How the Afghan Taliban achieved their takeover of Afghanistan
Few events in recent years have been quite as unexpected as the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan in summer 2021. Though the insurgency against the United States had proven extraordinarily resilient, the American withdrawal was expected to precede a protracted competition between the rurally prominent insurgency and the American-installed government, which might have capitalised on its considerable advantage in material resources and diplomatic support. Instead, the government collapsed dramatically toward the end of summer, with Ashraf Ghani’s flight confirming the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul before a stubborn opposition in the Panjsher valley was snuffed out. Not only was the Afghan summer of 2021 a watershed event, but also the subject of considerable propaganda and misinformation across political lines. It is therefore useful to undertake a comprehensive review of the events that led to the Taliban emirate’s recapture of Afghanistan.
The Taliban insurgency against the United States differed from the previous 1980s insurgency against the Soviet Union in two major aspects. Firstly, the Taliban movement nearly monopolised the resistance to the United States – unlike the 1980s, where a large number of often competing insurgent groups and fronts fought the Soviets. Secondly, the Taliban as a whole were more disciplined and united, with only a handful of exceptions, than their predecessors had been. These factors enabled them to avoid the infighting that had dogged the Afghan insurgency after the Soviet withdrawal. Yet not even their most optimistic supporter could have predicted the speed with which they took Afghanistan in summer 2021, even before the United States’ departure – pre-empting the sort of protracted, internally divisive conflict that had hampered the resistance against the Soviet-installed regime in 1989-92.
This was to a great extent helped by the divisions among their opposition. The government of Ashraf Ghani was plagued by bitter divisions with the largely non-Pashtun regional potentates in the Afghan north. These included the Turkic Junbish movement’s leader Abdul-Rashid Dostum, who had once been Ghani’s running mate but fallen out with him, and Jamiat emir Ata Noor. They had borne the brunt of the fight against the Taliban insurgency in northern Afghanistan and balked at what they portrayed as Pashtun favouritism by Ghani’s government. Even before the Taliban summer campaign kicked off, there were protests against Ghani’s Pashtun governors, Muhammad Daud in northwest Faryab and Zikria Sauda in northeast Badakhshan provinces – on both occasions, Ghani was forced to remove his appointees.
The government was similarly, against Ghani’s personal preferences, reliant on militias, some of which had existed before the American invasion and others founded since. In spite of considerable hype over the progress of state forces – the army and police – their typical performance had been poor, and in the 2010s much of the burden had been carried by militias. Indeed militias – often euphemistically named “popular uprising groups” – had been favoured by the United States at the peak of the American campaign, with the veteran Panjsheri leader and former army commander Bismillah Muhammadi enrolling them under the interior ministry in summer 2010. They had been removed from the same ministry’s payroll in summer 2020, yet by 2021 Ghani found himself once more forced to appeal to the same militia leaders he had attempted to side-line – epitomised by Muhammadi’s appointment to defence minister.
For their part, the Taliban strategy revolved largely around encircling and capturing key strongpoints – border towns, provincial capitals, and major cities such as Kandahar, Ghazni, and Herat. They managed to do so effectively partly because they controlled much of the countryside. Heavily reliant on bombardment by Fahim Ramin’s air force in order to keep the insurgents at bay, the government’s inability to simultaneously coordinate and relieve different garrisons hampered any progress. In spite of some early encouraging signs – at eastern Laghman province, at northwest Faryab, and even at the Taliban’s traditional stronghold in Helmand – Kabul was unable to capitalise on any tactical progress, and by midsummer Taliban forces were mustering up a momentum that culminated in a windfall of conquests by the summer’s end.
Perhaps the first Taliban shots of the campaign were fired in western Afghanistan, where the insurgents needed to scratch a longstanding itch. This was Abdul-Mannan Niazi, a longstanding dissident who had broken away from the mainstream insurgency some years earlier; in May 2021, he was killed in an ambush. The Afghan west, more than most regions, was particularly reliant on militia forces; as the Taliban stepped up their attacks, the government enlisted seasoned militia leaders such as Ismail Khan of Herat and Abdul-Karim Khan of Nimrouz. The Herat garrison, a particularly prized target, was also bolstered by the promotion of major state officials: the deputy interior minister Abdul-Rahman Rahmani arrived to oversee the campaign along with a military governor, Abdul-Sabur Qani.
