The Taliban takeover of Kabul: adapting to a new reality

di Young Think Tanker - 31 Ottobre 2021

  from Rome, Italy 

Biden’s promise: the last flight from Kabul

On August 30th, 2021, President Biden’s promise became reality. The last plane carrying U.S. civilians and military left Afghanistan, effectively ending the longest war in American history. Nevertheless, the departure of the last U.S. plane left behind a bloody and chaotic end to the conflict. During the war’s final weeks, fighting and terrorism in the attempt to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghans left 13 service members and hundreds of civilians dead. Hence, the U.S. are not expected to maintain any other diplomatic or military presence in the country. Moreover, in light of the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 15th , President Biden received his harshest criticism to date from both Republicans and Democrats: nonetheless, he stood behind his decision to pull all U.S. troops out, since it is no longer in America’s interest to keep them on the ground in Afghanistan


A rapid and unexpected military victory

The Taliban rapid victory over Afghan government forces was a major military and political achievement. Government forces were greatly weakened by corruption, political disunity, “ghost soldiers” on payrolls, and a lack of urgency in the Kabul government, as well as the absence of U.S. advisers on the ground and a limited number of U.S. air strikes. However, although these were important factors, they did not determine Taliban takeover alone. In fact, the Taliban executed a sophisticated campaign plan in combination with military maneuvers on the ground. 

Firstly, the Taliban has been isolating provincial capitals by increasing control of surrounding rural districts. Therefore, they could seize border crossing points in western Afghanistan and consequently deprive the Afghan government of revenue from taxing incoming trade, further aggravating the fiscal crisis. They also began operations in eastern Afghanistan that were rapidly followed by attacks in the north of the country. These offensives successfully pre-empted any effort of the important warlords of the former Northern Alliance to mobilize their militias. Subsequently, Afghanistan’s second city, Kandahar, fell, decisively weakening the government’s position. 

The U.S. already urged President Ghani before the spring of 2021 to withdraw Afghan troops from many isolated checkpoints dispersed across rural areas and recommended to concentrate defense around the key cities. Thereby they hoped that the government could fight the Taliban to a stalemate, but it seems that Ghani did not follow this advice. It may also be that Washington and Kabul did not expect the Taliban offensive to start before the final withdrawal of U.S. forces. As a result, they were taken by surprise by the way the Taliban had planned its offensive at the tactical, strategic, and operational levels. 


The importance of propaganda

From the beginning of the Afghan war against the Taliban insurgency in 2002, the political dimension of military operations became increasingly important in the prolonged and violent contest for the minds of the population. Thanks to the new communication opportunities provided by satellite television, social media and the internet, the Taliban made the “propaganda of the deed” an integral part of its operations, just as important as the armed conflict itself. The clear and simple message the Taliban launched to the Afghans was that it was the legal government of the country and that it was waging war to expel foreign settlers from the Afghan soil and restore the Islamic Emirate. This narrative was crucial for the Taliban both inside and outside the country, encouraging its supporters, fundraisers, and potential recruits. 


The Taliban’s strenght

Another point in favor of the Taliban’s success was that it was able to match its words with facts much more effectively than the Afghan government or international forces, like the U.S. or NATO. The Taliban was providing security to the Afghan people living in the districts it controlled and facilitating dispute resolution in its Sharia courts. Even though it did not work to improve agriculture, health, education, or infrastructure in the way the international stabilization efforts did, it managed to carry out its two objectives well, while national development agencies failed to support the Afghan government efficiently. 

By 2021, the Taliban added to its military capabilities not only propaganda and social media, but also negotiation. After some initial success in the attacks against Afghan government forces in isolated rural regions, the Taliban would start to negotiate with its enemies. The insurgents either successfully secured a surrender or agreed not to attack if government forces laid down their arms and abandoned their positions. Moreover, the information campaign moved on thanks to the evidence of the victory campaign on social media, showing Taliban fighters attacking and taking control of urban areas, empty government buildings, and shops and schools re-opening. This social media operation seeked to present the Taliban as tough and militarily effective, but, at the same time, magnanimous to those who surrendered and an actor able to provide stability after the fighting. 

Migrants and refugees: what role for Europe?

