Ahmad Shuja Jamal on How the US Facilitated the Taliban’s Return to Power

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Ahmad Shuja Jamal on How the US Facilitated the Taliban’s Return to Power

“The Trump administration committed, and the Biden administration gave, everything the Taliban needed [to return to power] without getting anything in return.”

Ahmad Shuja Jamal on How the US Facilitated the Taliban’s Return to Power

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and the Taliban’s chief negotiator at the talks Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/State Department/ Ron Przysucha

On August 15, 2021, the world watched with horror as Taliban fighters strode into Kabul to capture power without firing a shot. Much debate and discussion followed over what had caused the sudden collapse of Republican Afghanistan. Was the weak Afghan state, hollowed out by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, to blame? Why did the Afghan defense forces fail to push back the Taliban? In their book “The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan,” authors Ahmad Shuja Jamal and William Maley argue that while issues like a highly centralized state, corruption and weak leadership contributed to the decline of the Republic, the U.S. decision to negotiate with the Taliban, which gave it legitimacy, and the exit of American troops from Afghanistan played a “triggering role” in its collapse.

Drawing from his ringside view and experience as director-general for international relations and regional cooperation at the Afghan National Security Council in the Ashraf Ghani government, Ahmad Shuja Jamal told Sudha Ramachandran, The Diplomat’s South Asia editor, that the “violent imposition of the Taliban’s ‘emirate’ is a military problem in need of a political solution.” In the absence of a “political way forward, the logic of armed opposition to the violent imposition of an authoritarian system with values alien to most Afghans will grow stronger,” he warned.

You were in Kabul the day the Taliban stormed the Afghan capital. Could you share with us what you saw and felt in those final days?

Anxiety had been building in the preceding weeks and it crescendoed in the final days. People sought to withdraw their savings from banks and those with visas sought to catch a flight out of Afghanistan. Even then, some people initially reacted with anxious disbelief on August 15 when they heard that President Ghani had flown off and the Taliban had entered Kabul without a shot being fired.

That morning I reported to work in the Presidential Palace. Something was different in the air. Fear set in within the city as the run on the banks intensified and the security forces abandoned their posts when it became clear that the chain of command had broken down after the president left the country and the vice president left the city. The residents of Kabul feared the worst and scrambled to find safety in those initial hours and days as the Taliban entered the city. In the chaos, it was unclear what the Taliban’s posture would be against the residents and those associated with the government and international forces. Fear was running high. Some of those fears have turned out to be true as the Taliban have abducted, executed and “disappeared” people from Kabul.

In your book, you attribute the decline and the fall of Republican Afghanistan to different factors. Could you provide a brief overview of these factors?

Many countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood and elsewhere suffer from the same ailments Afghanistan did: dependence on foreign aid, low socioeconomic development, political turmoil, armed resistance against the state, non-functioning bureaucracies, corruption and terrorism. Yet few of them collapsed the way the Afghan government did. The book explains certain challenges that Afghanistan’s Republican government faced, among them constitutional design flaws, a centralized government characterized by neo-patrimonial political networks and failures of leadership, which we believe contributed to the government’s decline, but did not trigger its collapse.

What triggered the collapse was the cascade of events put in motion by the misguided American diplomacy with the Taliban, followed by unilateral withdrawal without arrangements for Afghan forces to sustain themselves. Taken together, the misguided diplomacy and ill-advised withdrawal undermined confidence in the Afghan government, changed regional attitudes toward the Republic, mainstreamed the Taliban, and pulled the rug from under the ANDSF while getting nothing from the Taliban in return. It is hard to imagine any embattled state facing the challenges that Afghanistan did being able to withstand an exogenous trigger of that nature.

The human and financial costs of the war to the U.S., you say, were not an important factor in its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Pentagon figures show 77 hostile U.S. military deaths between December 31, 2014, and the withdrawal in 2021 – 13 of them in the vicinity of Kabul airport on August 26, 2021. There were no hostile deaths of U.S. military personnel after the February 2020 signing of the deal with the Taliban (except for the Islamic State attack in late August 2021). This was not surprising: security responsibility had started to shift to Afghan forces in 2011 and had been completed in 2014, at which point U.S. forces went from a “combat mission” to a “train, advise, assist mission” in support of Afghan forces. They also went down in numbers. The decision to leave Afghanistan was a political decision that was barely, if at all, connected to the human and financial costs to the U.S. in the last few years of American presence in Afghanistan. It was premised on the political fiction of a “forever war” when in fact the combat mission had ended years before and the human and material costs on the U.S. had declined accordingly.

Your book is a damning indictment of U.S. Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, particularly the latter, in the collapse of the Republic. Could you elucidate?

Trump’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban to the exclusion of Afghanistan changed the political, social and battlefield dynamics in Afghanistan and weakened the credibility of the Republic. It even changed the calculus of Afghanistan’s neighbors, who started hedging their bets and building equity with the Taliban. The U.S. actively encouraged reluctant neighbors such as India to establish ties with the Taliban, which was seeking to overthrow the Afghan government by violent means despite the U.S. deal. As Afghanistan defended itself against an all-out Taliban assault, Pompeo withheld $1 billion in military aid because the Republic resisted American demands that it acquiesce to all terms and conditions negotiated behind its back in Doha. Afghan soldiers, who had been fighting and dying against the Taliban, saw that the U.S. was abandoning them and negotiating with what they believed was a shared enemy; they felt betrayed.

