After two decades of war in Afghanistan, and the immeasurable sacrifices of the nation’s soldiers, law enforcement, and public officials, Kabul is once again under the rule of the Taliban. The consequences of the militant group’s takeover have been described at great length elsewhere: schools have been closed, music banned, women subjected to extraordinary social restrictions, and democracy and pluralism eradicated, though a kind of peace has been restored in most of the country. While questions remain about the Taliban’s ability to govern effectively in the long term, and resistance to the group continues in the north, its continued control over Afghanistan for the foreseeable future seems inevitable.
Two years after the Taliban takeover, discussions of culpability continue. The U.S. government’s Afghanistan War Commission is expected to convene by the end of the year, and Republican politicians in Congress continue to pressure Secretary of State Antony Blinken to hand over documents related to the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw in early 2021. As Afghanistan continues to struggle under the Taliban, the debates in Washington have shifted toward how best to engage with the new regime in order to provide the most help to the Afghan people.
Amid these efforts, there is a fatalistic perception among many observers that a catastrophe was inevitable — that no matter what the United States did in Afghanistan, its efforts to establish a viable government in Kabul and institute peaceful coexistence were doomed to failure. This view, however, is incomplete. During its time in Afghanistan, and particularly during its rush to exit the war, Washington made avoidable missteps. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that none of these errors was greater in scope than the peace agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020, from which Washington proved unwilling to deviate even as it became clear that a disaster was taking shape.
Ten years before the Taliban takeover, the United States struggled to combat an elusive insurgency and a sprawling security mission in Afghanistan. The dramatic escalation in violence in 2009 led President Barack Obama to “surge” U.S. troops to the country to restore order. At the same time, however, the U.S. government sought out surviving Taliban leaders in an attempt to begin negotiations toward a permanent peace settlement. These efforts increased in pace after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, fulfilling the mission that had led President George W. Bush to go into Afghanistan — and leading to increased domestic pressure to find a way out. In 2013, with U.S. permission, the Taliban established an office for negotiations in Doha, Qatar; that office soon became the main venue for the ongoing U.S.-Taliban talks, culminating in the agreement between the two warring parties in February 2020.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement sought to address four major issues: withdrawing American and other foreign troops from the country, reducing the level of violence, initiating a national peace dialogue, and ensuring that the country would never again become a safe haven for international terrorists. From the outset, though, it was clear that one of the four issues would be prioritized above the others: establishing a process for U.S. troops to end their involvement in the war and peacefully leave the country.
On this issue, Taliban leaders were only too happy to cooperate. As experts noted at the time, the group’s main goal in negotiations was to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. By quickly conceding its only trump card in negotiations — the ability to keep the Taliban at bay — the United States had little leverage to pressure the group on the other three issues. While the U.S.-Taliban deal was intended to lead to peace talks between the militants and the internationally-recognized government of President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban steadfastly refused to engage in these, insisting that the Ghani administration was not legitimate. Although U.S. leaders never abandoned their insistence that Kabul participate in negotiations — and the Taliban grudgingly agreed to a handful of meetings with politicians and civil society leaders — the main negotiations were always conducted between U.S. and Taliban officials.
After reaching an agreement with the United States, the Taliban clearly felt little incentive to deepen their engagement with Ghani’s Afghan Republic government. Fawzia Koofi, the leader of the Movement of Change in Afghanistan and a member of the delegation that negotiated with the Taliban in Doha, noted that after the Doha agreement, “the Taliban felt already victorious, and they didn’t commit time and political willingness to agree politically” with the administration in Kabul. When President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he attempted to revive the stalled talks between Kabul and the Taliban by convening a conference in Istanbul, but the Taliban declined to participate, and the conference was never held. Three months later, Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, sounding the death knell for the country’s internal peace dialogue.
As part of the Doha agreement, the Taliban agreed to reduce the violence in Afghanistan, and Taliban attacks on U.S. and other foreign troops steadily decreased, but the group’s attacks against the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and civilians saw a substantial increase. Although this violated the agreement, the U.S. did little to discourage it. In a telling exchange, Zalmay Khalilzad, President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan and the chief architect of the U.S.-Taliban deal, acknowledged in May 2020 that the agreement did not prevent the Taliban from carrying out military activity, as long as it was not targeted against U.S. troops. Khalilzad noted that the deal “does not specifically (call) for them not to attack Afghan forces” — a statement that implicitly accepted the Taliban’s inevitable offensive, even as the U.S. made its preparations for departure.
