“The current conditions in Afghanistan do not lend themselves well to the consolidation of democracy.” That’s what I wrote in 2007, when I was a young student at the Harvard Kennedy School. Even then, it was clear that the forces threatening to undermine the new democratic Afghan state would likely prove too powerful for it to withstand. Despite my analysis, I returned home and attempted to help build the new government, first as senior economic adviser to President Ashraf Ghani, then as minister of industry and commerce, and, most recently, as central bank governor. In the end, 14 years after I wrote those words, the Taliban retook Afghanistan and democracy died overnight.
From my vantage point working for the government in Kabul until August 15, when I scrambled to board a C-17 to escape the country, I had a front-row seat to what went wrong. For years, the Afghan government was plagued by political infighting, corruption, and national security and law enforcement leaders who abused their positions of power or had little to no experience. Thus, when the United States brokered the Doha peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, it dealt an already weak Afghan government a devastating blow. As the United States and the international community started heading for the exits, other regional players, especially Pakistan, took additional steps to further shift the balance of power to the Taliban. As these external drivers shaped the country’s future, Afghan political actors did not adjust accordingly. When the United States decided to fully withdraw its troops, these same leaders continued to compete for power rather than plan for the worst-case scenario.
I typically did not discuss security issues with the president, but in early August, after he asked me to become finance minister when Khalid Payenda resigned and fled the country, I expressed concerns about the deteriorating situation. At this point, most rural districts and many provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan had already fallen to the Taliban. Ghani replied that the security forces required six months to reconfigure and realign themselves. The comment seemed out of touch with the rapidly advancing Taliban. I wanted instead to hear the one-week plan. Ghani then stated that he was in talks to bring in other external security contractors and also expressed frustration that U.S. General Austin Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until he left on July 12, never discussed the drawdown in detail with him. Less than a week after my conversation with Ghani, Kabul fell to the Taliban.
This combination of U.S. betrayal and disbelief on the part of Afghan leaders set the stage for the government’s swift collapse. Any accounting of what went so horribly wrong needs to acknowledge this confluence of external and internal factors, which worked to reinforce each other as the state hurtled toward its downfall.
Pulling the Rug From Under
In February 2020, in the final year of the administration of President Donald Trump, the United States signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban. The negotiations, led by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, and the resulting deal legitimized the Taliban while undermining the Afghan government: the United States was negotiating with a terrorist organization while excluding a country with which Washington had a bilateral security agreement. As part of its deal with the Taliban, the United States agreed to withdraw its troops and, in return, the Taliban committed to not attack U.S. troops as they left. The arrangement also required the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which it did reluctantly. At the time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even criticized the Afghan government for not releasing them quickly enough. Now, some of those same men make up key parts of the Taliban leadership.
By shifting the balance of power toward the Taliban, the Doha agreement helped create the conditions for the state’s collapse. Although Khalilzad is a seasoned diplomat, he was perhaps too close to the issue. He and Ghani were in the same international student exchange program in the United States decades ago, and there is well-known animosity between the two men. This meant that in addition to being about the future of two countries, the Doha deal was about two individuals. With Ghani and the Afghan government left on the sidelines, the deal contributed to the worst-possible outcome. It would have been far better if the U.S. military simply left Afghanistan, rather than signing a deal with the Taliban on the way out.
The Doha agreement helped create the conditions for the Afghanistan’s collapse.
U.S. President Joe Biden reinforced the problem by announcing within a few months of his arrival in the White House that he would comply with the commitments made by the Trump administration to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, even if on a delayed timeline. This decision ran contrary to the advice of both the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan task force created by the U.S. Congress, and U.S. military leadership. In recent U.S. Senate testimony, General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, clearly stated that he had recommended maintaining 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan and warned that removal of such troops would lead to the collapse of the government. But Biden had long been skeptical of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. In 2008, as a senator, he traveled to Kabul and had dinner with Hamid Karzai, then president of Afghanistan. Frustrated with Karzai’s denials about corruption, Biden reportedly threw down his napkin and stormed out. As vice president, he opposed the 2009 troop surge. In an August 19 interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, Biden said that he would have found a way to withdraw U.S. troops even without Trump’s Doha deal. Given the Afghan National Security Forces’ dependence on logistical and air support from international forces, the decision to withdraw troops and all its associated contractors in such a short period of time significantly weakened ANSF capabilities.
The Taliban, in contrast, enjoyed consistent external support, above all from Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the former president of Pakistan, was famously quoted as saying that Pakistan always sought to keep the temperature boiling in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s most important contribution was providing sanctuary to the Taliban. “Make no mistake: The Taliban operated from Pakistan consistently,” former U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at an event last week at Harvard University. “It’s no accident that [Osama] Bin Laden was in Abbottabad. It’s no accident that [Sirajuddin] Haqqani’s running the place now. Where did Haqqani spend the last couple of decades? In Western Pakistan.” The previous ISI director, Faiz Hameed, even visited Kabul on September 4, looking quite relaxed as he met with Taliban leaders. Two days later, an interim Taliban government was announced and it included key posts for leaders of the Haqqani network, a militant group with links to al Qaeda that received refuge in Pakistan and is viewed as an ally of the ISI.
