Why Did the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan So Fast?

Yves here. The intensity of the coverage of the US departure from Afghanistan is stunning, particularly after 20 years of indifference (except for the money spent and human cost, oh, and giving Mayo Pete the opportunity to drive big wigs around). It seems as if most of the audience arrived at this Gotterdammerung performance in the middle of the fourth act and is looking for the libretto. The big focus is on how we underestimated the Taliban. This article suggests they made an effort to look weaker than they were.

By Thiemo Fetzer, Associate Professor, University of Warwick, Visiting Fellow, London School of Economics; Pedro Souza, Senior Lecturer of Economics, Queen Mary University of London; Oliver Vanden Eynde, Associate Professor, Paris School of Economics; and Austin Wright, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

The Taliban was strategic in its use of violence, exercising restraint to influence military assessments of their capabilities in order to encourage more rapid withdrawals.

The fall of Kabul on Sunday 15 August was the culmination of an unexpected offensive by the Taliban, in which they had seized most districts and all major cities — along with Afghanistan’s main border crossings. The rapid progression was in part due to coordinated peace agreements which were struck with local leaders, while Afghan troops exchanged U.S. vehicles and weapons for safe passage.

The swift collapse came as a shock to most observers. Just two days earlier, the Pentagon had claimed Kabul was “not right now in an imminent threat environment”. Two weeks earlier, the Pentagon’s assessment was that Kabul could fall within six months. When, just a month earlier, a journalist asked Joe Bidenwhether he saw any parallels with the end of the Vietnam war, his answer was: “None whatsoever. Zero.” The President added that the Taliban were not “remotely comparable in terms of capability” to the North Vietnamese Army.

It seems that even the grimmest predictions got the real balance of power between the Taliban and the Afghan government wrong. What explains the systematic underestimation of the Taliban’s capabilities? Our research on NATO’s withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan suggests the Taliban have been strategic in their use of violence, using restraint to influence military assessments of their capabilities in order to encourage more rapid withdrawals. The recent events in Afghanistan offer a replay of this strategy, at an even bigger scale and to dramatic effect.

Here’s How We Did Our Research

In a recent article, we study the large-scale security transition from international troops to local government forces in Afghanistan, between 2011 and 2014. This transition consisted of two distinct phases. The first phase of withdrawal included transferring military authority to local forces. The second phase involved the physical departure of international troops, as the number of foreign forces decreased from 140,000 to 12,000, along with the closure, retrograde, or transfer of nearly 800 military bases.

Our study used exceptionally granular geo-tagged and time-stamped data on different types of insurgent and security operations — we used data collected since the start of NATO activity in Afghanistan in 2001. This data is otherwise known as SIGACTS and has been used widely to study combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We combined the data with survey records of 370,000 civilians gathered between 2008 and 2016 (called ANQAR), which detail perceptions of security transitions, perceptions of territorial control, and the extent of local security provision. Our article provides further details on the methodology we used.

In our analysis, we estimate the impact of each phase of the transition on measures of conflict intensity. First, we identify the impact of the transfer of control from foreign troops (ISAF) to Afghan forces (ANSF). As the transition process was completed in five tranches, we are able to exploit the temporal variation generated by the transition process. Panel A of Figure 1 shows the territorial distribution of conflict intensity and Panel B shows the assignment of Afghan districts to one of the five transition tranches.

Figure 1 Distribution of Conflict Intensity and Assignment of Districts to Different Tranches of the Security Transfer to the Afghan National Security Forces

Comparing districts in which the security transition has been implemented to other districts, before and after the transition, we find that the security transition was associated with both decreases in actual violence outcomes and increases in perception of security as reported by the SIGACTS and ANQAR survey data respectively. Figure 2 depicts the drop in various violence outcomes once security responsibility had been formally handed over to ANSF.

