What went wrong in Afghanistan?

Washington’s apparent underestimation of Taliban strength and Afghan state weakness amounts to an intelligence failure.

US soldiers take up position as they secure the airport in Kabul [Shakib Rahmani/AFP]

Nearly 20 years after United States forces entered Afghanistan, this is what it has come down to: The government has effectively collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani has left the country. The military has lost its will to fight and disintegrated. A brutal and emboldened Taliban advance, already having instituted draconian legal systems and curbed women’s rights in areas under its control, has taken over Kabul. The population has been plunged into a new humanitarian crisis. And American soldiers and diplomats are sprinting for the exits.

The al-Qaeda-allied Taliban is now about to assume the lion’s share of political power – if not total power.

Many understandably blame US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal decision for Afghanistan’s current mess. But the reasons are also rooted in the longstanding strength of the Taliban and the fundamental weakness of the Afghan state.

For years, the Taliban had prepared the ground for this final battle. Taliban forces established deep footprints and eventual control in districts around the country, including near cities – thereby positioning themselves for the urban offensives of recent days. They amassed large quantities of heavy weaponry seized from Afghan forces. They diversified their sources of financing beyond the drug trade, making a wealthy armed group even richer. The Taliban’s current advances did not come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, ever since the NATO war formally ended in 2014, Afghan forces – despite training, advising, and dollars galore from Washington – have struggled to lead the counterinsurgency from the front. The Afghan Special Forces – the most effective fighting unit of the Afghan military – were overused, taxing the capacities of the military’s best asset.

As Taliban offensives intensified in recent years, foot soldiers struggled with insufficient equipment and were often not paid. Corruption flourished and morale plummeted. Afghan troops received little support from the government, which struggled to develop a counterinsurgency strategy.

To be sure, Biden’s withdrawal announcement contributed to Afghanistan’s current crisis. His announcement had an intoxicating effect on the Taliban – and its allies. Foreign military presences have long been an underlying grievance of “Islamist” militant groups. Al-Qaeda was born out of Osama bin Laden’s hatred for the presence of US soldiers on Saudi soil.

A US withdrawal was bound to energise the Taliban and prompt it to step up its fight against the Afghan state, which had long hosted US forces. Since April, 20 armed groups – including al-Qaeda – have fought alongside the Taliban.

Biden’s withdrawal announcement was as deflating for Afghan forces as it was intoxicating for the Taliban. Already beleaguered, they knew they would lose critical US safety nets, from air power support – a powerful tool to repel fighters from entering cities – to technical expertise to maintain their military equipment. Deprived of strong government leadership and a clear strategy, they melted away in the face of Taliban advances, leading to surrenders and negotiated handovers to the Taliban.

The withdrawal has showcased Taliban strength and exposed Afghan state weakness. But both were entrenched long before Biden’s decision. Washington’s inability to adjust to these factors much sooner amounts to a major policy failure.

It is worth noting, however, that Afghanistan would have been plunged into deeper instability even if Biden had chosen not to withdraw. The Taliban would not have reacted well to a US decision to renege on its commitment, framed in a 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, to withdraw forces. They would have launched fresh offensives against Afghan forces, with US soldiers – spared by the Taliban ever since the 2020 accord – in their crosshairs too.

The US military presence was neither a brake on the Taliban nor a broader stabiliser. Even with boots on the ground in recent years, Afghanistan suffered record-breaking civilian casualty figures and a relentless targeted killing campaign against civil society. Even back in March, weeks before Biden announced the withdrawal, the Taliban controlled more territory than at any time since US forces entered the country.

Still, this is not to understate the seriousness of the political, military, security, and humanitarian crisis triggered by the withdrawal.

Afghanistan’s mess is also America’s mess. Washington owes it to Afghanistan to help clean it up – not for reasons of charity, but of self-interest. A Taliban-dominated government would not in and of itself pose a direct threat to US security interests. But it would provide space to international terror groups, like al-Qaeda, that do. If war resumes and intensifies, regional spillover effects – refugee flows, drug trade, cross-border terrorism – could imperil US stability goals in the broader region.

America, admittedly, has limited policy options. Departing US troops have taken most of America’s leverage with them. No longer can Washington threaten to delay troop withdrawals to influence Taliban behaviour. The Taliban is now in control.

US pledges of continued financial assistance to Afghanistan can only be fulfilled if Washington recognises the new Taliban regime. And even if it does – a big if – the departure of most US diplomats will complicate efforts to oversee this aid. And, with no basing agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbours, post-withdrawal plans to surveil, and if necessary strike, “terrorist” targets will be constrained by Washington’s dependence on military facilities further afield in the Middle East.

Washington’s first order of business should be Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis – one on which Washington has been strangely silent. It should ramp up funding for refugee organisations assisting displaced Afghans, and for Afghan women’s groups. It should keep expediting evacuations of Afghans who worked for the US military. Images of masses of people literally climbing on and clinging to departing US aircraft are horrifying, and cannot be ignored.

The US should also play the legitimacy card with the Taliban – its sole remaining tool of leverage. The Taliban gained international recognition when they concluded their agreement with the Trump administration. The group has fully exploited its newfound legitimacy, holding countless meetings with foreign diplomats and conducting many media interviews.

The Biden administration previously warned the Taliban it would lose legitimacy if it seizes power by force. The Taliban has now taken power in Kabul without the use of force. But Washington should not recognise the new government if the Taliban keeps committing brutalities, refuses to bring non-Taliban leaders into the new administration, resists a ceasefire, and denies access to refugees and others in need.

The Taliban has received far too many free passes. After the 2020 agreement, it refused to reduce violence (excluding an Eid truce) or to participate in any meaningful peace negotiations. It has carried out revenge killings and executed surrendered soldiers. The Taliban often talks the talk of peace. But instead of walking the talk, it has mocked it.

If necessary, Washington should deprive the Taliban of the benefits of legitimacy. It cannot get media outlets to stop platforming the Taliban, but it can refuse to meet with Taliban leaders – and urge other governments to do the same. It can also press Afghanistan’s neighbours to cut off trade with Taliban-controlled border areas. In effect, the US should not hesitate to put the Taliban’s purported desire for legitimacy to the test.

In the end, though, we should not overstate Washington’s post-withdrawal engagement. The Biden administration says it wants to focus on other priorities like strategic competition with China, terrorism threats elsewhere in the world, and climate change.

Eventually, the US will be written out of the Afghanistan script, with regional players taking on more prominent roles. Some of them – China, Iran, and Russia – are top US rivals, but share Washington’s interest in a more stable Afghanistan with less terrorism.

The US should host a summit with Afghanistan’s neighbours to discuss how it can help mitigate potential regional spillover effects. That is the least it can do. Regional actors, unlike Washington, do not have the luxury of leaving.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.