan shrugged responsibility or hid behind China and the campaign died. Such reluctance by the Americans made the Taliban more grateful of the Pakistanis and more obedient.  The emboldened Pakistan openly criticized the U.S. for its role in the Afghan conflict and supplied to Afghanistan as many insurgents as possible.

d.     The abrupt withdrawal of the American forces was as big a blunder as the US-Taliban treaty was. Everyone knew that the Americans would leave Afghanistan someday, but they thought the Americans must have learned a lesson or two from Vietnam or Iraq. However, the exit was uncalculated and conducted hastily. Not only was the plan extremely flawed, there was no plan B foreseen. President Biden would have been able to salvage the sorry episode of Kabul if he had acted swiftly both militarily and politically. He should have ensured that the Taliban could not advance in the battleground and forced them to come to an agreement with the Afghan administration on the negotiation table. Even air support would have saved the day for the Afghan government. Alas! It wasn't to be.

3.     The Pakistani Government

How can I talk about the Afghan conflict and not give credit to our neighbor who housed, equipped and trained the Taliban in its backyard and then acted as Afghanistan's friend before the world who watched from afar and did nothing. The only friend Afghanistan found was in Canada's former ambassador to Kabul, Chris Alexander, who openly criticized Pakistan for its role in the Afghan conflict. The most ironic thing about Pakistan is their support for Palestinians and Kashmiris. Afghans are as Muslim a nation as Palestinians and Kashmiris are. The Afghan administration and people asked the Imran Khan's (aka Taliban Khan) government to stop supporting, training and equipping the Taliban, but Pakistan conveniently turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. Why does Pakistan's Islam, sympathy and pride hibernate when it comes to Afghanistan? This might be because of Afghanistan's good relations with India – Pakistan's number one nemesis. Also, Pakistan seems extremely concerned about Palestinians and Kashmiris, but why are they not concerned about the plight of Uighur Muslims? To save their business deals! Or, can we sum it up by saying that the Taliban is to Pakistan what Pakistan is to China? Imran Khan even denies atrocities committed against Uighur Muslims, which has been well-documented and the U.S. has even publicly voiced displeasure against such inhuman treatment. Pakistan did lose 90,000 lives during the war against terror episode, but not because they were fighting Afghanistan or the US' war. They harbored terrorists. Do Osama Bin Laden and Abbottabad ring a bell? In return, they directly and indirectly caused the deaths of at least 241,000 Afghans.

4.     The Average Public

The average public is also responsible for the catastrophe that Afghanistan has had to face. We voted for carpetbaggers and ethnic opportunists like Latif Pedram to the national assembly, for example. Pedram's biggest achievement is provoking ethnic tensions between Tajiks and Pashtoons, which only exacerbated ethnic frictions (further). We allowed the government to install corrupt officials and forgot and forgave the government. If we were not directly affected by unfairness, we never bothered to raise our voice. We saw unjust acts performed around us, but since we were not affected by them, we turned a blind eye to them. Finally, everything caught to us and we lost whatever voice and role we had in governance. The biggest loser in this equation is the average Afghan citizen who wants to live like a human being and dreams for very basic things many first world country citizens take for granted. From today onwards, Afghans will only live to die and cross out hopes and aspirations.

What now?

The Taliban have seemingly learned from the mistakes of 1996-2001. We have yet to encounter any public beheadings or hangings. They have allowed the Shiites to observe the Muharam days and may not prevent them from observing the Ashura (10th day of Muharam-ul-Haram), the day when Prophet Mohammad's (PBUH) grandson was martyred. They have allowed girls to go to schools and workplaces. How far can they go to ensure people that they have “changed”? They will protect the Kabul city, for example, better than previous administration because people fear them, fear getting paraded with blackened face, dismembered and maimed.

However, providing security, maintaining law and order and performing religious affairs are only part of governance, not all of it. They have won the war against a crippled administration, but not the hearts and minds of Afghans let alone of the international community. They have proven themselves to be a good fighting force and implementing and extremely narrow-minded version of the Sharia on people. How are they going to improve the country's economy, attract aid and investment, overcome COVID, ensure no one's human rights are violated, the reconstruction efforts are moved forward, the relation with the international community is restored and, more importantly, the latter trust them and so on and so forth? The majority of key Afghan officials have fled the country. The world has yet to meet a Talib expert in governance, science, education or health. Who will fill the vacancies of these civil servants?

Vice President Amrullah Saleh has claimed presidency in the absence of President Ghani and has allegedly retreated to Panjshir, the only province the Taliban have not captured. Ahmad Masuod along with his followers have sworn to fight against the Taliban. They claim they are well-equipped and will fight till the last breath. How are the Taliban going to deal with the Panjshir opposition?

What is the Taliban's equation going to be with Pakistan? Will we see Pakistani advisors and civilians in the Taliban administration? What role will Pakistan play in Taliban's Afghanistan? Will Pakistan decide the foreign policy of Afghanistan? Will Pakistan still want to train the Afghan police, army and intelligence services? Will they invest in the Afghanistan mining industry and have monopoly? Will we have a hostile relation with India? Do you want to believe that the Taliban who were imprisoned in Pul-e-Charkhi, Bagram and Guantanamo for several years will put the captivity experience behind and not retaliate?

Last but not the least, what is the guarantee that the following scenario will not be the fate of Afghanistan?

The Taliban's government is either unrecognized or ostracized around the world, so the world turns its back on Afghanistan. No one's sending aid money to Afghanistan. As a result, Afghans are struggling with everyday life.  The Pakistani government is the Taliban's only ally and friend. Therefore, they have military and civilian advisors in every ministry and public office in the country? The Taliban are tired of governance as they do not know how the world functions, so the Pakistani government is helping them navigate the world. The unobtainable minerals of Afghanistan are suddenly found only in Pakistan. All of a sudden, the public servants fail to understand Dari and Pashto, the two official languages in Afghanistan and communication is conducted in British English with heavy accents. The Taliban are not even perturbed. The only people management skills they put in use is eliminating any Afghan who was loyal to the international community and Afghan administration. They have already started going after Afghans door-to-door.

The Taliban consider themselves the new "untouchables" because they believe they have defeated the superpowers of the world. They have a hard time surviving and governing Afghanistan financially. Therefore, they turn to their number one source of income – the poppy business. The drug industry will be booming like never before.They have also established several terrorist factories that work overtime to produce products of all kinds and from and for all countries. Any rogue element can purchase the services of their "desirable terrorists" at discounted price. Afghanistan reminds you of North Korea only deadlier and absolutely fearless. They don't have to hide anymore and carry out their twisted aspirations in the framework of a "universally recognized government".

Taliban 2.0 will haunt the world for the rest of humanity's existence and no one will be able to touch them after remembering August 15, 2021.

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