Biden, who ordered a review of the Doha deal in January 2021, could have changed things. At the very least, he could have demanded the Taliban’s adherence to the terms of the deal, including by severing their links to al-Qaida, engaging in honest peace talks and cutting their terrorism against civilians. Instead, Biden ordered a full U.S. withdrawal without announcing mechanisms to help Afghan forces sustain their combat and aerial capability after the withdrawal. U.S. generals knew that the Afghan air force would largely grind to a halt by September 2021 unless arrangements for maintenance and overhaul of aircraft were made. Those arrangements were not made before Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021 or at any time before the collapse in August of that year. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s promise to arrange “over-the-horizon” support for ANDSF and a robust diplomatic initiative for peace did not materialize.

The Trump administration committed, and the Biden administration gave, everything the Taliban needed without getting anything in return. This would have been fine if it involved only U.S. interests vis-à-vis the Taliban. But it changed the fundamentals of the Afghan Republic in ways that triggered a collapse.

“The failure on the part of the US to address the problem of Pakistan was the key factor that lay at the heart of the insurgency in Afghanistan.” Why were successive administrations in Washington reluctant to address it?

U.S. policymakers should speak to this more openly. But in the context of American diplomacy in the final years of the Republic, it can be explained partly by the difference between what the U.S. sought from Pakistan (which it sometimes got) and what it should have sought from Pakistan for peace in Afghanistan (which it did not).

The U.S. was publicly praising Pakistan’s cooperation in its peace efforts even as it complained that the Taliban were ramping up terror attacks against Afghan civilians, state institutions, and security forces. At first blush, this was paradoxical – how could the U.S. praise Pakistan’s role in the “peace” efforts when the Taliban’s behavior was anything but peaceful? It is partly explainable in this way: Pakistani support helped the U.S. get just enough cooperation from the Taliban after the Doha deal as to enable it to withdraw from Afghanistan without a major embarrassment such as a fatal attack against U.S. personnel. But the U.S. failed to use Pakistan’s leverage on the Taliban to pressure the group into a peaceful disposition toward Afghanistan. Pakistan had immense leverage because the Taliban leadership and their families lived there, its fighters received medical care and training there, and the group procured explosives-precursors and financial support from Pakistan by using Pakistani financial institutions and madrasas. Yet somehow, the U.S. failed to elicit Pakistani cooperation to pressure the Taliban to engage in good-faith talks and agree to a ceasefire.

Is the U.S. going down the same dangerous path with its renewed counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan to deal with the Taliban?

Beyond just the difference in values, U.S. and Taliban interests are fundamentally misaligned. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation from September 2018 to October 2021, did his best to cast the Taliban as anti-Islamic State fighters with whom the U.S. could work, only for the U.S. to find out subsequently that the Taliban were still in bed with the highest levels of al-Qaida leadership despite committing to disavow links. Afghan forces captured or killed several high-level al-Qaida leaders in areas under Taliban control in the lead-up to, and after the signing of, the Doha deal. Those warning signs were ignored as the U.S. chose to focus on Taliban cooperation during its drawdown.

The U.S. and regional countries that have found a “pragmatic” modus vivendi with the continuity of the Taliban regime on the basis that they can receive some form of security cooperation will be bitterly disappointed when the fundamental misalignment of values and interests boils to the surface in an embarrassing and possibly tragic way.

Why was the August 13 decision to defend Kabul not implemented? Could that have led to a different outcome?

National Security Advisor (NSA) Hamdullah Mohib, in speaking with the security chiefs, formed an opinion that the Republic was not in a position to defend Kabul, and that if President Ghani chose to follow through on the decision to defend the city, he would find insufficient political backing and military resources. In effect, the NSA feared that the president would have stood alone if he had chosen to effect the joint decision to resist in Kabul. There were also considerations of the impact of fighting in Kabul on the people in the city.

Events moved too quickly in the final days, and the August 13 decision to resist likely came too late. By then, organizing the beleaguered Afghan troops in retreat into any form of meaningful defense would have been difficult, especially amid fears on the part of the intelligence service that Taliban sleeper cells were being activated inside Kabul.

A more timely decision to resist might have given Kabul enough time to negotiate safety for Afghan forces, ease a run on the banks, and agree to some form of orderly transfer of power.

On the other hand, it was also clear that the Taliban were not abiding by their commitment to the U.S. not to advance on Kabul, so a decision to resist militarily could have had devastating consequences for Kabul residents even if it could have bought some time for a more orderly transfer of power.

In your book, you argue that the gulf between the Emirate model and the Republican model is “unbridgeable.” What is the way going forward?

The “emirate” is militarily imposed on Afghanistan, and its forced, one-size-fits-all, rigid moralism has denied the Afghan people the choice to live their lives in their own ways. The Taliban’s rules on women’s public participation, girls’ education, men’s beards, television programming, music, weddings and mourning represent an imposition of one set of fundamentalist values on a diverse society.

The previous system of citizenship under a constitution with representative democracy and free media has been replaced by an unelected, unaccountable clergy at the head of a militant outfit bound by no laws and ruling by fiat over a populace that has not given its consent. The supreme leader requires no consent of the governed, brooks no criticism, and demands unquestioning obedience from his subjects. The state imposes not just taxes but also levies religious imposts whose proceeds go to the person of the supreme leader. Neither form of economic extraction has any transparency. Taliban militants now sit in a bureaucracy that rules over a population against which they waged terrorist attacks for two decades.

The violent imposition of the Taliban’s “emirate” is a military problem in need of a political solution to correct the misalignment of values between the authoritarian regime and the Afghan people. Absent a political way forward, the logic of armed opposition to the violent imposition of an authoritarian system with values alien to most Afghans will grow stronger.