Led by Abdul-Qayum Rauhani from the south and Abdul-Karim Jihadyar from the north, Taliban forces in the west steadily advanced toward Herat. In July 2021 Badghis’ provincial capital Qilai Nao was pierced by Taliban commander Muhibullah Akhundzada amid major defections; it took a belated rally by the Panjsheri commandant, Haseebullah Masoud, to drive out the attackers. Meanwhile, insurgent forces overran Islam Qila and Torghundi, Herat’s border posts with Iran and Turkmenistan respectively. Soon Taliban commander Abdul-Aziz Ansari arrived at Herat city itself where a fierce fight against Ismail’s militia ensued.
But it was the capture of a softer target the next month that set the tone. The southwest province Nimrouz, home to peripheral nomads and smugglers, was under the loose control of the Baloch commander Abdul-Karim. In August 2021, its main city Zaranj became the first provincial capital to come under Taliban control, as the Baloch militia gave way against Taliban commanders Abdul-Haq Abid and Muhammad Ayubi. That set off a ripple effect; within the next week, dozens of provincial capitals began to succumb across Afghanistan. Among them was Herat, where Taliban political leaders Ameer Muttaqi and Ahmadullah Wasiq had personally reached out and convinced Ismail to stand down. The capture of the west’s main city was a blow from which the government never recovered; within days, mass surrenders were taking place across northern and western Afghanistan.
Contrary to popular belief, the largely non-Pashtun north had long contained a sizeable contingent of Taliban forces from across ethnic groups; these included the Turkmen commander for Faryab Attaullah Umari, the Pashtun commander for Juzjan Maulawi Sunnatullah, and the Tajik commander for Balkh Abu Hamza Qudratullah. The north was unquestionably a tough nut, containing several large and experienced militias loyal to such powerful leaders as Ata and Dostum; the former deputy interior minister, Murad Murad, was also flown into the Hazarajat to oversee the campaign against Taliban forces led by Anas Azizi and Abdul-Basir Mazhari.
Fighting was fierce early in the summer, and as often as not the Taliban received bruising casualties – including Sunnatullah, the Juzjan commander. The insurgents resorted once more to dangling a carrot alongside the stick in July 2021; Muttaqi arrived in the Hazara region to coax its mostly Shia populace away from their fears about the Sunni Taliban movement. It was not until the fall of western cities like Zaranj and Herat, however, that the north folded. Militia commanders such as Asif Azimi in Samangan and Ali Sadaqat in Daikundi surrendered, enabling the insurgents to take over these provinces.
The capture of Dostum’s stronghold Shibarghan by Sunnatullah’s successor Ismail Siraji badly hit the militias’ morale; Dostum, who had been forced by sickness to yield command to his son Yar-Muhammad for most of the summer, withdrew shaken to Balkh’s capital Mazari Sharif, where he and Ata plotted their next move. With much of the northeast and the west having been lost, they soon opted to exit the city without a fight, leaving it to Qudratullah’s troops. Afterward, the northern militias and their supporters would blame the north’s downfall on a Pashtun conspiracy, between Ghani’s largely Pashtun aides and the Taliban. Whatever else the failures of Ashraf Ghani’s regime, this does not stand up to scrutiny; not only did non-Pashtuns comprise much of the northern Taliban corps, but much of the summer’s fiercest fighting took place in the overwhelmingly Pashtun south.
Southern Afghanistan was, of course, the cradle and historic stronghold of the Taliban movement, and accordingly both the regime and the insurgency paid especial focus here. Taliban miitary commander Yaqub Mujahid, son of the movement’s founder, and his second-in-command Ibrahim Sadar both operated from the region. Regime forces included both regular state officials, such as Helmand-based corps commander Sami Sadat and Kandahar sheriff Sharif Sartayeb, as well as militia commanders such as Abdul-Rahman Jan in Helmand and Tajuddin Khan, whose infamous Achakzai militia had guarded the border town Spin Boldak.
