Why Afghanistan Is Going To Fall To The Taliban Again. And It's Not Why You Think.

"I'm afraid I don't see how the U.S. can helpfully respond in Afghanistan, at this point."
Doctors Without Borders staff huddle together after a U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afhanistan on Oct. 3, 2015.
Doctors Without Borders staff huddle together after a U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afhanistan on Oct. 3, 2015.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, the Taliban began the process of retaking Afghanistan, starting with the northern city of Kunduz. The U.S. and Afghan governments have since been battling to recapture it -- a fight that included the U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed at least 12 medical staff, along with at least seven patients, on Saturday.

The Taliban has since charged that Afghan intelligence purposely gave the U.S. the hospital's coordinates. Even the possibility that such an accusation is true -- and the duration of the sustained attack suggests that something unusual happened -- points toward the reason that Afghanistan is headed back toward Taliban control: The government is thoroughly corrupt, and the U.S. has been unwilling to take measures to address the situation. While a handful of civilian and military leaders identified corruption as an existential threat to the country, the problem remains unsolved.

After covering the invasion of Afghanistan, former NPR journalist Sarah Chayes decided to stay in the country to try to help turn it around. She opened a business in Kandahar and probably spent more time living directly with the Afghan people -- without security guards -- than any other American since 2001. Chayes ultimately went to work for coalition forces in the region, sharing the fundamental insight she'd gained: Corruption was eroding public support of the government. She won audiences with all the right people, and even made some converts, but ultimately, her counsel wasn't taken by the U.S. government as a whole.

Chayes turned her experience into the groundbreaking book Thieves of State, which forecasts that corrupt governments will continue to be the targets of insurgents who win public support. Like the Iraqi army did in Mosul and elsewhere a year earlier, the Afghan army and police in Kunduz simply melted away.

Support -- or, at least, a lack of opposition -- from the local population has been key to the Taliban's success. Over a period of a few years, the Taliban gradually crept closer to Kunduz and ultimately embedded its militants in the suburbs. Then, in less than a day, they took over the city.

Reporting from the region makes it clear that the Afghan government lost the population as a result of its corruption. The way it erodes public support is intuitive: Imagine that you are an Afghan civilian generally opposed to the extremism of the Taliban. Yet for nearly everything you need to do -- travel to and from work, transport merchandise, enroll in school, open a business -- you get shaken down, often by somebody of a different ethnicity. The Taliban, with all its piety, at least might not be corrupt, you start to think. As The New York Times reported last week:

Over the past few years, faith in the government and the warlords who were allied with the government, never strong, has rapidly diminished. Militias and Afghan Local Police forces installed by the American Special Forces were largely unaccountable. They extorted protection money from farmers, and committed rapes and robberies. But because they had guns and the backing of local strongmen close to the government, people’s complaints were ignored.

In Khanabad, a district southeast of Kunduz City, for instance, residents complained that the local militias were worse than the Taliban in part because while the Taliban would only demand payment once for a harvest, there was often more than one militia, each demanding its own share.

Over time, as villages threw their lot in with the Taliban, the insurgents’ cordon around Kunduz grew tighter. By last year the city felt so under siege that police officers were resistant to driving in a marked government vehicle for fear a Taliban fighter on a motorbike would slap a magnetic bomb on it.

Chayes has since moved back to the U.S. to work as a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I asked her a few questions about Kunduz and the future of Afghanistan, and she noted that this isn't the first time the coalition has accidentally slaughtered civilians in Kunduz, with devastating political repercussions.

What do you see as the connection between corruption and the fall of Kunduz and the surrounding area?

Like the Islamic State's capture of large parts of Iraq, the Taliban successes in and around Kunduz are the almost inevitable consequence of corrupt and abusive governance. This is not a recent phenomenon. Back in the spring of 2009, when I first looked closely at Kunduz, the governor was famous for his land grabs. In an arid place like Afghanistan, almost entirely dependent on high-end agriculture, fruit growing and such, land is incredibly precious. Stealing someone's land is worse than murdering them. The German military had responsibility for the province, and the intelligence chief's assessment was "everyone around him is corrupt." That was six and a half years ago, and nothing changed in the interim. Years of built-up grievances and no avenue of recourse drive people to extremes. We've been seeing that in the U.S. lately; we shouldn't be surprised to see it -- even if in different forms -- in Afghanistan.

And not only has corruption in Kunduz been causing indignation, which prompts some to join the Taliban, or at least to choose not to interfere with their activities, but there has been evidence over the years of collusion between government officials and the Taliban, selling them munitions and supplies, corrupt judges letting them out of jail and so on.

President [Mohammad] Ashraf Ghani's more recent efforts to fix local administration may have been too abrupt, and too focused on hard security -- not enough on legitimate grievances and community consensus-building -- to repair the damage.

