September 25, 2022

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The world was shocked this week by appalling scenes of desperate Afghans swarming the tarmac at Kabul International Airport, taking their last chance to escape a country now completely overrun by the Taliban.

After nearly two decades of war, more than 6,000 lost Americans, over 100,000 Afghans killed, and more than $ 2 trillion spent by the U.S., the prospects for the country’s future were still bleak, with regional experts assuming that the Taliban would ultimately take control of Afghanistan all over again.

But few expected such a swift takeover, with so little resistance from the Afghan government and the Afghan National Army, which was funded and trained by the US taxpayer with $ 89 billion.

“Although the bottom line and bloodletting were never questioned after we left, the speed of the collapse is unreal,” a former intelligence official and US Marine who served in Afghanistan told CNBC, demanding anonymity due to job restrictions.

Taliban members are seen near Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands of Afghans flee the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghanistan on August 16, 2021.

Haroon Sabawoon | Getty Images

“Why were the Taliban able to take power so quickly? This is, frankly, an operational masterpiece,” Michael Zacchea, a retired US Marine who led the first US military-trained Iraqi army battalion, told CNBC. “Why were they able to conquer the country faster than we did in 2001?”

The question concerns Americans, Afghans, military veterans and international observers alike – and the answer, like the Afghanistan conflict itself, is complex, multilayered and tragic.

But the main causes, say analysts, are intelligence failure, more powerful Taliban, corruption, money, cultural differences and willpower.

Intelligence failure

The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, including its capital and presidential palace, suggests that U.S. military intelligence has failed in its assessment of the situation, said Bill Roggio, senior fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“This is an intelligence failure of the highest order,” he told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia on Monday. and his allies in 1968.

Roggio said the Taliban had prepositioned equipment and supplies, organized, planned and carried out a “massive offensive” since early May before starting their “final attack” while US officials said the local government and military should be in be able to hold out for six months, months to a year.

Last week, Reuters reported that a US defense official saw Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, collapse in 90 days. Instead, it did so on Sunday, less than 10 days after the Taliban captured the first provincial capital, Zaranj.

“A breakdown in the will to fight”

It should be noted that the Taliban did not have to fight their way into the provincial capitals of Afghanistan, but brokered a series of surrenders, says Jack Watling, research fellow for land warfare and military science at the Royal United Services Institute in London. In the last few years of fighting, the group managed to gain control of about 50% of the country by conquering rural areas.

We didn’t understand the tribal dynamic, we never understood it. We believe everyone wants what we have. It’s cultural dullness, forgetfulness of their reality.

Michael Zacchea

US Marine Corps Lt. Col. (senior)

And as they made progress in the cities, many Afghan forces gave in, convinced that the government in Kabul would not provide them with effective support.

“The Taliban would infiltrate urban areas, murder key people like pilots, threaten commanders’ families and say if you surrender you will save your family,” Watling said.

“Many people surrendered because they lacked the confidence that Kabul could save them.” More and more people were choosing this route, “so there was hardly any fighting, which is why it suddenly happened so quickly,” he added.

“The speed is not a reflection of military capabilities, but a collapse of the will to fight.”

An Afghan National Army soldier guards a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on April 21, 2021.

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News of the US full withdrawal has accelerated this, said Stephen Biddle, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University.

“When the US announced a total withdrawal, it was a signal to Afghan soldiers and police that the end was near and that chronically weak motivation was turning into an acute breakdown, as no one wanted to be the last one left after the others gave up “he explained.

“Once the signal was sent, the contagion dynamics took over and the breakdown increased at a rapid pace and with virtually no actual fighting,” added Biddle.

In April, Biden ordered the Pentagon to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, a decision he believed was made in lockstep with NATO coalition forces.

Taliban “much more skillful” militarily

Not everyone believes that the US troop withdrawal is responsible for the chaos in Afghanistan today.

Kirsten Fontenrose, director of Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at Atlantic Council, said the Taliban had become more effective since the 1990s.

“They have become much more adept … militarily and non-militarily in terms of pursuing the same goal that they have – namely the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan,” she told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Monday.

“The US withdrawal is not the reason the Afghan government has been outmaneuvered,” she added.

