The Leadership Factor:

To explain how and why Kabul fell to the Taliban, many analysts focused on the last days of the republic and Ghani’s escape from the country. However, Ghani’s escape was the last episode in a 7 year-long process of wrong decisions and failed governance system. Ghani would not have to flee the country if he had governed differently. Surely, Ghani is not solely responsible for this colossal failure and many inside and outside of Afghanistan deserve blame; but if, on this very same issue, the buck stopped with President Biden in the United States, it stopped with the former President Ghani in Afghanistan. Ghani who once co-authored a book, entitled Fixing a Failed State, failed a fixable state by setting a self-defeating agenda for his government: he prioritized undermining his political rivals (who could have been potential allies in his fight against the Taliban) over dealing with the real threat – the Taliban.

At times of crisis when the survival of a state is at stake, more than anything else, the leaders need the unity and support of all socio-political forces, including the "undesirable ones" so long as they share the same threat. Exemplified by the Falkland War, Gulf War, Philippine’s War on Drugs, and even the fight against Covid in some countries, the rally-around-the-flag-effect is a well-known theory of war that explains how an external or domestic threat of national magnitude allows sometimes even unpopular leaders to rally public support and unite diverse socio-political forces behind their governments.

Ghani had all the right ingredients to unite the nation and rally all political forces to address the Taliban threat more effectively. Taliban’s link with the ISI of Pakistan was known and despised by most Afghans. In both of his terms, Ghani was leading national unity governments which at least at their inceptions had the backing of virtually all political elites in the country. Despite their differences with Ghani, all major brokers were pro-republic for their own interests’ sake, if for nothing else. More importantly, at least some of the "warlord governors and commanders" knew how to keep Taliban out of their regions.  For example, Governor Sherzoi of Nangarhar, Governor Atta of Balkh, Governor Ismael Khan of Herat, VP Dostum in Jawzjan and Faryab, and Commander Razaq in Kandahar had enough regional influence and power to keep their provinces secured during their tenure as governors or commanders. As Dipali explains in her book, Warlords, Strongmen Governors, and the State in Afghanistan, despite their differences with Karzai and Ghani over local governance, these strongmen did represent the central republic in the provinces of their control, and some were more effective in providing public good than the central government. This was perhaps why a survey of public opinion on governors by Mobasher and Qadam Shah found that these strongmen governors were the most locally popular governors in Afghanistan.

Although Ghani presided over two national unity governments and had the set-up needed to unite all political forces, Ghani reneged on his promises to be a fair power-sharing partner. From the very beginning, he made it a top priority to sideline his partners in government by firing their members in the cabinet or limiting their power by creating parallel institutions—high councils—inside the president’s office under his direct control. He did the same with local governments, removing some prominent governors who could otherwise keep their provinces secured from the Taliban and replacing them with some weak figures who had no intention and capacity of resisting the Taliban. Mr. Laghmani’s case illustrates this well. Very late in his government (May 2021), when the Taliban were advancing across Afghanistan, Ghani decided to appoint Daud Laghmani as the governor of Faryab. When the Uzbek-dominated province protested the appointment of an outsider as their governors, Ghani tried to force him on the people by ordering the security forces to escort him to his new office. Not many days later, however, Governor Laghmani, handed over the Ghazni province to the Taliban upon their arrival. Until the very end, Ghani diverted the government’s attention and resources away from dealing with the Taliban and towards targeting groups that had the most reasons to resist the Taliban. As late as January, for example, several clashes have been reported between the government and Alipur forces in Wardak, where the Taliban had a long-term presence. Even when their days in office were numbered, Ghani’s closest circles insisted that the government would not support arming local resistance against the Taliban.

In some ways, Ghani and the Taliban were pursuing the same agenda: removing the same local powerholders whom both considered a problem to their rule. The Taliban assassinated Commander Razaq and many other local elites, while Ghani sidelined Governor Atta, Dostum and the rest. Ghani retired hundreds of army generals and officers because of their earlier affiliations with the Northern Alliance and replaced them with his own line of generals and officers who surrendered or left their posts without a fight. This way, the central government basically did the Taliban’s bidding in dismantling all the social fabric and power structures that would have kept the Taliban out of different regions. Despite that, the only pockets of resistance against the Taliban were, in fact, led mostly by non-government forces and strongmen, exemplified by Ismael Khan in Herat, Ahmad Masoud in Panjshir, and Batur Dostum in Jauzjan. The resistance forces were, however, too fragmented, and too compromised to cement a lasting defense against the Taliban.

Further adding to the injury, Ghani’s administration was actively institutionalizing ethnic discrimination, heightening ethnic tensions in Afghanistan. Every few days, a new discrimination scandal or discriminatory policy would test state-society relations causing public anger. Several current and former officials of Ghani’s administration including his vice-president repeatedly accused the administration of ethnic discrimination. In August 2017, a systematic campaign in the Administrative Office of the President (AOP) to remove employees of certain ethnic backgrounds was unwrapped when an official of the administration mistakenly posted the agenda on a public Telegram platform. Soon, several records of Ghani’s closest circles including Hamdullah Mohib, his National Security Council Advisor, were leaked revealing that the ethnocentrist agenda was being implemented even more vigorously to cleanse state agencies from the presence of diverse groups. Examining nine policies and regulations that were ethnically contentious, including the Population Registration Act, government decisions on power line route from Turkmenistan to South of Afghanistan, and electoral districting in Ghazni and Hilmand, Mobasher found that the government’s decisions disfavored Tajiks by 67%, Uzbeks by 89%, and Hazaras by 94%. This way, when the government desperately needed the unity of all Afghans the most, it stirred up division and distrust leading to the Taliban’s takeover.  

Ghani surely succeeded in his goal of ultra-centralization, whereby all his political rivals were subdued. However, his success in undermining them ensured his own demise and the demise of the republic at the hands of Taliban. Many still wonder how come such a backward, unpopular, mostly uneducated, and small group of a proxy movement dismantled a legitimate regime with mostly educated leaders, heavy weaponry, and well-trained army. The answer lies in the unity of the former and the divisiveness of the latter more so than in other internal factors including corruption.

Lesson: Afghanistan is an egalitarian society with diverse groups who have maintained their self-governance despite the persistence of states to centralize power throughout its history. For a successful reform, the relations between the center and the periphery need to be regulated and formalized rather than uprooted and replaced. Ghani tried to undermine the regional power structure in the same way that Afghan governments have historically attempted to replace the informal justice system in Afghanistan. But, in the very same way that the weak and dysfunctional state courts have failed to replace informal justice institutions, Ghani’s equally corrupt and yes-men technocrats failed to fill the void of the local powerholders that he created, leaving the country vulnerable to the Taliban’s invasion.