In Afghanistan, what went wrong?
The Afghanistan Papers, classified documents exposing how Afghan forces failed to fight back the Taliban, were published by the Washington Post nearly two years ago. These government records exposed the war in Afghanistan’s major flaws, ranging from bureaucratic corruption to poorly prepared soldiers.
They also backed up research by Austin Wright of the University of Chicago, who looked at declassified military data. “Even though Taliban violence had decreased, the statistics showed that they were still there and had freedom of movement,” said Wright, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. “They weren’t being battered; they had made the decision to go.”
According to Wright, the findings of that study indicated that a US exit from Afghanistan would almost probably be messy and violent. What he didn’t expect was for the Afghan government to fall apart so swiftly after US soldiers left, succumbing to the Taliban in a couple of days.
Wright, an expert on the political economy of rebel violence, believes the Taliban’s fast takeover is due to previous U.S. government blunders. He outlines where the US went wrong and why military participation was necessary in the following Q&A.
The decision to leave Afghanistan was not made in the last few months. What happened here?
The changeover should be broken down into three stages. The last drawdown is the third phase, which we’ve just witnessed. The first phase was the Obama administration’s 2010 commitment to President Hamid Karzai, under which political and operational military control would be transferred from the US to Afghans. The practical withdrawal of US troops from around 140,000 to 10,000 troops was the second phase. The third phase was witnessed this year.
There were huge reductions in Taliban violence in the first phase, giving the impression that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were actually extremely effective. And that was a pleasant surprise. Then, during the second phase, our data revealed that violence skyrockets, reversing phase one’s improvements.
This implied that the Taliban were simply holding back their fighting capability until the forces physically left in phase one of the cease-fire. This was the first indication, back in 2017, that something strange was going on. The notion that the war effort was going well and that we had a powerful ally in the ANSF wasn’t entirely correct.
Were you taken aback by the chaos of the last withdrawal?
The element that surprised me was how swiftly the Taliban took control of the last 25% of the country: the Northern opposition areas and Kabul’s capital. The significance of mass-scale capitulation at the end of the process may have been overlooked by experts. It developed its own momentum in this case. And perhaps 65-70 percent of ANSF forces in and around Kabul in the north saw the dominoes fall around them during these “cascades of surrender.” Then they realize, “Perhaps my best choice is to simply stand down totally.” Perhaps this government isn’t sustainable, and in a few weeks, the government will have no leverage over the Taliban.”
Under the Trump administration, the entire process came to a head. Trump wants to meet with the Taliban at Camp David around the time of the 11th anniversary of 9/11 in 2019. He was oblivious to how short-sighted his strategy was since he was focused on the “art of the deal.”
One of the Taliban’s demands, which the Trump administration agreed to, was that they would not negotiate with the US if the Afghan government had been elected.
So, what does this accomplish? In other words, the US has abandoned Afghanistan’s democratically elected government in favor of the “art of the deal.” Without the Afghan government’s active participation—and without a long-term commitment to backing the elected Afghan government
What about President Joe Biden?
As a result, Trump departs office with nothing fully resolved. Biden’s deadline has been pushed back to the end of August. When Biden meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, he finds himself in a tough situation since one of Ghani’s requirements, which is understandable, is that the US stop evacuating people.
Ghani predicts that if the US starts evacuating people as the Taliban advances in, a cascade will occur, which is exactly what happens. Because the United States has stated that it does not believe the Afghan government can sustain its military effort, a flood of people would overrun the airport and the borders. There was no simple solution.
‘‘What analysts may have missed was the impact that mass-scale surrender can have at the end of the process.’’
Isn’t it possible that the US might have simply moved people out of there quietly?
“We’ll do it in private,” the Biden administration could have responded, ignoring Ghani. We’ll figure out a method to start moving people out without causing a public uproar, but we need to get started.” But it’s possible that this would have been enough to bring down the Afghan administration.
There are many parties to blame, but it’s crucial to remember that the Taliban settlement failed due to terms established by the Trump administration, which was looking for a fast win rather than thinking about the long game.
Could the Biden administration have handled the final withdrawal more effectively?
The Afghan allies who were deployed on the front lines with American forces and reconstruction workers have been let down by the Biden administration. Many persons who were providing extremely dangerous support to the US operation are still waiting to hear if they would be able to leave the country, despite the fact that they registered for exit years ago.
This is due to the fact that the US system for transferring people out of the country is flawed. The process is only meant to take nine to twelve months by law, yet it takes an average of three years from application to exit.
The Biden administration, for example, might have utilized its executive authority to order the evacuation and provide emergency assistance, speeding up the process of moving Afghans temporarily.
Another tool the administration could have used more effectively was the Afghan Central Bank’s holdings or reconsidering the closure of Bagram Air Base.
What can we expect in the future?
I’m not sure if calling the battle over is completely accurate. This is only the beginning of what will happen in Afghanistan.
As we’ve seen over the last week, the US will almost certainly be involved in Afghanistan in the long run—albeit in a completely different capacity. The Taliban are not ISIS’s friends and have aggressively opposed them.
If ISIS is found to have carried out the current suicide attack for which they claim responsibility, the US mission will most likely change. With drone strikes and other tactics, there will almost certainly be a transition to more remote warfare. That’s most likely what we’ll witness.
What did we take away from it all?
What we’ve witnessed is the confluence of both intelligence and political will failures. Just because there was a lack of political will doesn’t mean that the intelligence providers are entire at a fault. As a study team, we were aware of the flaws, and anticipated violence, and predicted that the final withdrawal would be accompanied by full chaos.
Except for the pace of the ultimate collapse, it’s strange to watch the predictions we made two, or three years ago actually play out on the ground. And I believe it’s because we underestimated how powerful these surrender cascades can be.
The attempt to thoroughly investigate the withdrawal will be worthwhile, both for the future of Afghanistan and for how we should approach upcoming conflicts. Just though the war was lost does not mean that the work put into assessing the battle was in vain.
This Article is written by Muhammad Shoaib Khan, who is a student at the Department of International Relations NUML, Islambad.