5 Top Reads

The Year Kabul Fell Again

A stunning Taliban takeover left Afghanistan—and the world—transformed.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Taliban fighters on a pickup truck in Kabul.
Taliban fighters on a pickup truck move around Kabul on Aug. 17. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

2021

On Aug. 15, the Taliban arrived at the gates of Kabul. By the evening, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his vice president had fled the country, and the militant group had seized the presidential palace. In just 10 days, the Taliban had gone from taking their first provincial capital to preparing to declare a new Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. The final U.S. plane would depart from Kabul later that month to a chorus of celebratory Taliban gunfire, marking an end to Washington’s so-called forever war.

After the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, had stalled earlier in the year, many observers suspected that Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal. But almost no one, including Biden administration officials, predicted the group would ascend to power with such breathtaking speed. Few in the foreign-policy establishment knew what to make of the situation, but one thing was clear: Two decades of U.S. nation-building had failed, and the same militant group that the United States was determined to root out in 2001 was once again taking the helm of a country Washington had poured more than $2 trillion into over the course of the war.

Kabul’s fall left the world with many questions but few immediate answers: What went wrong with Afghanistan’s defense forces? How would the Taliban govern? Could the group, in desperate need of foreign aid, be moderated by the West? Would it change its treatment of women and minorities? Could Afghans form a sustainable resistance movement? Would the takeover spark a new refugee crisis—and if so, where would asylum-seekers go? How would Taliban rule affect regional dynamics and Afghanistan’s relationship with the international community?

On Aug. 15, the Taliban arrived at the gates of Kabul. By the evening, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his vice president had fled the country, and the militant group had seized the presidential palace. In just 10 days, the Taliban had gone from taking their first provincial capital to preparing to declare a new Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. The final U.S. plane would depart from Kabul later that month to a chorus of celebratory Taliban gunfire, marking an end to Washington’s so-called forever war.

After the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, had stalled earlier in the year, many observers suspected that Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal. But almost no one, including Biden administration officials, predicted the group would ascend to power with such breathtaking speed. Few in the foreign-policy establishment knew what to make of the situation, but one thing was clear: Two decades of U.S. nation-building had failed, and the same militant group that the United States was determined to root out in 2001 was once again taking the helm of a country Washington had poured more than $2 trillion into over the course of the war.

Kabul’s fall left the world with many questions but few immediate answers: What went wrong with Afghanistan’s defense forces? How would the Taliban govern? Could the group, in desperate need of foreign aid, be moderated by the West? Would it change its treatment of women and minorities? Could Afghans form a sustainable resistance movement? Would the takeover spark a new refugee crisis—and if so, where would asylum-seekers go? How would Taliban rule affect regional dynamics and Afghanistan’s relationship with the international community?

In the days and months that followed, we published more than 100 articles on these questions, from dispatches by journalists on the ground to long reads by academics on the region’s history to essays by Afghans on the human toll of U.S. abandonment. Amid the chaos, our coverage sought to make sense of what happened, why it happened, and what the United States—and the world—could learn from it. Equally as important, it highlighted the Afghans who were left to make sense of the ruins of a failed U.S. project.

Below are five of Foreign Policy’s top Afghanistan stories this year.


1. The Falling Man of Kabul

by Laila Rasekh, Aug. 28

It’s now an image inseparable from the U.S. withdrawal: men falling from the sky after clinging to a U.S. airplane taking off from Kabul’s airport. One of those men—a boy, actually—was Zaki Anwari, a 17-year-old soccer player. “The world will remember him as one of Afghanistan’s falling men while strangers in comfortable chairs in distant Western capitals will recount his death as they argue about U.S. foreign policy,” Afghan journalist Laila Rasekh writes. “Few will bother to speak of his life.”

But Anwari’s life, which Rasekh seeks to recount in great detail, represents the “generation of Afghan women and men in the cities [who] had found a modicum of personal freedoms and had begun to pursue their dreams.” Afghan society was flawed, Rasekh writes, but it represented some progress. In Rasekh’s striking essay, written from the perspective of an Afghan woman watching on from India as the Taliban transformed her home, Anwari’s death serves as a reminder of the human toll of great powers reducing one’s homeland to a chessboard.