Other regional actors also played a role. China approved of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, with the aim of countering perceived Indian interests in Afghanistan and to help make the United States seem like an unreliable partner. Iran was unhappy when, under pressure from the United States, the Afghan Central Bank sanctioned Aryan Bank, an Afghan subsidiary of an Iranian bank, in 2018. It also complained about the construction of dams along Afghan rivers that flowed into Iran. Russia supported and legitimized the Taliban through the Moscow process, negotiations that took place between the Taliban and the Afghan government and were hosted by Russia, in order to undermine the Afghan government.
The Center Cannot Hold
Thanks to its own weakness, the Afghan government was unable to withstand these external forces. Part of the problem was Ghani’s approach to governance. He was more interested in long-term state development than in appeasing domestic political actors. This made enemies of local power brokers who had, for better or worse, maintained strong regional security networks—including former Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum in Jowzjan, Atta Nur in Balkh, and Ismail Khan in Herat. This left Ghani with too few allies as he centralized decision-making, relying instead on best-practice institutional structures—a single treasury account, a single procurement authority, and a single chain of command for the military. If Ghani had had more time in office and more external support, his state-centric approach might have been the correct one for the country. But he miscalculated when it came to the opposition of both domestic and international political actors to his policies. He should have known better – Amanullah Khan, the Afghan king who led the country to independence from Britain in 1919, was overthrown almost 100 years earlier for trying to make reforms too rapidly. Ghani refused to adjust to changing circumstances, and his governing strategy failed.
But Ghani wasn’t alone in this. As the United States negotiated with the Taliban and later, as the Taliban advanced across the country toward Kabul, other Afghan politicians did little to strengthen the Afghan government and instead focused on their own political futures. Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah contested the presidential election results in 2020—and, in March of that year, even held a parallel inauguration. It was the third time he had run for president and lost. Karzai also wanted to return to the political stage and was reputed to be angling to become president again in an interim arrangement with the Taliban. Since he left the government in 2018, former Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal thought he could convince the Taliban that he could help them become legitimate in the eyes of the international community. Other domestic politicians, including Mir Rahman Rahmani, Ahmad Zia Massoud, and Mohammad Younus Qanooni, flew to Islamabad on the day Kabul fell to seek some sort of political influence with the Taliban via the Pakistani government. These politicians thought they could obtain better political outcomes in a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, but they lost on both ends of the bargain: they weakened the country and have obtained no position in the new Taliban government.
Corruption was ensconced in the Afghan state.
This all took place against a backdrop of corruption—another key domestic driver of state weakness. I would be the last to argue that there was no corruption in Afghanistan. There clearly was. But Afghanistan had been making slow incremental progress on this front. Afghanistan’s score in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index improved from 11 out of 100 in 2015 to 19 in 2020; its Parliament passed significant new legislation that improved transparency in the natural resources sector; and the government created an independent anticorruption council. As head of the central bank, I ensured that central bank accounts were connected electronically to all commercial banks in the country, in order to make government salary payments fully electronic, which over time could have significantly reduced the presence of “ghost workers” and ensured transparency in the payment of salaries to soldiers and police. But these actions were clearly too little, too late. Corruption was ensconced in the Afghan state.
Finally, there were consequential leadership failures among security officials. The ANSF fought bravely over the last two decades. But National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, one of Ghani’s close associates, had no military or intelligence background and made sure that all military appointments had to be approved by him. In October 2020, Mohib appointed new provincial district governors and district police chiefs throughout Afghanistan, most of whom had no connection to the local communities they were overseeing.
What’s more, frequent senior-level changes to military leaders led to confusion and continual shifts in strategy. During a critical period throughout much of 2020 and 2021, acting Minister of Defense Asadullah Khalid was sick and out of the country for many months. It was never clear why Khalid was left in his position during this time, although Ghani mentioned to me that the U.S. military wanted him to remain there. Then, in June 2021, as the military situation worsened, Ghani replaced both the defense and interior ministers, as well as the army chief of staff. At no point did the military seem to be planning a high-level strategy for the protection of major cities. And, in the end, it was a surprise to me to see Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan departing the country, seated comfortably, on the same flight I scrambled to board.
None of these factors alone was responsible for the collapse of the Afghan state. But they interacted and reinforced one another in ultimately fatal ways. Leadership failures in the Afghan security sector, for example, were exacerbated by Biden’s decision to rapidly withdraw not only all remaining international forces but also all associated contractors. Only three years earlier, the United States had stopped buying Russian-produced Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan military and switched to U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawks. But there was no time to train enough Afghan pilots and maintenance crews required to operate the new fleet of U.S. helicopters, which were more advanced and complex machines. With the withdrawal of international troops and contractors, the ability of the Afghan military to project power through its air force significantly declined.
The fallout and sense of betrayal from the Doha agreement deepened the bickering between Ghani, Abdullah, and Karzai, further weakening any sense of a strong, central government. Karzai and Abdullah continued to push for an interim government, which Ghani opposed. Given the Taliban opposition to Ghani during the peace negotiations, Khalilzad then reportedly encouraged Karzai and others to consider themselves candidates for a negotiated interim president position. In the end, it didn’t matter. The Taliban surrounded Kabul, and Ghani fled.
We will undoubtedly debate the reasons for the Afghan state’s quick collapse and cast blame for a long time to come. Understanding what led to its rapid downfall will, eventually, allow others to learn from our experience and formulate appropriate policy responses. In the meantime, the consequences will be borne—yet again—by Afghan citizens who had no say in any of these matters.