By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. deputy ambassador to Afghanistan
Now that the Taliban has regained control of Afghanistan after 20 years of U.S. efforts to halt their brutal reign, it is important to understand who they are and what are their objectives.
Why were the Taliban able to advance so quickly?
The U.S. announcement in April of a full withdrawal by September, combined with little evidence that the United States would provide the robust support that it had promised after its troops departed, accelerated the already flagging morale among Afghan security forces.
The rapid collapse of Afghan government control resulted from a combination of factors that included the badly sagging morale among Afghan security forces, as well as structural weaknesses in those forces and in the civilian portions of the government, including pervasive corruption.
Afghan forces had been operating effectively with U.S. air, logistical and technical support until the U.S. decisions to reduce and then to suddenly withdraw that support undermined that Afghan capacity.
The United States did not have plans ready that would have allowed continuing effective defense support from afar. Divided political leadership in Kabul had also provided weak leadership for the past several years, and leaders had not yet been able to rally together. The Taliban launched their offensive this year believing they could win now that the United States was leaving.
That confidence grew from victory to victory.
Can the Taliban still be stopped?
The Afghan government forces had the numbers and equipment to hold the Kabul region as well as the potential to rally support from portions of the Afghan population that resisted the Taliban in the past.
The Taliban is not popular among many Afghans. The continuation (and expansion) of over-the-horizon U.S. air support under recent fighting and on-the-ground technical (e.g., contractor) assistance to the Afghan Air Force would make a difference.
Clear and concrete signs of ongoing support from the United States and others would boost morale. The Taliban is likely overstretched at present, and if they can be slowed, they will face the challenges of governing large swaths of Afghanistan that they have taken.
A pause could also give Afghans who do not favor the Taliban and those who fear the return to its authoritarian rule an opportunity to regroup. For that to happen, however, some combination of moves to change the momentum in the current situation would be needed.
U.S. and other diplomats should continue to work for a compromise government, which might have been more possible if the Afghan government had held. The Taliban may well have been willing to negotiate to avoid a bloody battle for Kabul, which they did not face.
At this point, the Taliban will almost certainly enter any negotiations seeking to assume power in a new regime given their substantial gains in recent weeks and their taking of Kabul over the weekend.
At present, Kabul is poised for governmental changes and the U.S. and other international players must negotiate with the Taliban in exchange for guarantees to reassure other Afghans and international players.
Was the U.S. presence sustainable if the United States had not withdrawn? Was there another way out for the United States other than troop withdrawal?
By late 2020 and early 2021, the Afghans were doing most of the fighting and dying and had been doing so for several years. The number of U.S. soldiers killed in action has been very low for the last six or seven years, and U.S. budgetary costs were greatly diminished. With U.S. logistical and air support, the Afghan Special Forces and Air Force were doing a credible job of maintaining a stalemate.
In this situation, the United States, working with other international partners, could have pressed for a serious Afghan-to-Afghan peace process and a sustainable settlement that involved a formula for power sharing among Afghanistan’s parties.
The United States did not achieve this, however, in the negotiations it held with the Taliban without the participation of the Afghan government, which led to a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020.
In the subsequent Doha negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Taliban did not seriously engage in the substance of a future peace arrangement with the representatives of the Afghan Republic (the government in Kabul).
The Taliban violated the terms and spirit of the agreement with the United States, including by maintaining ties with Al-Qaeda, according to UN reports. The United States, in effect, undermined the credibility and standing of the Kabul Republic by excluding them from the initial negotiations with the Taliban, by not working more effectively to assure that the Taliban would enter into serious peace negotiations, and by taking steps such as forcing Kabul to release 5000 Taliban fighters as part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
Simultaneously, the United States reduced its own leverage (military presence) that could have been used to get the Taliban to negotiate seriously. The spring 2021 U.S. announcement of an unconditional withdrawal by September thus came after a series of morale-sapping messages already sent to the non-Taliban Afghans and their security forces.
Does the United States have any leverage over the Taliban now?
Yes, but its leverage is extremely limited. The United States is currently threatening international isolation and a cut off from future international financial and development assistance, which the Taliban will need.
About 80 percent of the Afghan government’s funds are provided by international donors. On top of development and budget needs, the humanitarian requirements in the country are massive — fed by covid-19 and conflict. The fighting this year has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing their home regions. It is far from clear that this U.S. and international leverage will be sufficient to produce serious changes in Taliban behavior, let alone serious peace negotiations. On the other hand, the Taliban may well be willing to negotiate the assumption of power and global recognition of their government. The Taliban have been fighting for power after over a decade of effort and believe that goal is now achievable.
What needs to be done now?
The United States arguably also has a serious responsibility to help the thousands of Afghans who worked with and supported it during its 20 years in the country and who are now in danger under a Taliban regime. These include those working for women’s rights, those supporting democratic reforms and practices, those supporting a free press and a range of former government officials from the civilian and military sectors who worked closely with the United States. While it is not clear how many of these individuals might now seek to leave Afghanistan, it is not hard to imagine the total reaching well over 100,000.
Afghanistan may also be on the verge of an even more massive refugee crisis with millions displaced in the country and many seeking to leave for neighboring nations. The United States, working with its international partners, should immediately undertake a serious initiative designed to provide refuge to the Afghans most threatened by the Taliban.
Finally, it is important to note the broader international implications of the way the United States handled its departure from Afghanistan and the situation it has left behind. An ignominious departure reinforce the messages being heard from the Chinese, the Russians and other rival powers about the United States as a declining power whose security guarantees cannot be counted upon.
That is not the message that the U.S. administration desires to convey.