With much of the countryside firmly under their control and outlying garrisons largely isolated, Yaqub and Ibrahim had some room to narrow down their targets. As early as May 2021 they sent Abdul-Ahad Talib to attack Lashkargah, the last regime holdout in Helmand; bolstered considerably by airpower, Sadat had the better of the early fighting, but the attackers could afford to wait. In July 2021 Yousaf Wafa, an experienced Taliban commander brought in to lead the Kandahar campaign, scored a major hit by capturing Spin Boldak from Tajuddin’s militia, some of whom were executed. The next few weeks saw ferocious fighting at both Lashkargah and Kandahar, until both cities finally fell and the Taliban could claim the south at large.
Southeast Afghanistan was home to several historic militant networks that had played a major role in the war against the Soviets and then joined the Taliban emirate where they occupied an increasingly pivotal position. These included notably the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, now a major Taliban leader. The Haqqanis and other such networks had long controlled much of their mountainous Loya Paktia stronghold, but the government’s secret service had set up several paramilitary forces with the help of the United States. Led by Wazir Shaheen in Paktika and Hayatullah Hilal in Khaust, they engaged in sporadic fighting with the Taliban troops in the region. These were mostly local Taliban leaders, such as Sirajuddin’s uncle Mali Khan and close lieutenant Abdullah Bilal at Khaust, but also included southerners from Kandahar such as Isa Yasin, who led the Paktika campaign.
A more concerted campaign took place on the road between Kandahar and Kabul, which ran through Ghazni Province. This was contested territory, controlled by both regular government commander Sher Andiwal in Ghazni city, and Hazara commanders in the countryside who had a tense relationship with Ghani’s government, such as Abdul-Ghani Shamsher. Both sections put up fierce resistance against insurgent forces led by Muhammadzai Akhund, Tahir Mubariz, and the Taliban veteran Abdul-Jabbar Umari. In mid-August 2021, however, the battle suddenly petered out in anticlimax when Ghazni governor Muhammad Daud, seeing the collapse of provinces elsewhere, quietly turned over the city to his Taliban counterparts. Given that Daud was among Ghani’s Pashtun governors removed from the north, his meek surrender was quickly – and wrongly – blamed by non-Pashtun politicians as the result of a Pashtun conspiracy between the Kabul regime and the Taliban.
In fact, the government reacted with outrage, and immediately imprisoned Daud after he had safely crossed Taliban lines. This harsh treatment perhaps stiffened his counterpart in Wardak, Lawang Faizan; he refused an offer of similar surrender by Taliban commander Rahimullah Mahmud, who instead had to capture the provincial capital Maidanshahar by force. With most of the remaining country having been captured by this point, Loya Paktia followed suit; Taliban commander Walijan Hamza took over the Gardaiz corps command without a fight. There was no doubt that Ghazni’s sudden downfall had shaken the government.
Eastern Afghanistan, a largely highland region overlooking the road from Kabul to Jalalabad and beyond, had been nearly as vexatious for the Taliban movement as anybody else, with a major Daesh front in the mountains persisting to this day. Consequently much of the Taliban command in the region was composed of veterans of the war against Daesh; these included Nangarhar commander Nida Nadeem, Laghman commander Qari Zainul-Abideen, and Kunar commander Usman Turabi. Others, such as Abdul-Hakeem Muhammad, came from older Taliban networks in southeast Afghanistan rather than locally.
Government forces were similarly sparse, comprising mostly militias and police garrisons. The major battle in the east, at Laghman in May 2021, was a success for army commander Yasin Zia, who was nonetheless soon replaced after personally leading the campaign. There were scattered fights in Nuristan and Nangarhar over the summer, but the major concern seems to have been a flash flood that killed scores of people and forced some modicum of cooperation between Afghans.