Figure 2: Event Studies around the Security Transfer to Afghan National Security Forces (SIGACTS)

Next, we turn to gauge the effect of physical withdrawal of NATO troops on the security levels. The closure of bases was more haphazard, and also less well documented. To study this second phase, we leveraged a simple but important fact about the timing of physical exit: the geographic location of bases — their distance to military air hubs used to transport supplies out of Afghanistan — partially determined when bases were shut down. We use these logistical constraints to estimate the causal impact of the physical withdrawal of troops. Panel A of Figure 3 demonstrates the variation of timing of the base closure dates relative to the transition onset announcements. Panel B of Figure 3 shows the least-cost, shortest distance from a district centroid to the nearest logistic hub mapping well into the timing of base closure. We find that the physical withdrawal and base closure is associated with a drastic worsening of the conflict situation with both violence and security perceptions worsening drastically. We also confirm that our results are not driven by displacement effects between districts.

Figure 3 Timing of Base Closure Relative to District Tranche Announcement and Travel Distance to Nearest Retrograde Logistic Hub

What explains the initial drop in violence in the first phase of the transition, and its subsequent rise in the second phase? We do not find evidence suggesting that the withdrawal announcement weakened the ability of the Taliban to mobilize; similarly, we do not find evidence suggesting that the ANSF ability improves with the handover. Rather, we argue that the mechanism that could account for our findings is a strategic decision by the Taliban to scale back violence during the transition period. Local security transfers created an “overwatch” period, in which the relative capacity of the Taliban and the ANSF was signaled to ISAF forces. As such, the Taliban had an incentive to understate its capacity in a manner that was both difficult to detect, and that confirmed NATO forces’ biases (i.e., that Afghan security forces were ably trained and capable of delivering security on their own). In our article, we formalize this logic in a simple game in which violence serves as a signal about the relative capacities of the Taliban and the ANSF.

The Taliban’s strategy during the 2011-2014 transition facilitated the withdrawal, by giving a false impression of the capabilities of local actors to take on the security challenges of fighting alone. The Afghanistan Papers, released by the Washington Post in 2019, give us an opportunity to explore these decisions through internal assessments. SIGAR, reflecting on these exit interviews, came to the conclusion that various military benchmarks had failed to correctly measure the capabilities of local Afghan forces, masking their fundamental weaknesses. In the end, these forces were “ill-prepared to deal with deteriorating security after the drawdown of U.S. combat forces.”

Of course, a wide range of factors contributed to the implosion of the Afghan government in recent days. But, our research brings to light two elements that are crucial. First of all, our study underlines that the Taliban’s surge to power started in 2014. Following the withdrawal of NATO troops from (most) combat operations, the Taliban stepped up its offensive and gained effective control over large swathes of rural Afghanistan. This is the context in which President Trump negotiated the definitive US exit from Afghanistan – an agreement that President Biden followed when he committed to withdrawing all troops by August 31, 2021. Constructing historical counterfactuals comes with obvious caveats, but it is possible that a correct assessment of the Taliban’s capacity during the 2011-2014 transition could have informed a different withdrawal strategy and could have thwarted the rise of the Taliban we have seen since 2014.

The second reason why our research is relevant is that the Taliban’s strategic restraint strategy was not new. Military planners and policymakers should have learned from the first transition not to underestimate the Taliban. In 2011-2014, the Taliban stepped up its offensive in rural areas only after major bases were closed. The same happened in the last few weeks. The movement’s swift conquest of provincial capitals and border crossings followed the hand-over of the largest base and logistical hub of the US mission, Bagram airport, on July 2, 2021. At that point, the US had effectively deconstructed its military capabilities in the country. The Taliban could then start an offensive that would quickly reveal its full military and political strength, leading to the fall of Kabul.

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  1. Thuto

    EU ministers have started the predictable “don’t you dare come here” finger wagging at the victims of this chaotic situation, ordinary Afghan citizens. Unsurprisingly, not a peep from said ministers about where the blame really lies for this, US incompetence and meddling, much easier to frame the entire messaging around threatening Afghans not to even think of undertaking the treacherous journey to Europe than to criticize the de facto leader of Nato. When will the EU learn that being America’s lapdog in the Middle east is fraught with blowback risks the US itself is insulated from because of its geographic location?

