Tekst: Simone Sessolo, Master’s degree in peace and conflict studies
In the first edition of 2021, I wrote about the intra-Afghan peace talks which started at the end of 2020 between the government and the Taliban. I said that the road to peace in Afghanistan had begun.
I was wrong.
In Samfunnsviter’n’s first edition of 2021, Kontrast, I wrote a short article titled “Afghans might soon live in a country at peace” about the first, historic peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which took place in September 2020 in Doha (Qatar). The talks followed the deal reached between the US and the Taliban where the US agreed to withdraw all its soldiers in the country by April 2021.
In that article, I claimed that those peace talks were the first step, the beginning of the road to peace in Afghanistan. I concluded by saying that “Prospects for peace in the country are slim. Although a ceasefire agreement might be reached early in the process, it is not likely that a peace deal will be agreed upon in the short-term.”
The road to peace was, however, rocky from the start. After the initial discussions, talks stalled at the start of 2021 due to the many disagreements over the future of the country as well as due to renewed attacks by the Taliban on Afghan security forces.
In March 2021, now former President Ashraf Ghani pushed to revitalize the peace talks with the Taliban. He stressed the importance of having a new government through free, fair and inclusive elections.
At the beginning of the summer, the Taliban suggested they would release their peace plan and share it with the Afghan government in August. That did not happen. Instead, they took to the offensive.
The Taliban Summer Offensive
After the partial withdrawal of US and international forces in June, the Taliban already controlled large parts of the country. However, after August 6th, they took to the offensive and their advance picked up speed and momentum.
n just 10 days they swept the country, taking control of provincial capitals in quick succession: on August 8th the city Kunduz, in the north, fell and within a few days Herat, in the west, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, in the south, capitulated. In Ghazni, a provincial capital about 135km south of Kabul, Taliban entered the city without firing a shot. On August 14th, Mazar-i-Sharif, an important city in the north, 60km away from the border with Uzbekistan, fell to the Taliban, with little resistance from Afghan troops.
The road to peace was, however, rocky from the start. After the initial discussions, talks stalled at the start of 2021 due to the many disagreements over the future of the country as well as due to renewed attacks by the Taliban on Afghan security forces
On Sunday August 15th, the Taliban entered Jalalabad, about 110km east of Kabul. Later the same day, Taliban fighters reached the capital, Kabul, and paused outside the city, while emergency talks were held at the presidential palace. The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, resigned and fled the country. The Taliban moved in to take full control and raised their flag over the Presidential Palace.
Tens of thousands of Afghans, who fled to Kabul to escape Taliban rule, rushed to the airport. All land border crossings were already controlled by the Taliban, and Hamid Karzai International Airport was the only way to exit the country. Thus, started a large-scale mission to evacuate foreign citizens, embassy staff, as well as Afghans whose lives were in danger because of their work with international missions, of their ethnicity or of their gender. Over 120.000 people were evacuated from the country in the span of two weeks.
Three Reasons Why the Taliban Took Over
There are many causes to the quick demise of the Afghan government at the hands of the Taliban. I will focus on three that I think are quite important.
The first cause is the failure of democratic statebuilding through military force. The imposition from the top-down of a democratic government not tailored to the specific context and situation of the country has been central in the fall of the Afghan government. The Afghan government was created by a foreign military force using a sort of “blueprint” that is supposed to work no matter the context. That is a mistake. The Afghan democratic government was not adapted to the country and the people did not feel represented or involved in it. It stayed in power because of a foreign military force and when that force pulled out, the whole state fell like a house of cards.
The second cause, I would argue, is corruption. According to the 2020 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International, Afghanistan scores only 19 points out of 100, ranking overall 165th out of 180 countries. High corruption reduced public trust in the government to provide basic services and economic growth in one of the least economically developed countries globally, with a purchasing power parity GDP per capita of only around $2.000. Foreign aid, which made up around 75% of government spending, did not reach economic development projects, humanitarian programs or anti-drugs initiatives, but was pocketed by government officials and provincial warlords. A prime example of that occurred after the Taliban seized Kabul: The President, Ashraf Ghani, resigned and then fled the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash.
The Afghan government was not ready to face the Taliban offensive because, I argue, it did not adapt to the Afghan context, it was corrupt, and its defence forces were poorly equipped and poorly motivated
The third and last cause are the Afghan security forces, which melted away as soon as the US military forces left the country. President Biden in his speech defending his decision to pull the plug on the war in Afghanistan claimed that the poorly equipped, 75.000 fighters strong Taliban forces were no match for the well-equipped, 300.000 Afghan security forces. In reality, that was not the case. While on paper the Afghan security forces numbered 300.000, the actual number was much lower because of a phenomenon known as “ghost soldiers”. This phenomenon took place all around the country and consists of registering fake names or dead people to increase the number of enlisted troops so that commanders could pocket the money paid for salaries. In addition to this, corruption played an important part in the weakening of the Afghan security apparatus: foreign aid that was supposed to be used for food and ammunition for the troops was instead pocketed by government officials, commanders, and provincial warlords. This meant that during the key moments of the Taliban offensive, Afghan soldiers were confronted with low food supplies and low ammunitions.
In conclusion, I was wrong about the peace process in Afghanistan. Although the road to peace begun, it was interrupted suddenly by the Taliban takeover and the subsequent establishment of an exclusively Taliban government. The Afghan government was not ready to face the Taliban offensive because, I argue, it did not adapt to the Afghan context, it was corrupt, and its defence forces were poorly equipped and poorly motivated.
A lot has changed since my first article about the Afghan peace process, however, if there is one thing that hasn’t changed from that first article I wrote are the very last few words, those are still valid today: “For more than four decades, Afghans have lived with violence, conflict, and war. It is time for this to change. It is time for peace.”