Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable


Much of the heartbreak over the recent collapse of the Afghan government and Taliban victory is being channeled into public outrage. Past and present political and military leaders and opinion writers blame the Biden administration for a botched exit and the US-led international coalition of NATO allies for failing to deliver a sustainable socioeconomic and political legacy for Afghanistan.
But a mixture of wishful thinking and denial among the very same military and political leaders disguised the fact that it was only a matter of time before the Taliban would retake power.
Since 2008, the yearly audits by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have been littered with examples of lack of accountability, questionable costs, failures of planning, construction deficiencies, and critical shortages for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
The fact is that, for the last 20 years, tens of billions of US aid dollars have been redirected to Afghan military leaders, political grafters and tribal warlords, with much of it ending up in overseas property and other undeclared assets in more stable locations.
National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She then moved to Kandahar and spent 10 years setting up two nonprofits to help women create independent livelihoods. In 2010, she became an adviser on Afghanistan strategic policy to then-US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen.
When I interviewed her in 2018, she explained how, as far back as November 2001, young people in Kandahar were telling her that the proxy militias the American forces had armed and provided with US fatigues were “shaking them down at checkpoints.”
By 2007, delegations of elders would visit her, as the “the only American whose door was open and who spoke Pashtun.” Over “candied almonds and glasses of green tea,” Chayes watched one of them smack himself on the face, while describing how “the Taliban hit us on this cheek, and the government hits us on that cheek.”
It didn’t take Chayes long to conclude that Afghanistan was not a country with a corruption problem, but one governed by a crime syndicate; a “mafia-esque system, in which money flows upwards via the purchase of office, kickbacks or ‘sweets’ in return for permission to extract resources… and protection.”
Salaries for nonexistent government officials and soldiers, illegal land grabs, disappeared customs revenue, fake loans, drug trafficking, and ransoms and bribery forced people to rely on regional and local power-holders.
Yet, in 2011, according to Chayes, the US government decided “to dig in the same dry well” by making the conscious decision to avoid the issues of corruption that directly impacted on fighting outcomes.
All in all, the US poured up to $2 trillion over 20 years into a country incapable of disbursing funds into productive projects or of absorbing the benefits of fair elections and centralized governance.
As Afghanistan rotted from the inside, Chayes and others warned US decision-makers that Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were.
In the meantime, the Taliban regrouped, strategized, learned and enriched themselves. They too stole and siphoned American aid. Above all, they bided their time alongside a weak and undermined Afghan military, dependent for their survival on American and other foreign contractors, who enriched themselves in the process.
Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were.
Where were today’s furious critics during those years of supposed “reconstruction,” of troop surges, anti-insurgency campaigns and valiant elections? Did they challenge the 2018 Trump administration’s “peace process,” which, given the then-US president’s declared intention to leave the country, became an unwilling surrender by the Afghan government?
Who was kidding whom on the kind of resilience that was needed for the Afghan armed forces to operate independently in countering the Taliban after the American departure?
We were not wrong to try to help grow Afghans’ political rights and institutions, and to promote greater religious tolerance and improve the rights of women and girls. Large portions of the Afghan people were ready to overcome their troubled past and build a better future. Women, as well as men, gave their lives to this vision.
But, as Chayes points out, “fragile” or “failing” states are deceptive. They are run by sophisticated networks whose objectives are not to govern, but to enrich themselves.
And now, thanks to our hubris, the ingrained corrosion of Afghanistan by those in power, and the misguided interventions of Taliban supporters, the best we can hope for is that Afghanistan under Taliban rule morphs into an Islamic republic where religious autocracy at least allows women to be educated and society some measure of social freedom, even if they are politically powerless.
The priority is to ensure that the Taliban do not return Afghanistan to being an incubator of international terrorism, especially when hatched by cyber-savvy extremists still pursuing their weapons of mass destruction dreams. And, once again, women’s socioeconomic rights will fall by the wayside. –AN