    1. timbers

      I’m sure there are lots of opportunities for Afghan refugees at Donkin Donuts throughout the US and let’s lower the working age while were at it to help the children. Also the folks who clean the bathrooms, kitchens, and floors where I work don’t seem to speak English too well buy they always “thank you” a lot even at inappropriate moments so too that could be another venue of a great many venues to them. The Afghans don’t have the benefit of sharing a common boarder with us so perhaps we can arrange to fly them in. Surely funding for that could included/hidden in the $3.5 trillion package?

  2. Cocomaan

    Kind of the inverse of the Tet offensive. Taliban hiding their strength for the big offensive whereas Tet was designed to demonstrate that the war was a lost cause

  3. Gc54

    I read this to learn “why” they took over quickly, but only found “how”. Who writes the headlines at the INET?

  4. Louis Fyne

    From 2013 but still germane, Pew surveyed around the Muslim world…99% of Afghanis wanted a sharia law government.

    as nearly always, DC and NYC-based media/activism had no idea about a different society (or in this case societies)

    then throw in the usual suspects of corruption, waste, US arrogance, US short-termism from civilian and military leaders shuffling throughon their tour of duty, etc.


    1. Louis Fyne

      yes, which Biden broke (with pressure from the Permanent Bureaucracy) when Biden pushed back the US withdrawal date to 8/31 from May 1.

      Taliban’s current offensive started literally less than a week after Biden’s announcement.

      Up to the final week, Taliban were willing to stop their offensive on the condition that Ghani resign, a caretaker govt form, and negotiations for power-sharing start.

      Media’s coverage of Afghanistan is just as awful as West Wing, Foggy Bottom, Pentagon competence.

      the Taliban’s final offensive did n ot occur in a vacuum

  5. Watt4Bob

    The Taliban did not “take over Afghanistan so fast” unless you’re talking about a period of time decades ago, when backed by American ‘deciders‘, they became the principle native resistance to foreign occupation.

    No one ever wonders why the Vichy French government folded once the Germans were defeated and driven from French soil.

    Why would anyone wonder that the people of Afghanistan more or less immediately recognize the principle organization of resistance to foreign occupation.

    They chased the Russians out, they chased us out, what else could anyone possibly think was going to happen?

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      The answer is America! Freedom! The idea all the people at the cocktail party could be wrong is preposterous.

      Alan Dershowitz and Larry David had a verbal altercation at a grocery store in Martha’s Vineyard over Larry’s disdain for obvious reasons of Dershowitz. Bystanders said the last thing, the flabbergasted Dersh, noted Epstein friend, said was “we can still talk Larry.” Accountability, even minor social mores, has been so removed for so long that Dersh thinks he can enjoy friendly chats at grocery stores.

      Shrub on Jimmy Kimmel, hawking his doodles. Biden giving Shrub a medal. Everyone at NBC getting away with saying we didn’t know about Matt Lauer. No one in the media is questioning Petraeus and the surge. The anecdote about Rumsfeld lamenting the lack of targets in Bob Woodward’s book. Accountability simply doesn’t exist, and knowing about the world is a former of personal accountability. Afghanistan existed for the first time for the elites this past month since MoveOn apologized for running the General Betrayus ad.

      They didn’t think. American elites are the end point in the golden road of history.

    2. KFritz

      The Taliban, as an organization, had nothing to do with the defeat and expulsion of the Russians from Afghanistan. It was formed around Mullah Omar in around 1994 in response to the chaotic power and governance situation of the country. His initial followers, and most the others who eventually joined the movement, were young returned refugees, who had been trained in (usually) Gulf-money backed Salafist madrasas in Pakistan. The Taliban did impose their fundamentalist order on large parts of Afghanistan, but in the north some areas were controlled by the very loose Norther Alliance, including Dostum in Turkic areas, and Massood in the northeast.

      Given their young age in the mid 90s and their training in Pakistan, it’s unlikely that many of the “Talibs” fought against the Russians.

      In an earlier comment, I mistakenly wrote that the Taliban was formed in Pakistan–that was an error of memory. I also implied that they were exclusviely Pashtun–that was a mistake. The Taliban is dominated by Pashtuns, and its heartland is Pashtun territory on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border–it spread quickly into Pakistan from its earliest days.

