Note: The researcher’s full name and job description have been withheld for his safety in light of the turbulent situation inside Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s rapid expansion across Afghanistan, extending to taking control of the capital, came as no surprise to Afghan citizens. The cracks in the state structure and collapse of its security institutions under former President Ashraf Ghani had been obvious to all, so the Taliban overrunning the Afghan provinces and the capital falling into their grip was a matter of time. In addition to the preceding are a number of factors, the most important of which are Afghan government corruption, the legitimacy gained by the Taliban after the Doha negotiations in Qatar, and the Afghan army’s lack of fighting capabilities and independence.
Explanations for the rapid collapse:
The Taliban insurgency has been fighting for nearly two decades, after United States-led international coalition forces overthrew its ruling regime in Afghanistan. But in record time, it was able to sweep through Afghanistan’s regions, impose its control over crossings and border points, and swiftly take control of Kabul without resistance. Afghan citizens believe there are three primary reasons explaining the rapid annihilation of the Afghan state:
1- The Doha Agreement’s legitimization of the Taliban: The first reason for the Taliban’s rise is the comprehensive Doha agreement between the movement and the United States that was drafted in Qatar. The agreement was of great importance to the Taliban, granting it political legitimacy and allowing it to build bilateral relations with many countries, including the US. But while this agreement gave the Taliban a glimpse of the victory they had been struggling to achieve for two decades, Afghans saw it as a betrayal by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and the international community. When US President Joe Biden announced in April 2021 that the US military would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan on 1 May 2021 and complete the withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Taliban did its best to quickly make gains. While the Taliban had agreed at the outset not to launch suicide attacks in major cities or on highways, in line with the Doha agreement, it later decided to sweep through all of Afghanistan.
2- Worsening Afghan government corruption: The second reason is corruption and an unaccountable government. The intractable problem of corruption had permeated all parts of the Afghan state, negatively impacting Afghanistan’s ability to maintain security for its citizens and provide basic public services. Moreover, the Afghan government realized that the international community had abandoned it, and that Afghanistan was no longer a priority. The Afghan government has long been weak and very corrupt, dependent on foreign aid for survival, torn by factional infighting, and obstructed by warlords.
3- Weakness and disintegration of the Afghan army: The third reason for the total collapse of the entire system so quickly is the Afghan armed forces and security forces, which lack adequate capabilities and independence despite the US and its NATO allies spending billions of dollars over the past 20 years to train and equip Afghan security forces. But in spite of US efforts to build up the Afghan National Army, the Taliban finds itself in its strongest position since 2001.
The Taliban began to expand gradually, within the framework of the Doha agreements and in an understanding with the Afghan government—and, behind it, the US. Initially, it was said that "the government and the Taliban have agreed to share control over a number of areas in Afghanistan. Then, the two participated in peace negotiations in Doha, "but what happened in reality was the complete opposite of an agreement. The Taliban was confident in its ability to achieve a military victory."
Then, Taliban forces began to target journalists and human rights activists, fostering an environment of fear and intimidation in the society. The also organized propaganda campaigns and launched a psychological war via social media. "Soldiers and local officials were warned via text messages in some states. They were asked to turn themselves in or cooperate with the Taliban to survive. Even many employees and leaders of local authorities were offered a safe life if they laid down their weapons." The end result came with a fugitive president, a corrupt government, and a weak and dependent army whose leaders had been bought and so fled from their positions for a sum of money, as well as a Taliban strategy called "from the outside in." These are the causes that led to the government’s rapid collapse. As the Taliban began attacking major cities, the government withdrew its forces without firing a single shot at Taliban militants.
Some reports have alleged the presence of "a secret deal between Afghan authorities and the Taliban to surrender all areas of Afghanistan in exchange for a six-month ceasefire." But it seems the Taliban was not satisfied with this, so it took over the Afghan provinces. Within a week, Taliban fighters managed to overrun more than ten provincial capitals without any resistance. Kabul collapsed within an hour after President Ghani fled.
Contrasting scenarios for the future:
Fear and disillusionment is spreading among large segments of Afghans with the Taliban’s return to power. The arrival of the militants shocked many world observers, and especially Afghans who had worked with Western agencies or armed forces, who tried to rush to Kabul International Airport in an attempt to flee the country. When the gunmen took control of the streets, Western forces greatly accelerated their efforts to evacuate their diplomats from their embassies in Kabul, as chaos engulfed the streets of the capital amid the spread of crowds of Afghans fearing for their lives. We are beginning to see the Taliban imposing their version of Islamic law (sharia) and applying their own rules and regulations in an attempt to control the situation. The signs of the military takeover of the Afghan capital began to manifest with heavily armed militants searching for government weapons and vehicles street by street. They also took control of Afghanistan’s national television, through which they addressed the international community, calling for support for their rule and the building of bilateral, interstate relations with it. But the main question remains: What awaits Afghanistan?
1- The Taliban declares an emirate: The Taliban announces the establishment of its Islamic emirate, imposes the stipulations of Islamic law, and changes the country’s constitution and the institutions of the former government. It is also likely to restrict many of the freedoms, human rights, and modernizations the country has seen since 2001. In the meantime, the Pashtuns will take the largest share of political power, tipping the political and legal scales in favor of Taliban Islamism regarding minorities in the society.
2- Civil war erupts: The potential for conflict to erupt remains, especially as the former Northern Alliance is preparing for resistance in Panjshir province, which is under the control of former first Vice President Amrullah Saleh and former Minister of Defense Bismillah Mohammadi.
3- Transitional governance negotiation: This scenario would mean that the Doha negotiations proceed in Qatar while Taliban leaders form a coalition government with Afghan political leaders. The international community could force Taliban leaders to call for free elections and restore peace and stability to Afghanistan. The Taliban may seek to follow this scenario and comply with the international community’s conditions in order to reintegrate itself with the international community and for recognition of its rule of Afghanistan, as well as to attract international aid and investment.
In the end, the situation in Afghanistan remains open to multiple possibilities due to the ambiguity and uncertainty of the current situation and rapid developments of the scene in Kabul and the Afghan provinces. It also depends on the extent of the possibility of negotiations between the Taliban and some Afghan forces progressing on transitional governance arrangements and the extent of the movement’s willingness to make concessions and not monopolize power.