Six reasons the Afghan government utterly collapsed during US withdrawal
Last week, the official Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog released a report assessing why the Afghan government collapsed during the U.S. withdrawal. With Afghanistan already a distant memory, the report elicited little media coverage. But it contains crucial lessons, both for Afghanistan and for the future of U.S. foreign policy.
So what does the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s latest report conclude? It boils down the causes of the Afghan government’s collapse to six factors: (1) Kabul failed to recognize the U.S. would actually leave; (2) the decision to exclude the Afghan government from US-Taliban talks undermined it; (3) Kabul insisted that the Taliban be integrated into the Republic rather than create a new model altogether; (4) the Taliban wouldn’t compromise; (5) former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “governed through a highly selective, narrow circle of loyalists” (read: yes men) which destabilized the government; and (6) Kabul was afflicted by centralization, corruption, and a legitimacy crisis.
The breadth and nuance of this report is a welcome addition to last spring’s interim report on the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which opened with the assertion that “SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s collapse in August 2021 was the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration, followed by President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021.” This was apparent in that the Doha agreement and U.S. withdrawal were the proximate events that enabled the Taliban to fully capitalize on years of their own gains and Kabul’s dysfunctions. But it led to a flurry of simplistic headlines that did not capture the rest of the interim document.
This latest report does a better job at explaining the complexity right off the bat. But it would benefit Washington to consider how many of those six factors it truly had control over.
Let’s work backwards. The centralization, corruption, and legitimacy crisis faced by the Afghan government was at least in part a product of the Bonn conference convened in December 2001. It excluded all Taliban and was the first step in creating a centralized Kabul-centric governance system that was ideal for corrupt political elites. This is sometimes referred to critically as the “post-Bonn political order.”
But the greater folly was Washington’s hubris in thinking it could effectively mediate between Afghan factions or choose winners–and not just any winners, but winners who would respect human rights, dissent, and pluralism. Instead, what followed in the early post-Bonn years was a period of legitimized warlordism, power consolidation, and instances of brutality at the hands of U.S.-backed strongmen.
What emerged was an Afghan government that lacked the ability to govern effectively. But it is important to remember that, at numerous junctures, Afghan leaders had the opportunity to make tough decisions that could have set the country on a better track. Instead, they chose to invest in short-term political gain and cronyism. In this regard, the State Department said it best in response to the current report when it wrote: “Whether a country is successful or not in making progress in these areas [anti-corruption, representative government, etc.] is ultimately a reflection of its own efforts.”
The fifth factor relates to Ashraf Ghani’s nepotistic cronyism and sycophantic inner-circle. Washington has some responsibility for elevating Ghani and certainly cannot claim to be in the dark about his flaws. Ambassador Michael McKinley, who served in Afghanistan from 2013-16 first as deputy ambassador and later as ambassador, told SIGAR that it was clear that Ghani was “living in fantasyland” and that this could be seen in his unhinged development goals. McKinley also described low voter turnout and fraudulent election practices as the “biggest red flag on earth that there was no legitimacy to the political system that was in place in Afghanistan.”
Hamdullah Mohib — Ghani’s national security advisor at the time of the government collapse — told SIGAR that, until the very week of the collapse, the Afghan government considered itself the “dominant party.” In other words, the fantastical thinking of Ghani’s inner circle is not only on display via the statements of U.S. officials but can also be seen in original statements by former Afghan officials to SIGAR.
The third and fourth factors were obviously outside of Washington’s control. Ghani’s delusional sense of self led him to genuinely believe that the Taliban would accept becoming a mere political actor within a republic led by him.
The Taliban movement, for its part, clearly understood that it possessed the upper hand militarily and benefited from strong cohesion, which is documented throughout SIGAR’s report. Therefore, the Taliban chose not to compromise at the negotiating table. This rigidity benefited the Taliban on the battlefield and in Doha, but it could one day prove to be its downfall now that the group has taken power.
Factors one and two are interrelated and expose the growing disconnect in interests that afflicted Washigton’s relationship with the Afghan government in the months leading up to its collapse. It is easy to see how excluding the Afghan government from U.S.-Taliban talks undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of the Taliban and Afghan people.
Washington’s primary aim was to leave Afghanistan, and an intra-Afghan agreement was a secondary priority at best. Former U.S. special chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan Hugo Llorens told SIGAR that “[j]ust talking to the Taliban alone and excluding our allies proved the Taliban’s point: The Afghan government were our puppets, you didn’t need to talk to them.”
But this was a point the Taliban already believed, which led them to determine they had enough leverage to demand direct talks with Washington exclusive of Kabul. Kabul’s legitimacy crisis was years in the making. Its exclusion from talks with the Taliban was the final straw rather than the principal cause of this legitimacy deficit. It also came down to the reality that Washington simply did not view the Ghani administration as a reliable partner.
It is at least partially understandable why the Ghani administration refused to believe that Washington would actually leave. The mixed messages received by Afghan officials from different stakeholders in Washington is well documented. Furthermore, the presence of U.S. troops and vast expenditure of resources had cultivated a perception among Afghan officials that the country was vital to U.S. strategic interests. The world events of two decades overtook this assessment and the Ghani administration chose to remain willfully blind.
Further compounding the dysfunction described in SIGAR’s report were the incongruence of American and Afghan interests; the Taliban’s comparative cohesion and insurgent tactics; the inability of the U.S. to commit to indefinite assistance due to strategic and political reasons; the difficulty of building a new republic; and the short-sightedness of Afghan leaders over the years. Many hindsight evaluations will be written about what could have been done differently. But ultimately, nation building requires these insights before the fact. Policymakers would do well to keep this in mind in the future.
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