      1. Watt4Bob

        The Taliban, as an organization, had nothing to do with the defeat and expulsion of the Russians from Afghanistan.

        Using the qualifier “as an organization” is not sufficient to obscure the fact that the Taliban’s roots are deep in the resistance to foreign occupation.

        Mullah Omar’s experience, being trained by Pakistan, armed and supplied by the CIA through Pakistan, and fighting the Russians is enough, I think to justify that assertion.

        That the indigenous Afghan resistance has evolved over time, and gone by different names does not change the point of my comment, that being that no one should be surprised that the leaders of that resistance might be swiftly recognized as the natural leaders of the country once the foreign occupiers have abandoned the field.

        The native resistance chased the Russians out, they chased us out, what else could anyone possibly think was going to happen?

        Do you like that better?

    3. Harry

      Im shocked, shocked that they werent grateful for the wells, the schools, the teaching of women. Imagine they chose to focus on the torture rooms in Baghram, Gitmo, and the corruption of US allies. How could they be so ungrateful after all we did to them?

      Craig Murray nailed this from prison. Fancy being able to unite Afghans against foreign invaders!

  6. Felix_47

    The report does comment that giving up Bagram, which was unnecessary, was the trigger for the final fall. Even worse it was given up without transferring it to the Afghan Army. It was left for looting. I spent some time there in and out and for some months in a few deployments. As an example of what we left behind, which suggests we fled, Videos on youtube show that we left MRI scanners, CT scanners, fully equipped operating rooms with image intensifiers and all the normal things one has in a top level trauma center. A fully equipped ICU, dental clinic, PT everything. Bagram was not dependent on being in Afghanistan. The personnel were mostly Bangladeshi or Filipinos. We stopped using Afghans a few years ago because of the security headache. All food and sustenance was flown in. There was a movie theatre, fast food, a Starbucks which was pretty fancy, There were multiple office buildings and fixed structures. There were facilities for all sorts of aircraft maintenance. The base was a critical part of our support in AFG. So abandoning it in that way was quite a message. I cannot imagine the military having made that decision. When we closed Kandahar we handed it over to the Afghans so why we abandoned Bagram that way is beyond me. We should have held it with a few thousand troops, moved the embassy there since it is an hour away from Kabul, and negotiated a lease with the Taliban.
    That way they would get some money to try to build the country and they would be put on notice that we could bulk up if things became unreasonable. We could process asylum claims there and do whatever we wanted and needed and with the huge runways and infrastructure it would be inexpensive and easy. It was always obvious to those of us in the field that the average Afghan preferred Taliban rule to rule by the Western kleptocracy in Kabul. We should be backing the Taliban….we did in the Soviet era. The current plan of taking every Tom Dick and Mohammed (and from the pictures it looks like precious few women) from Afghanistan in Europe or the US is not going to help Afghanistan and it won’t help the people in Europe or the US to import hundreds of thousands of testosterone loaded young men, and the more educated ones at that who have a little money, who should be working to build Afghanistan. And cutting the funding for most of the economy and sanctions is just going to radicalize everyone and it puts to the lie that the US government has any sort of humanitarian foundation. You can’t back a dog into a corner and beat it if you don’t want it to bite back. From the start the entire war on terrorism was stupid but the American voters and politicians bought into it. The citizens and taxpayers are paying the price…..the politicians who voted for it should be paying some sort of price……..but it looks like Joe Biden is getting a pass. Remember he was one of the most powerful men in the senate for decades. The first politician to start the withdrawal was Trump. Biden just completed it in a manner that reflects his arrogance and impatience and ignorance of the military (he took a Vietnam deferment for juvenile asthma although he was a varsity athlete).. Of course, it is hard not to be arrogant when one has build a multimillion dollar family empire on a government salary over 50 years. There is a reason we put old people like that out to pasture. He really belongs in a nursing home. The US needs campaign finance reform and without it things are just going to get worse.

    1. Louis Fyne

      yes. i had fam. at Bagram too.

      Dunno if media pundits have commented yet, but the current situation at Kabul airport is Absolutely the worst situation for the West: completely surrounded by Taliban and non-combatants on a single-runway airport .

