After nearly two decades of war, more than 6,000 American lives lost, over 100,000 Afghans killed and more than $2 trillion spent by the U.S., the outlook for the country’s future was still grim, with regional experts assuming the Taliban would ultimately come to control most of Afghanistan once again.
But few expected a takeover this swift, with so little resistance from the Afghan government and Afghan National Army, the latter of which was funded and trained with $89 billion from the U.S. taxpayer.
“While the end result and bloodletting once we left was never in doubt, the speed of collapse is unreal,” one former intelligence official and U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan told CNBC, requesting anonymity due to professional restrictions.
“Why were the Taliban able to so quickly take over? This is a masterpiece, frankly, operationally,” Michael Zacchea, a retired U.S. Marine who led an American-trained Iraqi Army battalion during the Iraq War, told CNBC. “Why were they able to take the country faster than we did in 2001?”
The question has been asked by Americans, Afghans, military veterans and international observers alike — and the answer, much like the Afghanistan conflict itself, is complex, multilayered and tragic.
But among the main causes, analysts say, are intelligence failures, a more powerful Taliban, corruption, money, cultural differences, and simple willpower.
The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, including its capital and the presidential palace, suggests that U.S. military intelligence failed in its assessment of the situation, according to Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“This is an intelligence failure of the highest order,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday, adding that it’s the “biggest intelligence failure” since the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, a campaign of devastating surprise attacks on the U.S. and its allies in 1968.
Roggio said the Taliban pre-positioned equipment and materials, organized, planned and executed a “massive offensive” since early May before beginning its “final assault,” while U.S. officials said the local government and military forces should be able to hold out for six months to a year.
Last week, Reuters reported that a U.S. defense official saw Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, falling in 90 days. Instead, that happened on Sunday, less than 10 days after the first provincial capital of Zaranj was taken by the Taliban.
What’s key to note is that the Taliban did not have to fight their way into Afghanistan’s provincial capitals but rather brokered a series of surrenders, says Jack Watling, a research fellow for land warfare and military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Over the last few years of fighting, the group managed to gain control of some 50% of the country by seizing rural areas. And when they began making headway in cities, many Afghan forces gave in to them, convinced that the government in Kabul would not back them up.
“The Taliban would infiltrate urban areas, assassinating key people like pilots, threatening the families of commanders, saying if you capitulate, you’ll save your family,” Watling said.
“A lot of people, because they lacked confidence that Kabul would be able to save them, capitulated.” More and more people chose this route, “so there was very little fighting, which is why it suddenly happened so fast,” he added.
“The speed is not a reflection of military capability, it is a reflection of a collapse in will to fight.”
The news from the Biden administration of the full U.S. withdrawal sped this up, said Stephen Biddle, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University.
“When the U.S. announced a total withdrawal, that sent a signal to Afghan soldiers and police that the end was near, and converted chronically poor motivation into acute collapse as nobody wanted to be the last man standing after the others gave up,” he explained.
“Once the signal was sent, contagion dynamics thus took over and the collapse snowballed with increasing speed and virtually no actual fighting,” Biddle added.
In April, Biden ordered the Pentagon to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, a decision he said was made in lockstep with NATO coalition forces. On Monday, the president defended his decision to leave the country and placed the blame squarely on the Afghan national government. (CNBC)