How The Taliban's Takeover Of Afghanistan Developed
President Biden is expected to address the nation on the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan Monday afternoon. It comes as the planned withdrawal of American forces turned deadly at Kabul’s airport as thousands tried to flee Afghanistan a day after the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
For insight into how the situation developed in Afghanistan, WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Mark Jacobson, an assistant dean with the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University who oversees the school’s D.C. headquarters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served in the Army and Navy, including time in Afghanistan, and was the Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan.
Jacobson: Well, there's no doubt in the last several years that the Taliban have made some inroads, but you had a sort of strategic stalemate. And what that was allowing for was time to force the Taliban to the table. So first, we saw the US-Taliban agreement, as problematic as it was, it was an agreement. And then the Taliban have been sitting down for intra-Afghan, in other words with the Afghan government, for those talks in Doha, Qatar. And what you saw, though, is the Taliban using those talks, to take advantage of the situation in order to get themselves prepared for a military victory. Now, what precipitated the last several months? Well first, the US announcement by President Biden that there was an end date, a very specific date by which we will be out, first September 11. And then we're talking August 31. Well, I think this really led to psychological trauma amongst government officials in Afghanistan. It exacerbated a lack of faith in the Americans and Afghans having in their own leadership. And what you had was a disproportionate psychological shock to the system. And this was even more important than the Taliban's ability to move out militarily, but they exploited this situation, they knew the US was leaving, you had government officials who were starting to make plans for what's next. And this combination of, you know, strategic shock, a lack of faith in leadership, very poor performance by the Afghan National Security Forces, which have been doing okay in most instances until then. And of course, you've got to give the Taliban strategy some credit to, especially being able to take down the north, really the stronghold of resistance to the Taliban historically. And once they could take that it was fairly easy for them to take the rest of the country.
Levulis: To one of your points there, did the US overestimate the willingness of the Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban on their own?
Jacobson: I think we did. I mean there's no doubt about that. It's abundantly clear that we overestimated the ability of the ANSF to handle things on their own. Now, we're I think a great failure of the Biden administration was, was not understanding that the Afghan National Security Forces still needed significant US airpower. And that's one thing the Afghans did not have yet. They did not have the ability to support ground forces from the air. And I think this encouraged the Taliban and really broke them around the Afghan National Security Forces. I am still surprised at some of the units that on a man for man level we're just as good as US units, I'm surprised that they don't seem to have put up much of a fight either.
Levulis: Numerous US administrations were involved in training, have in the US military and advisors train the Afghan security forces, should this have come as a surprise, the lack of willingness to fight there?
Jacobson: I think you find that people who are generally against the idea of continued US involvement would say, of course, we should have done this and we've known this all along. And you may find those who are more supportive of continued US engagement. And I count myself in that having a little bit more nuanced approach. There have long been problems with the training of Afghan forces. I don't think we thought carefully enough about the standards by which we should measure the effectiveness of the Afghan forces. And I think there was an impetus even going back to 2009, 2010 and 2011, where we were trying to build up Afghan forces very quickly. I think it was more of a focus on quantity and not quality. As some of my colleagues used to remind me, when we're bringing in Afghan conscripts to train, the first thing you have to do is teach some of them to read and write. And this means you can't just take somebody right away and say look, 12 weeks later, you're a soldier. The other problem is we may not have understood well enough, the lack of leadership capability at the mid levels, the battalions and the brigades of most but not all of the Afghan military and we did see some of this. I think overall we discounted those indications that there were problems and we may have played up those indications of success we had. And this, you know, put us in a situation where we overestimated the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Levulis: And I want to go back to a point you mentioned earlier on, you mentioned that the United States, Afghanistan, the Afghan government, were involved in talks with the Taliban going back, you know, one to one to two years, about an agreement. Were there any indications that the deal would fall through and the Taliban would take over the country like they have?
Jacobson: There were many of us who criticize the Trump administration agreement by saying how are you going to trust the Taliban? I think in that sense, while it was an agreement on paper, it wasn't worth the paper was written on we should have known the Taliban would violate the terms of that quickly, which they did violate the terms of that. And technically, we violated the terms of that by being there past May 1. Still, I think what President Biden should have done was disavowed that agreement, and, and used military, political, diplomatic pressure to force the Taliban to sit down at the intra-Afghan peace talks, and come up with a real power sharing deal for the Afghan government. And look, it may not have looked as the same way that Afghanistan did a year ago. But now, you know, we're going back to a very dark period of Afghan history. And I am very worried about the future for especially Afghan women and children. And what they're going to have to experience what the generation before them experience and thought they had overthrown.
Levulis: And to that point, what do you think the likely next steps are that the Taliban might take?
Jacobson: Well, the Taliban are already consolidating power in a couple of different ways. There are many civil society leaders, human rights leaders, educators, and other Afghans who have been proponents of a more modern society who are under house arrest essentially, being prohibited from leaving the country. You are seeing indications all around the country of a reinstitution of a very extreme form of Sharia law. We used to talk about the burqa count. In other words, when you saw a place where women were free to dress the way they want, you knew that the security situation was much better. You're not seeing that now. You're seeing entirely the opposite. And you're seeing Taliban-style justice already. Justice, that comes from the barrel of a gun. And I think we're only at the beginning of what is going to become an absolutely horrific situation.
Levulis: And what do you expect will be the response from the US?
Jacobson: I don't think the president's going to change paths, he's shown a stubbornness that is surprising to many of us. While some parts of the administration are working hard to do what they can to get the Afghans out, it's clear that there was not enough planning beforehand. And that's something they need to be held accountable for. Whether that means someone gets fired or someone has to resign. That's for later, but I don't see the administration doing enough in the days and weeks to come. I think they are so far behind the curve here. I'm not sure they can catch up. And I just don't see that sort of caring from the White House over this issue right now. There have been very few public statements from the president. As I said, I think his team is working very hard on the Afghan refugee situation, but it's very dysfunctional. It's very problematic on the ground. US citizens are still trapped in Kabul and can't get out. What I expect to see is not what I had hoped to see out of administration that has such amazing talent in the foreign affairs arena working for it.