      If the US Army is still there on 9/2, all the Taliban have to do is walk away from their checkpoints and there will be complete bedlam as 100,000+ Afghani rush the runway

    2. chuck roast

      Biden just completed [the withdrawal] in a manner that reflects his arrogance and impatience and ignorance of the military (he took a Vietnam deferment for juvenile asthma although he was a varsity athlete)..

      Biden getting a deferment during Vietnam simply demonstrates that he had a functioning noggin in those days. Similarly Trump and every other young guy that found a place to hide. I don’t blame them a bit. My days in the military were ample demonstration that it was a secure and comfy home for all manner of mediocrities. A place where vision, creativity and imagination were actively discouraged. OTOH had Trump and Biden and their ilk spent a few years in enlisted-man slavery they would have developed a keen understanding of the extreme limitations the strutting, star-festooned imposters advising them on military affairs.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        I don’t blame them for getting a deferment either. I do blame them for their later warmongering and enriching themselves on ridiculous martial escapades, putting other people’s lives at risk when they weren’t willing to risk their own.

    3. David in Santa Cruz

      This whole fantasy of “Bagram-as-Gitmo-East” assumes that our generals were executing the directives of their civilian leadership in good faith.

      This has never been the case, as the manipulation of Obama by Betray-us and Biden’s personal experience of McChrystal’s staff referring to him as “Bite-me” showed. Remember the embedded reporting from Rolling Stone? I’m quite certain that President Biden does.

      The insubordination and downright criminality of the American military leadership — and their willingness to betray junior officers and the enlisted ranks in order to “win glory” — is as much a factor here as the profiteering by the MIC and Wall Street. Read Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory for an inside view through the diaries of Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire so his commanders could promote to even cushier quarters.

    4. Pwelder

      I don’t see where “Joe Biden is getting a pass”. MSNBC/CNN coverage is waving aside Administration talking points, including those that have some elements of validity. Cutting Biden no slack at all. Early job approval polls are getting down into Trump territory.

      Will be interesting to see what their story is when we’re in the runup to an election.

      The comments on Bagram sound about right.

  7. Eric Blair

    The hubris of throwing up graphs that illustrate ‘tranches of security transfer’… Afghanistan can’t be explained by a bunch of MBA style graphs. With the same people controlling the narrative that were in place explaining the Pat Tillman story, expect the graphs, slides, and verbage to obsfucate, not illuminate the reality of Afghanistan.

    The cowardly abandonment of Bagram Airfield says much more about the American exit than this article offers, and that’s precisely why it’s ignored.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Yeah I thought the graphs were a little bit of overkill and more evidence of the silly 21st century data fetish. Is it really that hard to understand that Afghanis don’t want to be ruled by a corrupt US puppet regime? I Iive in the US and I know I’m tired of being ruled by a corrupt US puppet regime, so I’d imagine that goes double for those in foreign countries…

    2. Tim

      First thing I thought once the charts started scrolling up is…”There are lies, damned lies, and statistics” which fit nicely into charts.

      20 years of not asking hard questions gets this result. Nobody in power had a reason to ask hard questions, everyone was getting paid.

      Now that Biden pulled out people are asking questions of how we could do the forever war thing better next time.

      I’m shocked how fast and hard the media has turned on Biden. CNN now hates his guts.

      “Wonderfully clarifying” as Lambert often says.

  8. David

    I’m honestly not sure this adds anything new. The Taliban had a long-term plan to recover control of the country, well articulated and implemented at local level. This was well-known if you like, but not well appreciated. The Western assumption was that the Taliban would fight to conquer the country, and be opposed by the ANA. But why fight if you don’t have to? If there’s an opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power, then you take it. In any case, as I’ve pointed out before, “fight” means something rather different in Kabul from what it means in Washington.

  9. Very Cross Border Shopper

    While the parallels to Saigon are obvious, the situation at Bagram brought to mind a quote from a Canadian commander during the Korean War (sorry, police action). After suddenly losing one flank of support during a battle, he observed (cleaned up version):
    “Those Americans bug out so fast, their cigarettes look like tracer bullets!”