2. As Taliban Expand Control, Concerns About Forced Marriage and Sex Slavery Rise 

by Lynne O’Donnell, July 23

An Afghan woman and her cousin are interviewed in Bamiyan province

Nineteen-year-old Tamanna talks alongside her cousin Baes Sakhizada during an interview in Saighan district three days after the Taliban’s retreat in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on July 21.

In the weeks before the Taliban took Kabul, many Afghan women were already worrying about their fate. At the time, our columnist Lynne O’Donnell was on the ground in the country’s Saighan district, in the central highlands of Bamiyan province, where the Taliban were making lists of marriageable young women and widows. Women there described to O’Donnell their worries of being kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, and “the terror and dread they felt as the militants ransacked and looted homes and businesses.” Some of them, O’Donnell reports, attempted to flee to nearby provinces, pushing their luggage in wheelbarrows when they got stuck in traffic jams.

Much has been written on whether (and to what extent) a Taliban takeover would set back the clock and destroy any advances made in Afghan women’s rights since 2001. But O’Donnell’s reporting, replete with stunning photos by Massoud Hossaini, shines a light on the very real anxiety and desperation of that question—which is still playing out—for Afghan women themselves, and the lengths they were willing to go to not to learn to the answer.


3. How the U.S. Got 9/11 Wrong

by Michael Hirsh, Sept. 7

One of the main foreign-policy questions amid Kabul’s fall was, simply put: What went wrong for the United States? How could a superpower with such vast resources have botched the war in Afghanistan so thoroughly that it was leaving, as Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh writes, not just humiliated but also, as U.S. President Joe Biden declared in a speech on Aug. 31, resigned to “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”?

Hirsh’s essay, which seeks to answer that question, traces Washington’s profound loss of power since 9/11, tackling everything from Biden’s credibility to U.S. military blunders to Osama bin Laden’s success in “destroy[ing] the myth of American invincibility.” By the end, it’s hard not to be left with a strong sense of the perils of U.S. overreach. It not only spawned new jihadi threats “at a tremendous cost to life, limb, treasure, and U.S. patience,” as Hirsh writes, but also left Washington more vulnerable to growing rivals that may be emboldened to exploit U.S. weaknesses.


4. Post-American Afghanistan and India’s Geopolitics

by C. Raja Mohan, Aug. 18

Just as the Taliban takeover seemed to cement Washington’s waning regional influence, it also marked a shift in the entire landscape of great-power competition in the region. Foreign Policy columnist C. Raja Mohan’s essay takes a big-picture look at the ripple effects of Kabul’s fall, which, he argues, only accelerated a fundamental realignment that was already taking place.

In Mohan’s analysis, that realignment centers in part on India’s strengthening relationship with the United States. Yet as New Delhi and Washington have grown closer, fissures have only widened between New Delhi and both Beijing and Moscow. Meanwhile, the withdrawal is likely to weaken the strategic partnership between Washington and Islamabad and further bring the latter closer to Beijing, enhancing its prospects in Afghanistan. And Russia is starting to enjoy a renewed role in the region as it engages with the Taliban.

Ultimately, Mohan writes, the events have great potential to “intensify Sino-Indian contradictions, consolidate Indian-U.S. relations, and produce greater distance between India and Russia.”


5. To Understand Afghanistan’s Future, Reckon With the Region’s Colonial Past 

by Priya Satia, Aug. 19

When seeking to understand what transpired in Afghanistan this year, it’s common to reflect on the past two decades. But Priya Satia, a historian at Stanford University, believes it’s essential to reckon with a longer history of the region, since, she writes, “memory of the horrors of colonial partition fuel … the Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan” today.

In her essay, Satia takes us from late 19th-century British rule to the Cold War neocolonialism that fragmented South Asia into present-day exclusionary nation-states. But she focuses primarily on one forgotten aspect of the region’s mid-20th-century history: Namely, that 1947 marked not only the Partition of India but also, “equally disastrously,” the creation of a border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“As Afghans flee across borders today,” Satia writes, “remembrance of the dotted line from that past to our present, of the continued reboot of colonial-era partition, is essential for South Asians and for meddlers in Afghanistan, past and present.” It is only through amplifying the voices and ideas of anti-colonial thinkers and activists from the past century, she argues, that the violence of those artificial lines could one day be transcended.

Chloe Hadavas is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas

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