She said the Taliban had surrounded the capital, Kabul, and cut off utility lines that government forces needed. Their numbers have also grown as they developed new strategies, she said.

“They use social media just as lethally as sniper rifles. They used coercion to pressure local tribal leaders, they used fairly simple but effective SMS campaigns to threaten local Afghans who work with the US and other overseas efforts.” . ” said Fontenrose.

The Taliban also let ground commanders make decisions and bring people to conquered areas to provide small social services to residents.

This has enabled the group to “outsmart” Afghan and foreign armed forces in order to effectively target, co-opt or force local people to support them – or not to oppose them, “she said.

Afghan government corruption and military weakness

If the Taliban had launched a full military attack and encountered resistance, the country’s lightning strike would have taken longer – but it would have happened anyway, Watling believes.

“I think the Taliban would still have won,” he said. “And that’s because the Afghan National Army is made up of many units that are systemically corrupt, have no effective leadership and control, they don’t know how many people are in their own units, most of their equipment has been dismantled, stolen and sold, so they were a completely dysfunctional force. “

Soldiers in many cases were not very well fed, very rarely paid, and on duty away from home for long periods … and were not well managed.

Jack Watling

Research grant for land warfare, RUSI

It is also because the Afghan military is pathetically underpaid, malnourished and undercompensated by the leadership in Kabul.

The “Soldiers, in many cases, were not very well fed, very rarely paid, and on duty outside of the home for long periods … and were not well managed,” added Watling, a tactical mistake that resulted in heavy losses on the tune of about 40 soldiers a day in recent years.

Many army units sold their equipment to the Taliban for cash, and desertions were frequent which were not taken into account, leaving excessive numbers on the books.

“A fool’s job”: How little Americans “understand” Afghanistan

Also crucial to understanding America’s failures in Afghanistan is understanding the history of the country and its culture – and how drastically it differs from any Western nation.

“There has never been a central government in Afghanistan. It was stupid to believe that we could found one,” said the former US intelligence officer and Afghanistan war veteran. “The ‘surprise’ over the recovery of the Taliban shows how little Americans understand Afghanistan from top to bottom.”

Afghanistan is a country of many tribes, languages, races, and religious sects, and Washington and its NATO allies sought to transform it into a unified democracy based on largely Western values.

“There was a fundamental lack of understanding of what the Afghans wanted,” said Zacchea, who trained the first US-led Iraqi battalion in 2004. “We assumed they wanted what we had – liberal democracy, Judeo-Christian values… and thought they would just convert automatically. And that’s not the case. “

Tribal alliances in Afghanistan very often replace national loyalties or loyalties followed by money and power. And part of the Taliban’s strength was that, as Pashtuns, they belonged to the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

“In the meantime,” said the Afghanistan war veteran, “we were basically supporting a hodgepodge of ethnic minorities who never had the ability to unite the country.”

A U.S. soldier guards an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Logar province, Afghanistan, August 5, 2018

Omar Sobhani | Reuters

“We didn’t understand the tribal dynamic, we never understood it,” said Zacchea. “We believe that everyone wants what we have. It’s cultural dullness, the forgetfulness of their reality and their lived experience.”

The nature of the US-brokered ceasefire with the Taliban at the beginning of 2020 also weakened the Afghan government’s image: The negotiations led by the Trump administration ignored the elected leadership in Kabul, which “destroyed the legitimacy of the Afghan government” into one Time when it was already not widely respected by local communities, Watling said.

39 million Afghans across the country have expressed acute fear for the future of their country – especially women who were able to go back to school for the first time since the Taliban first controlled Afghanistan in 1996 after the US invasion in 2001. For many Afghanistan war veterans who brought some of these basic freedoms to Afghans, their sacrifices were worth it.

Now these achievements will disappear, lamented an American veteran who served in the country as an infantryman in 2011.

“I have no regrets for what I did there,” the former marine told CNBC, demanding that his name be withheld from speaking to the press due to job restrictions.

“I’m devastated for the people I saw there when they were kids. Now they’re teenagers and I can only imagine what they’re going through.”

– CNBC’s Amanda Macias contributed to this report from Washington, and CNBC’s Abigail Ng contributed from Singapore.