  10. The Rev Kev

    If this image is really from the Taliban, then they are master trolls-


    But regarding the article, I wonder if they have read Sun Tzu at all. They retreated when weak and advanced when strong. They hid their strength until they needed it. They also only fought when they had to and did not exhaust their strength on useless battles. This is some real strategic thinking this and it looks like they did their homework. Have to admire them for that.

    And like the reputation that the British had in the 18th century, they lost every single battle in this war except for one – the last one.

    1. JEHR

      “They retreated when weak and advanced when strong. They hid their strength until they needed it. They also only fought when they had to and did not exhaust their strength on useless battles. This is some real strategic thinking this and it looks like they did their homework.”

      That says it all for me to understand what went on (and is going on now).

      1. The Rev Kev

        If you ever get a chance, you should read Sun Tzu. Great stuff and it isn’t even a thick book. It was mandatory reading in the Russian military as was in the US military but am not sure if it still is for the later. I think that the Vietnamese use some of the tenants of this book in their various wars too.

        1. Ashburn

          Thanks, Rev. The book just arrived in my mailbox two days ago. Quickly perusing the Foreward written by B.H. Liddell Hart I came across this Sun Tzu quote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The Taliban essentially did just that. Another Sun Tzu quote from the Preface reads: “No country has ever benefitted from a protracted war.” The US is learning that yet again.

  11. Bobby Gladd

    No air force,
    No navy,
    No missiles,
    No artillery,
    No tanks or other heavy mechanized units,
    75,000 flip-flop shod fighters clad in every permutation of
    thrift store MC Hammer rags. Overrunning #Afghanistan
    via motorbikes, pickups, and captured Humvees.

    1. ian

      From Godfather II –

      Michael: We saw a strange thing on our way here. Some rebels were being arrested, and instead of being arrested, one of them pulled the pin on a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He took himself and the captain of the command with him.
      Guest: Ah, the rebels are insane!
      Michael: Maybe. But the soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.
      Hyman Roth: What does that tell you?
      Michael: They can win.

  12. Andreas

    I think the discussion has missed a larger point.

    The Afghan government, supported by the West, instituted massive widespread corruption at all levels.

    Louise Shelly reported on this in her harrowing 2014 book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism.

    The Afghan government (well the previous one) ran as a criminal enterprise with bribes flowing up to the heads of the government from corruption at the most fundamental levels of citizen-to-government interaction. One might have to pay a bribe to get a driver’s license or buy a postage stamp let alone a building permit or export license.

    The corruption appears to have permeated every institution and especially every institution that the US supported or with which the US interacted.

    Does this surprise anyone?
    Did the US really go to Afghanistan for Al-Qaeda or did it go for oil pipelines and resources?

    Consider the opium trade.

    Could the opium trade in Afghanistan really survive without someone in the US allowing it to survive?

    The US had other options. Years ago, someone or some institution suggested simply paying Afghan farmers for the entire opium crop, then manufacturing proper pain drugs for medical distribution to the developing world where people desperately need such medicines. That idea could have cut the legs out from under the Taliban, who have increasingly controlled the opium production.

    Did someone or some group in the West/US benefit from the criminal opium trade?

    Consider resources.

    While overseeing US involvement in the country, David Petraeus commissioned a $500 million geological survey of the country that identified recovery resources values between $1-$2 trillion (no secrets here, one can find documentary evidence of this).

    The challenge in Afghanistan: security, infrastructure, governance, & corruption, inadequate supply chains,….

    Nothing new, the China never managed to exploit their purchased rights to vast copper deposits.
    The US failed to revive oil extraction/export, lithium mining, and more…

    Consider intelligence.

    In a state riddled with such corruption, how could the US rely on any intelligence gathered/supplied by Afghan sources.

    When the US stopped flooding the country with cash, the corruption supply chain stopped, the military collapsed, every institution of government collapsed.

    The pervasive corruption in Afghanistan stripped away all benefits of government and institutions for the people of Afghanistan. The people have never had a chance.

    I don’t know if US negligence with regard to corruption in Afghanistan constitutes a war crime, but it certainly looks like some kind of crime. The US aided and abetted a massive criminal conspiracy against the people of Afghanistan.