The east was thus comparatively and unusually quiet; as provinces fell one by one, Nangarhar governor Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, a longstanding aide of Ghani, turned over Jalalabad to his Taliban opponent Nida. Much of the east fell in short order just hours before Kabul’s takeover. Yet as the Daesh insurgency against Taliban rule has shown, quiet was very much a temporary state of affairs in the east.
The Afghan northeast had been a historic scene of frustration for the Taliban emirate in the 1990s, but a quarter-century later the movement had made real inroads in the region. This was best epitomised in Badakhshan; the only province never captured by the emirate in the 1990s, by 2021 it was in particularly weak shape against strongly integrated local Taliban led by Badakhshi Tajiks Qari Fasihuddin and Amanuddin Mansur. Similarly, the experienced Taliban commander in the Kapisa region directly to Kabul’s north, Ihsanullah Baryal, had long placed special emphasis on coopting local networks into the movement.
The performance of the army and affiliated militias was spotty. Baghlan province, garrisoned by Adam Matin, held out stubbornly early in the campaign against a concerted attack by his Taliban opposing number Nisar Haqqyar. But Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan were far flimsier. Much of Kunduz, a historic stronghold for the Taliban in this region, was captured early on by insurgent commander Muhammad Aka. By July 2021 this included the border towns Sherkhan Bandar and Imamsahib, and fighting reached inside the city itself; this in spite of a recently founded but subsequently undercut army corps headquarted in Kunduz.
Badakhshan’s garrison, led by Abbas Muttawakkili, fared little better; hundreds of soldiers escaped north into Tajikistan over the summer. Meanwhile Takhar’s sheriff, seasoned militia commander Abdul-Malik Mala, could not prevent a steady advance by Taliban commander Maulawi Nuraddin, who by July 2021 had taken the province’s border town Ishkamish. Compared to the northern borderlands, the insurgents had been warier in dealing with the southward path to Kabul, especially the historically tricky Panjsher province, but there were occasional flares in violence; one of them put paid to Kapisa’s deputy governor, Azizur-Rahman Tawab. Already the United States’ abandonment of its longstanding Afghan stronghold, the Bagram airbase, had scarred regime morale.
By August 2021, the wind had been knocked out of the government’s sails. Much of the region had been indifferent to the Kabul regime; after it fell, a number of them held out in the Panjsher valley under the leadership of Ghani’s erstwhile deputy Amrullah Saleh and defence minister Muhammadi. But unlike the 1990s Panjsher was now surrounded, and in September 2021 Fasihuddin managed to plow into the valley and finish off the resistance.
Ashraf Ghani had blustered and stalled gamely in the eighteen months since the Doha Accord. His bravado and stubborn insistence on his regime’s legality against both Taliban and legal opposition had the appearance of conviction if not reality. Even with the fall of the south, he had recalled Sadat – now a favoured commander of government media – to serve as Kabul commander. Thus it was a shock when in mid-August 2021, surrounded on every side, he suddenly slipped away, eventually emerging in the United Arab Emirates. The morning after saw shock among his lieutenants; defence minister Muhammadi, cursing Ghani’s treachery, disappeared with Saleh to their Panjsher home, and a stunned interior minister Abdul-Sattar Mirzakwal was left to transfer power to the Taliban army waiting outside the capital.
Equally surprised but only too happy to oblige, the Taliban entered Kabul. They were welcomed by longstanding opposition leaders such as Abdullah Abdullah, Gulbadin Hikmatyar, and Hamid Karzai, who seem to have seen no alternative to guarantee security in the capital. The Loya Paktia Taliban – including Sirajuddin Haqqani’s brother Anas and uncle Khalilur-Rahman Ahmad, as well as Kabul governor Abdul-Rahman Mansur – played a major role in winning over the city’s suspicious notables, while the United States, who retained control of the airport until summer’s end, rushed to evacuate their troops and dependents with a haste that reflected their shock at the suddenness of the turnover.
Meanwhile, Taliban military commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir and corps commander Salahuddin Ayubi made straight for the abandoned palace. There, in thanks to Allah, they recited the Quran before settling down to drink in the moment. Governance would prove an entirely different and bigger challenge, but they would enjoy their astounding triumph first.