When the Taliban offensive began in earnest in the spring of 2021, the ANDSF imploded in a matter of weeks, against the expectations of most international observers. Although a multitude of factors explain the military’s implosion, the Doha pact’s detrimental effects could again be seen here, as well as the ramifications of questionable strategic choices by the United States. For nearly two decades, the U.S. had sought to build the ANDSF into a miniature version of the American military, complete with an air force, armored divisions, and special forces. The daunting logistical challenges involved in this effort made it nearly impossible for the military to operate without U.S. assistance. During the U.S. military mission, billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated equipment was provided to the ANDSF via U.S. contractors, with the understanding that U.S. contractors would continue to maintain it on their behalf.
So long as American troops and contractors were present in Afghanistan, this gave the ANDSF a critical battlefield edge over the Taliban. However, after the deal was signed and the U.S. began the process of withdrawal, it began to stop providing for the upkeep of Afghan equipment, with disastrous results. Khalid Amiry, a former commander with the Afghan Special Forces, was a firsthand witness to these changes. “After the American agreement with the Taliban, American participation in air operations, night operations, and consultations were stopped overnight,” he said. “The departure of advisers from different army units began suddenly. From the beginning of NATO’s entry into Afghanistan until the Doha agreement, an important and effective part of supporting the Afghan security forces was the air support of American planes, which were suddenly cut off.” Amiry added that the ANDSF “had no air operations at the most difficult and decisive stage, when the Taliban were expanding their operations.”
At the same time the deal reduced the ANDSF’s capabilities, it also boosted the Taliban’s fighting power. Under one of its most alarming provisions, 5,000 battle-hardened Taliban fighters, including many regional commanders captured during the war, were released from Afghan prisons. According to the agreement, these fighters were to end their participation in the conflict, but it was abundantly clear in advance of their release that the vast majority of them would not. According to Amiry, “Most of these 5,000 released prisoners went back to the war fronts,” in direct violation of their leaders’ commitments, “and helped the Taliban against the Afghan security forces.”
Other reasons for the collapse of the ANDSF included widespread corruption, political interference, and low morale. Corruption was endemic in Afghanistan’s defense and interior ministries, where funds, arms, and food were stolen before reaching the front lines. Questionable patronage decisions also impeded the government’s function. In 2018, Ghani appointed Hamdullah Mohib, a political ally with a background in computer science, as National Security Advisor. Another political ally who had previously worked as an interpreter was placed in charge of the General Directorate of National Security.
At the ground level, the Afghan military was still able to fight, and in many places fought hard against the Taliban. However, a combination of corruption, military weakness, and U.S. reluctance to intervene destroyed the morale of the troops, paving the way for the Taliban’s rapid entry into Kabul. Amiry blamed the capitulation on Ghani, who he said “lacked the fighting will.” Amiry has continued the fight from the Panjshir Valley as a member of the National Resistance Front (NRF), an anti-Taliban resistance movement in the country’s north.
The failure of the intra-Afghan peace dialogue cannot be attributed to a single cause. However, it is clear that the U.S.-Taliban deal greatly hindered the intra-Afghan peace process, making it more difficult for both the U.S. and the Afghan government to bring the Taliban to the table. Koofi speculated that the insular nature of the Ghani administration, which was distrustful of Afghanistan’s formal diplomatic channels, further hindered the process. “During the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, the government of Afghanistan was not meaningfully using its legitimacy, leverage and its diplomatic and political leverage over Americans, and engaging the countries that were supporting them meaningfully, like European countries, and regional countries,” she said. “So the government was not taken seriously by Americans.”
Whether or not the Taliban will be taken seriously by the Americans will depend on its willingness to keep its word. This is a metric on which the group has repeatedly failed, both regarding its commitments in the Doha deal and its promises in the first days after the takeover to protect women’s rights and freedom of expression. Crucially, though, it will also be measured by its ability to provide for Afghans, who have suffered from unending civil war for more than four decades. The people of Afghanistan deserve a secure, peaceful, and prosperous country, and the international community of nations can still play a constructive role in their stability — and, by extension, stability in Central Asia and around the world.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of their employers.