    The failure in Afghanistan never rose to a failure of nation building.
    The current Biden administration didn’t do this.
    Every US administration since George W. Bush (including Obama’s) aided and abetted this crime.

    The US likely set the stage for all of this, in abandoning Afghanistan after the Norther Alliance drove out the Soviets (again nothing new in this).

    Such heartbreak.

  13. Synoia

    Could anyone name any orderly retreat ,or exit from a foreign land by the losers of a war, in any war? I cannot.

    The word “rout” comes to mind.

    IMHO The only path to an orderly exit would require the winners, the Taliban, to manage the exit (the retreat).

  14. Skip Intro

    I wonder if the correlation between ANSF deployment and decreases in Taliban violence couldn’t also be explained by an ANSF thoroughly riddled with Taliban spies and supporters.

  15. bold'un

    I would say that we do not know how powerful the Taliban really were, nor whether they would have beaten the regular army in a firefight. But with the wonders of TV and the internet, the fates of Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa or Faluja hardly made civil war an attractive prospect in Afghan minds…
    For me, Ghani felt Trump had betrayed him and in revenge he did a 2021 deal with the Taliban to encash the two assets he still controlled: (1) expensive military equipment which can be traded for $$$ & (2) Western/local hostages which make the Americans look weak. In order to deliver (1) and (2) he had to deceive the Americans that he intended to fight.

  16. Guy Hooper

    Lots of good comments, especially from those who did deployments to Afghanistan.

    Regarding the “why?” of the Taliban victory, it’s simple. Culture beats bombs. Unless the invading force is willing to go ‘full Roman’ on the conquered, then the resistance survives and cannot be defeated. Afghanis are not interested in Jeffersonian Democracy. They hate foreigners. They like fighting and have a tradition of winning. They also live there, which gives them the long-term strategic viewpoint.

    The cultural force becomes unbeatable when the Afghan government forces are facing their Taliban cousins and relatives. The two will do a deal. $USD will move from the army to the Taliban as a form of insurance payment. There is an understanding that when the US departs, the army will fold.

    Our intel agencies, caught in the demand for positive assessments and unable to penetrate into the culture of the locals, are incapable of truth to power. As Stanley McChrystal said (roughly) “I need to have better information on the Afghans than my own neighborhood.” He said that a long time ago which is the best evidence for the final point.

    The US wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on a pointless exercise. Unless the aim was the transfer of wealth to the MIC, then the few dollars that actually got to Afghanistan likely ended up in Taliban hands, much like the arms and equipment. The current angst from the MIC is that the future for their business model is now clouded. They will work tirelessly to conjure up a new reason for being. IN the meantime, demonization of the withdrawal is job one. Because all those lives and all that money was not enough for the MIC.

    Like most vets, my cynical conclusions are based on my actual experience in Iraq and the early days of the Afghan invasion. The current whining about Biden “blowing it” is more about defending the MIC’s business model than any appraisal of the withdrawal. Staying was hopeless.

    Regarding Sun Tzu, right on. The US thinks football is the height of strategy. Cultures that play chess or Go routinely run rings around us. The usual regional winners (Iran, China, Pakistan, even Russia) are moving forward again.

    1. ChrisPacific

      The US wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on a pointless exercise. Unless the aim was the transfer of wealth to the MIC, then the few dollars that actually got to Afghanistan likely ended up in Taliban hands, much like the arms and equipment. The current angst from the MIC is that the future for their business model is now clouded. They will work tirelessly to conjure up a new reason for being. IN the meantime, demonization of the withdrawal is job one. Because all those lives and all that money was not enough for the MIC.

      I just drafted a comment on this but you put it better here. This is why the tenor of the current news coverage doesn’t surprise me all that much.

  17. Cesar Jeopardy

    Why Did the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan So Fast?

    They didn’t. The U.S. may have briefly had control back in 2000s. But the Taliban slowly regained control. The Afghans must have resented Americans, running around in their Halloween costume thug suits, running over their crops with their tanks, constantly threatening then from the skies with their B52s, attack helicopters, drones, fighter jets. Americans were an occupying force, full of hubris and indifference to average Afghans. Americans could buy/bribe some Afghans off, but not all of them.

