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OPINION

The Taliban seizure of Afghanistan was long — and invisible — in the making

How do we suppose a ragtag militia lurking in the hills — as we’ve so often heard the Taliban described — managed to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international support?

Afghans crowd the Kabul airport as US soldiers stand guard in Afghanistan on August 16, 2021.
Afghans crowd the Kabul airport as US soldiers stand guard in Afghanistan on August 16, 2021.SHAKIB RAHMANI/AFP via Getty Images

December 2001. Kandahar, the de facto Taliban capital, was quiet. Pickups adorned with rocket-launchers dashed through the windblown streets, as anti-Taliban militiamen followed leads on weapons caches or a last Talib holed up. I was in one of those trucks. I was reporting for National Public Radio.

It was Ramadan. A few days later, on the holiday ending the month-long fast, joy exploded. Kites jostled into the air. Knots of grown men gathered to watch egg-cracking contests, similar to the games of chestnuts I played as a kid. There was no panicked race for the airports.

Twenty years later, what a contrast. The lightning collapse of the government US officials lavished so much effort and expense cultivating has shocked observers, including my Afghan friends. But as Americans have come to learn in our own context — recall the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol — abrupt events are often long, and invisible, in the making.

Sunday’s Taliban seizure of power is one of those.

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I set aside my journalism career and moved to Kandahar. Over the next decade, I learned Pashtu, ran two non-profits, and joined the staff of two commanders of US forces, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

From those multiple simultaneous perspectives, a few reflections — and pressing questions — emerge.

Afghan government corruption. The family of the last speaker of Parliament, Rahman Rahmani, has become exceedingly rich, I recently learned, due to monopoly fuel and security contracts at the main US base in Bagram. This was 19 years after young Kandaharis came to me with tales of militiamen wearing US army fatigues shaking them down on street corners; 19 years after the militia commander I had been riding with during those early days asked me: “What are we warlords doing running the country? I thought the Americans were bringing democracy and the rule of law!”

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No hubris here. It took me months, and my own mistakes, to realize just how much corruption would affect the ultimate success of US efforts. But I did realize it. The proposition, after all, was fairly simple: Why would Afghans risk their lives to defend a government that was just as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were?

US decision makers across four administrations simply refused to contemplate that question. In 2011, when I was special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I participated in a Cabinet-level interagency policymaking process run by the national security staff that arrived at the explicit determination that we would not address the problem. We would not even take obvious steps to cease exacerbating it. “You must want the corruption here,” my friends in Kandahar were saying.

Just what democracy and rule of law did the United States and its allies bring to Afghanistan? Systematized corruption and blatant self-dealing? A Ponzi scheme in the guise of a banking system, while our own banking system was incubating the crash of 2008? A government where billionaires benefitting from monopoly procurement contracts get to write the rules?

Is that American democracy? Well … is it?

Pakistan. The Taliban — so the dominant narrative goes — arose in the early 1990s in Kandahar. That is incorrect. They were birthed across the border in Quetta, Pakistan. I have had countless conversations, with actors in the drama as well as ordinary people who had watched events unfurl in Kandahar, and in Quetta. Their accounts were detailed and unanimous: The Taliban were a project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. ISI operatives even conducted market research, testing the name “Taliban,” and the spin that these humble religious apprentices had no interest in government, they just wanted to curb the chaos infesting the city in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.

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The label and the message took. But they were lies.

And who negotiated the Taliban’s entry into Kandahar back then? Who peddled those lies to get battle-scarred Mujahideen commanders to step aside? None other than Hamid Karzai. His own father broke with him over his decision to further the ISI project, I was told by members of his household.

And now Karzai emerges again from the vortex to negotiate the Taliban’s return to power. I wonder: For how many months have he and his associates in the newly announced coordinating committee been negotiating this surrender? What role has US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad been playing?

Meanwhile, after the Taliban’s 1990s triumph, Osama bin Laden took up residence in their de facto capital, barely a hundred miles from Quetta. Later, with US forces closing in on him, he escaped to Pakistan and sheltered in the army’s garrison city of Abbottabad.

By 2003, the Pakistani ISI was back at it: reconstituting, training, and equipping the Taliban again, rescuing targets American personnel had identified. That’s why Islamabad was not warned of the Bin Laden raid ahead of time — for fear he would be warned.

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And now this.

How do we suppose a ragtag militia lurking in the hills — as we’ve so often heard the Taliban described — managed to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international support? Where did the men and materiel come from, the endless flow of cash to buy off local soldiers and police?

Self-delusion. How many times have you heard US officials vaunt the progress being made in Afghanistan? How often did they insist that spectacular urban explosions were signs of the Taliban’s “desperation,” and their “inability to hold territory?” When did the US State Department spokesman tell reporters that the United States was not abandoning Afghanistan, merely “reducing its civilian footprint?”

Who did we think we were deluding?

Sarah Chayes, the author of “On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake,” lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011.