The Fall of Kabul: Foreign intervention, state-building, and political legitimacy

In October 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan on horseback to oust the Taliban. In a few months, the Taliban regime collapsed quickly, and the UN Security Council Resolutions 1383 and 1386 established an interim government with an “International Security Assistance Force” mandated to maintain security in Kabul in December 2001. Then, state-building efforts by the international community in the post-Taliban period became a venture in the United States’ longest war.

The extremely costly project came to an end when President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of the United States’ combat forces in April 2021. In the following period, the Taliban continued its relentless advance, and some districts were seized without a single shot. The Taliban’s consolidated control over large swaths of the countryside has taken everyone by surprise. Meanwhile, in response to the increased violence, tens of thousands of people fled their homes. Although the majority of the displaced people remain within the country, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has urged Iran to keep its border crossing open.

After two decades of fighting, on Sunday, August 15, 2021, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan’s capital. As President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the Afghan capital was plunged into chaos. So how has the Afghan government collapsed so quickly?

Biden criticized the Afghan leadership, defending his decision to pull the United States out of Afghanistan. “Look,” Biden told reporters at a conference in White House on Tuesday, August 10, “we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces. And Afghan leaders have to come together.” In his speech, he also put an emphasis on the United States’ commitment to provide “close air support”, as well as economic and humanitarian support.

In theory, the Afghan national security forces were more advanced than the Taliban. However, the Afghan Army had a troubled history of desertions and corruption. Back in 2012, desertion and low re-enlistment rates in the Afghan Army drew the attention of international media. Beyond this, the Army’s legitimacy was closely linked to the political legitimacy of the centralized Afghan government, and it was in deep crisis since the very beginning.

The Taliban employed the Afghan government’s lack of legitimacy as an instrument of war. It aimed at capitalizing on local grievances and alienation to win “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people frustrated by the corruption of state institutions. To this end, the Taliban presented itself as a legitimate movement that provides good governance in line with cultural traditions and religious rules. As the Taliban consolidated territorial control within the country, it has become responsible for providing public good and services, including in health care, education, and justice. Various reports, for instance Ashley Jackson’s research on governance and access to public goods in Afghanistan, highligted the Taliban’s governance strategies and its influence on everyday life.

Accordingly, as part of its legitimation strategies in international politics, the Taliban has continued to expand on its international engagement to cultivate both internal and external support. As a critical stage in the Afghan peace process that aims at ending the ongoing violence in the country, the agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020, granted the movement a renewed legitimacy. Also, regional powers, such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China, have revived and strengthened their diplomatic relations with the Taliban to define the future of Afghanistan in the past years. In turn, the Taliban movement has gained momentum and enjoyed support from the regional powers.

On the other hand, rather than good governance in a tribal society, the concept of state-building has dominated the international community’s agenda in the two decades of war in Afghanistan. This approach is grounded in Western enlightenment terms and prioritizes strengthening state institutions with a focus on the security dimension. By its nature, it ignores traditional community and social institutions that define state-society relations.

Also, in response to the Taliban’s advance, the United States continued to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan forces. However, air attacks always run the risk of civilian casualties, and, as such, apart from the questions regarding the effectiveness of the strikes, airstrikes in the country threatened to further alienate Afghan people, particularly the rural population. It is noteworthy that as reported by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), one of the leading causes of civilian casualties in the first half of 2021 was airstrikes.

In 1996, the Taliban took Kabul by exploiting the continuing disarray, disunity and fear in the country. As Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban, the current situation in the country echoed of this past. This further facilitated the return of the Taliban to power so quickly.

The fall of the country to the Taliban is a complex phenomenon. Beyond a focus on political legitimacy, it is determined by the interaction of various factors, such as failures at policy levels, individual characteristics in the Afghan government, or political manipulation of local Taliban leaders. Nonetheless, as ousted Afghan President Ghani stressed in his first statement after he fled Afghansitan, “it is necessary for [the] Taliban… to win the legitimacy and the hearts of the people” to have a sustainable governance.