    The Taliban, whatever their faults are, were Afghans. They are smart, tough, and tenacious. They knew their own country. They made deals with local warlords. They built sleeper cells in rural areas and cities. When the time came, those sleeper cells woke up. The Taliban didn’t have to retake Kabul. They were already there. As near as I can tell, this was a nearly bloodless civil war. It was the best possible outcome. Beats a long drawn out bloody civil war–that’s the American way.

    Americans are hysterical over this loss. If the U.S. military, Intelligence, Congress is responsible for this loss, the MSM may be even more to blame. Andrea Mitchell reports breathlessly that Afghan women will no longer be able to go to hair salons. Just how out-of-touch can you get.

    Hopefully, the U.S. military will leave Afghanistan permanently and very soon. I have my doubts–we always find a reason to stay as the unwanted guest that never leaves. The Taliban are the rightful rulers of Afghanistan and will likely show themselves to be more enlightened than the American people, many of whom go threaten, even engage in violence when asked to wear as mask or get vaccinated.

  18. Code Name D

    So why isn’t the press walking about how week the Afgan forces were? Jimmy Door has been replaying decades worth of clips as to just how bad the domestic fighting forces were. The only thing they ever did was parade around for the politicians and CEOs that toured the US bases and burn through expensive US ordnance. But turnover was extremely high with the majority quitting after a month or two – and the going to fight for the Taliban. Often taking their weapons with them. They leaked like a sieve, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fight even minor skirmishes. US troops didn’t trust them for fear of getting fragged. Hard to imagine how they collapsed so quickly.

  19. juliania

    Sorry if I missed it, but I didn’t see the bombing of wedding parties mentioned anywhere in the above text or as maybe a redline on a graph. And what about the poppies? At least we didn’t haul away those mineral riches that are going to help stabilize the Afghan economy, so we did good there, I guess.

  20. Gregory Etchason

    The Taliban clearly got the memo “where there’s hubris there’s opportunity.”

  21. Poul

    Afghan culture is the key.

    With the exception of the Taliban whose beliefs fuel their will to fight most Afghans are locals and more focused on survival. And not what happens on the national political side of things. They flip to the winning side when it becomes clear whose won. Which means negotiations with local leaders, not fighting, is important in Afghan warfare.


    “..Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

    Battles were often decided this way, not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones who were too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.”

  22. rjs

    Why Did the Taliban Take Over Afghanistan So Fast?

    because except for the US lackeys, the whole country was a Taliban sleeper cell…

  23. The Rev Kev

    Well this is awkward. The guards at the British Embassy in Kabul have been told they are ineligible for UK protection because they were hired through an outsourced contractor. There are 125 of them and some have been working for a decade there. They were told this by their manager – who was gone by the next morning.


    And yet British paras are actually going into Kabul itself to retrieve their people. Fox news, by the way, is raging that US soldiers are not doing the same in spite of there being several thousand of them at the airport.

  24. ivo nekvapil

    The US and everyone Australia, the British and the French were totally unprepared for the Taliban’s takeover
    The intelligence services of all countries collapsed. Shame on all of them.
    Even the American Embassy did not know how many Americans were in Afghanistan
    ! How can they be so lax .And all the others I wonder how efficient they were or wern’t. Shame on them all.
    Now there is panic like not seen before to evacuate those in waiting.
    Wake up. The Taliban is in control of Afghanistan.

  25. Steve Ruis

    Re “What explains the systematic underestimation of the Taliban’s capabilities?”

    How about no opposition?

    We left Afghanistan because fifteen years (at least) too late, we realized we were being played. The Afghani’s in their army were there not to fight, they were there to collect paychecks. When the prospects of fighting came up, they simple said “I didn’t sign up for this” and faded into the background.

    If the media were honest we would be seeing headlines like “Taliban Ousts Corrupt Government” and “Afghani Patriots Evict Foreign Occupiers.” The Taliban are Afghani’s. Can you still spell self-determination boys and girls? We don’t complain that the Amish want to live as if they were in the nineteenth century, why would our opinion of how we thing the Afghani’s should live have any weight at all?

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