The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northern Afghanistan once kept out the Taliban. Why has it fallen so quickly this time?

Political and ethnic tensions have fueled new discord — and the Taliban has capitalized on these grievances

Children displaced by fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban, including in many districts in northern Afghanistan, gather in a temporary shelter in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on July 27. (M Sadiq/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

After the United States and NATO began their final withdrawal in mid-April, the Taliban made advances in more than 100 districts, mostly in the north. The swift Taliban takeover of large swaths of northern Afghanistan stunned the Afghan public — and Washington. The Taliban now controls at least one-third of the country’s 400 districts, leaving many wondering if the Kabul government will fall.

The rapid collapse of the north is surprising because this region was a stronghold against the Taliban during its previous reign from 1996 to 2001. Yet, shortly after the July departure of most U.S. and NATO forces, much of the region fell to the militant group.

Why did the Taliban target the north, and why did it fall so quickly?

This was a calculated move

Capturing the north is a psychological blow to the government and constrains the Northern Alliance, a U.S.-allied group of warlords from this region that began fighting Soviet troops who invaded in 1979. The Northern Alliance was the most important source of resistance against the Taliban in the 1990s.

From a strategic perspective, this move severs the Northern Alliance from its traditional areas of domestic support and isolates the region from supply lines to Central Asia. This allows the Taliban to pressure larger population centers by threatening to cut them off from imported food supplies. And access to customs checkpoints gives the Taliban sources of revenue it can use to sustain its military campaign.

The Taliban isn’t the only challenge for the Afghanistan government

Although northern Afghanistan was relatively peaceful for many years after 2001, instability skyrocketed after 2014 for several reasons. First, 2014 marked the U.S. and NATO transition from combat operations to “advising and assisting” the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). At the same time, a major military campaign in neighboring Pakistan pushed Pakistani Taliban groups out of their country and into Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan.

Why did the north fall so easily?

These new groups who came to the north sought to transform the Taliban from a Pashtun-majority group to one that could attract non-Pashtuns as well. For years, Afghanistan’s multiethnic north, consisting primarily of Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen groups, resisted the Taliban, which began as a largely Pashtun movement. As the new groups moved in, this changed and more non-Pashtuns joined the Taliban.

Simultaneously, the north witnessed a rise in religious radicalization. For example, in the northern city of Kunduz an all-women’s madrassa preaching values sympathetic to the Taliban operated in broad daylight.

Third, in 2014 there was a hotly contested election between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, a Northern Alliance leader. Pashtuns supported Ghani, while northern communities stood behind Abdullah. The campaign period featured accusations of corruption, often along ethnic lines.

To resolve the electoral impasse, Secretary of State John F. Kerry brokered a political deal between the rivals, making Ghani president and Abdullah the “Chief Executive Officer.” The tense campaign and unclear roles created acrimony between the two leaders, fueling ethnic tensions across the country.

The U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan. Don’t expect an al-Qaeda reboot.

In Afghanistan’s 2019 election, a rematch between Ghani and Abdullah, these tensions continued. But many Afghans had become disillusioned with politics — and fearful about Taliban threats to disrupt the election. Only an estimated 19 percent of eligible voters turned out. A reelected Ghani moved to weaken his perceived rivals in the north, effectively sewing discord and creating an opening for the Taliban to exploit.

A heavy hand undermined confidence in Kabul

In addition to well-chronicled corruption, the government’s heavy-handedness, along with perceptions of ethnic and regional favoritism, undermined trust in Kabul. This opened fertile ground for the anti-government insurgency to grow in the north. Afghanistan’s highly centralized governance structure, which gives citizens little voice over local appointments or policies, compounded the discontent. The Taliban capitalized on these grievances by promising a more equitable system based on Islamic principles.

Ghani continued to consolidate power over his Northern Alliance rivals, many of whom maintained independent militias operating closely with warlord governors who are appointed by Kabul but have wide latitude to make local policy. Under one such governor, Attah Mohammed Noor, the northern province of Balkh and its capital, Mazar-e Sharif, transformed into one of the most prosperous parts of the country. To achieve this, Noor eschewed Kabul and pursued a more localized economic development strategy.

In 2017, Ghani fired Noor as governor, leaving the northern part of the country on the brink of civil war. Noor eventually resigned, but not without a standoff that almost led to military conflict between the government and commanders loyal to him.

This year saw violent protests in Faryab province, along Afghanistan’s northern border with Turkmenistan, after Kabul appointed a Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan as governor. Last month, shortly before the Taliban swept the north, there was a protest in Badakhshan. Government troops fired on protesters demanding electricity and clean drinking water, wounding 41 and killing five.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up here for our newsletter.

Is the future of Afghanistan in the hands of the Northern Alliance?

A humanitarian crisis has engulfed the north. According to the International Office of Migration, almost one-third of the population had migrated or was internally displaced because of fighting since 2013. In recent weeks, the Taliban marched across the north, promising safe passage to troops that surrendered. Many ANDSF units surrendered without fighting.

A northern stronghold gives the Taliban extraordinary bargaining power in negotiations with the government. If the Taliban continues to control roads in and out of large cities, they may be able to weaken urban resistance. Control over roads became even more important after the Afghan government lost much of its U.S. air support.

The remnants of the Northern Alliance are remobilizing under an umbrella it is calling Resistance II. Ahmad Massoud, the son of famed commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, is raising an army to defend northern towns from the Taliban. Resistance groups in Herat, on the Iranian border, are also fending off Taliban advances.

Ironically, the political survival of Ashraf Ghani may depend on the resurrection of the Northern Alliance as a fighting force against the Taliban — the same group Ghani spent years weakening.

Professors: Don’t miss TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (@jmurtazashvili) is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Center for Governance and Markets. She is co-author, with Ilia Murtazashvili, of “Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan” (Cambridge University Press, 2021); and author of “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).