Could the Taliban have returned without government corruption?

I don't think so. There is nothing magical about the Taliban. They're Afghans, like the population of Kunduz. If that population was proud of its government, they could keep the Taliban out.

But there are four aggravating factors that have made matters worse:

1. The Afghan Local Police initiative. This was (likely) a brainchild of then-Gen. David Petraeus, modeled on Iraq. The idea, first launched in Afghanistan in 2009, and in Kunduz a couple of years later, was to briefly train and stand up local militias to fight the Taliban. The notion was that U.S. special forces would be working with them, they would be supervised by local elders and unlikely to commit depredations against their neighbors.

I was against this initiative from the start, and argued hard against it when I worked for the commander of the international troops (the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF). I didn't see how the solution to poorly trained and disciplined police and armed forces was even less well-trained and disciplined local militias. And sure enough, ALP units quickly became the scourge of their neighbors, shaking people down, committing human rights abuses, and so on. They were loyal to local strongmen, not village elders, and created just the kind of chaotic and violent environment that had led to the rise of the Taliban in the first place in 1994. The existence of formal ALP, moreover, became the pretext for every local warlord to stand up his own personal militia, calling it ALP.

2. Ethnic divisions. Such a situation was particularly problematic in Kunduz, because, [as] a kind of microcosm of Afghanistan as a whole, Kunduz province is deeply divided along ethnic lines. That means that any corruption the governor might perpetrate is doubly painful to victims who are members of the other ethnic group, since they see the slight as one to their whole community. Similarly with the ALP: Those units tended to be manned by non-Pashtuns. And the Taliban are largely Pashtun. So, local Pashtuns started seeing the Taliban as their only defenders against the abuses of these militias.

“So local Pashtuns started seeing the Taliban as their only defenders against the abuses of these militias.”

In research we at Carnegie have been doing in other countries, we've identified deep ethnic rifts as an additional risk factor that, combined with corruption, makes security crises more likely. Syria, Iraq and Ukraine corroborate the hypothesis.

3. National-level chaos. The U.S., in its wisdom, decided that the solution to a completely botched election last year -- in which both leading candidates forged thousands of votes -- was to force them to govern together in a two-headed "national unity" government, which is anything but national or unified. Now Afghanistan has a president and a "chief executive," an office that does not exist in the Afghan Constitution that the U.S. helped write and swears by. The result has been complete paralysis. A year after the election, there is still no defense minister. Can you imagine an army functioning properly with an "acting" in charge of the ministry?

4. History of Taliban implantation. It's not as if the Taliban picked Kunduz out of a hat. It was their last bastion in the north in 2001. Hundreds of Pakistani soldiers were among the Taliban taken prisoner there, and were allowed to fly back to Pakistan.

If the status quo prevails, will the Taliban takeover continue?

I don't see why it wouldn't.

There's a pattern that I wouldn't be surprised to see repeated. In the south, where I lived, what would often happen is a dramatic Taliban offensive, capture of a key site, followed by a government/ISAF recapture. But when you looked closely, you found that the Taliban had in fact executed a "strategic withdrawal." That is, they had faded away in the face of the counter-attack. This would usually happen in the summer or fall. Then, during the winter, they'd filter back into the area, start intimidating and assassinating people, and work their way back in. So, by the next year, they actually controlled all the territory they had gained briefly in that initial attack, but had regained it almost invisibly. The first dramatic military assault was really aimed at sending a message to the local population. It was psychological warfare.

Could this have been predicted and prevented?

I just looked at my notes from that first trip I took to Kunduz with the ISAF command group -- when Kunduz was emerging as a serious security problem. It was on May 17, 2009.

But the U.S. government made a decision -- finalized in 2011 -- not to prioritize governance issues in its handling of Afghanistan. Also not to call the government of Pakistan on its active support for Taliban and Haqqani insurgents. Once those two decisions were made, it was impossible to prevent the current capture of Kunduz. But if either of those decisions had gone the other way, I think this was eminently preventable.

How can the U.S. respond?

This context means the almost exclusive focus of U.S. debate on whether or not more U.S. troops should have been left in Afghanistan -- or in Iraq, for that matter -- is almost entirely beside the point. Of course, overwhelming numbers of U.S. troops could curb extremist advances. But without addressing the underlying governance issues, such a pause would only last as long as the U.S. troops were present. So what's the answer ... keep U.S. troops in these countries forever?

On the other hand, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, I think the window of opportunity to exert real leverage on governance and corruption is closed. So, I'm afraid I don't see how the U.S. can helpfully respond in Afghanistan, at this point. We had more than a decade, and we squandered a remarkable moment in history.

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