The Taliban offensive and its consequences was perceived as a particular shock by the EU institutions and by Western public opinion. When assessing the consequences of the Taliban takeover, there is no doubt that it is the Afghan people on the front line that are most badly affected. After assisting to the images of Kabul’s airport becoming the epicenter of a desperate and deadly scramble to escape the Taliban, it has become inevitable to foresee large migratory flows. Although among the members of the international community, it is the U.S. that have suffered the greatest reputational and financial losses so far, it will probably be the EU that will face the greatest consequences. 

The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, addressed the Afghan crisis in a videoconference with EU Foreign Ministers on August 17th. During the press conference, Borrell declared that the EU priority shall remain the evacuation in the best conditions of security of the European nationals and also of the Afghan citizens that worked closely with them.  At the same time, he warned that the new political situation in Afghanistan must not lead to a large-scale migratory movement towards Europe. Borrell finally added that, if necessary, the EU will engage in a dialogue with the Taliban to prevent a humanitarian migration disaster.  

Such statements reflect the EU’s concerns about the Afghan crisis: the EU will become a natural choice for many Afghans whose civil rights and freedoms are threatened and that are trying to find a safe haven abroad. Many EU leaders have declared that managing those fleeing Afghanistan will require a coordinated and fair international effort, in the fear of replicating the refugee emergency of 2015-2016. 


What about regional responses?

Despite the alarm of the EU about a possible migration crisis, very few have wondered whether this prediction is plausible. In fact, of the 2.5 million Afghan refugees registered by UNHCR, the vast majority are in neighboring countries (mainly Pakistan and Iran). Only about 400.000 of these refugees, 16%, received protection in European countries.

The regional dimension is very important to consider for the new reality taking shape in Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban is seeking international recognition and support from its neighbors, especially because it needs to attract funding to rebuild the country and will have to rely heavily on foreign investments. Regional cooperation will be vital for the Taliban, but a common concern for all countries in the region is the flow of Afghan refugees. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan perceive their porous borders as a security risk and have signaled they would push back against any attempt to cross them illegally. Similarly, Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan stated they would immediately repatriate refugees, despite their pledge to host a definite number of Afghans. All regional powers including, Russia and China, have no interest in seeing instability in Afghanistan and fear the export of terrorism and terrorists as much as the West. 


An unknown future

The Afghan people, especially Afghan women and the previous government’s allies, and the international community, will be watching to see if the Taliban’s reassuring promises will match concrete action or if they were only part of a sophisticated information campaign. However, there is little evidence that the insurgents have changed their hardline view in their last 20 years of opposition. At the same time, the Taliban is going to need foreign aid and most of it will have to come from the West. 

The financing of government activities provides foreign countries with a relevant power of pressure. Under the deposed government, foreign aid accounted for 75% of the government budget and about 40% of GDP. Now everything is suspended: the U.S. have also frozen over $9 billion of the Central Bank, waiting to see if the Taliban will keep the promises made. This puts the international community in a delicate balance: suspending funding to push the Taliban to respect the rights of women and minorities, without causing the economic downturn of a country already on the brink of collapse. 

Despite the importance of its funds, in the new Afghan scenario the West sees its ability to influence the future course of events drastically diminish. Wang Wenbin, a Chinese diplomat, argued that China hopes that “relevant countries” will change what he has defined the “wrong practice of imposing one’s will on others”, implicitly referring to the United States’ prolonged presence in Afghanistan. New actors will become protagonists in the affairs of Afghanistan, like Russia, China and Turkey, while the political decisions of the EU must remain focused on the humanitarian dimension and social empathy, which are among the most important values on which European integration was founded. 



Osiewicz, P. (2021) Afghanistan: the US decides, but will Europe pay the bill?, Middle East Institute. 

Mehra, T. & Wentworth, M (2021) The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Regional Responses and Security Threat, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. 

Barry, B. (2021) Understanding the Taliban’s military victory, International Institute for Strategic Studies. 

Villa, M. (2021) Migranti e profughi afghani: quello che l’Europa dovrebbe fare, ISPI. 

Shavit, E. & Stein, S. (2021) Lessons in the limits of power: the withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan, The Institute for National Security Studies. 

Dettmer, J. (2021) Will the Taliban keep their promises?, Voice of America.


Autore dell’articolo*: Alessia De Benedetto, Dottoressa in Scienze Politiche e Relazioni Internazionali presso l’Università LUISS Guido Carli di Roma.


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