The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. troops depart a dramatically changed Afghanistan after 2 weeks of chaos and 20 years of war

A U.S. military plane takes off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 30, 2021. (Wali Sabawoon/AP)

When the final U.S. troops departed Afghanistan just before midnight Monday, they left behind a country that looked unimaginably different than it did just weeks before.

The U.S.-backed government was no more, after its leaders slipped away along with the U.S.-trained security forces as the Taliban completed a near-total takeover. Banks and shops were closed, and a deep fear rippled through the country. Day after day, panicked mobs besieged Kabul’s airport, desperate to get out.

In the chaos, a brazen attack by a local affiliate of the Islamic State killed nearly 200 people, heralding a new era of international terrorism, which U.S. troops had been sent to Afghanistan to quash two decades before.

U.S. departs Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war

Now, with the final evacuation flights having departed, the United States has relinquished its remaining corner of Afghanistan to Taliban control, acquiescing to the Islamist militants' demands that all troops be gone by Tuesday, as President Biden had pledged, even though that meant leaving thousands of desperate, would-be evacuees behind.

Meanwhile, Afghans are waiting anxiously for whatever lies ahead, wondering what Taliban-dominated rule will mean for their freedoms, their livelihoods and their relations with the outside world. The country’s economy is plummeting by the day, and aid groups warn that a humanitarian crisis is brewing in the impoverished nation of 37 million unless foreign assistance resumes.

“For weeks now, the country has had no government, no armed forces, no system, no salaries, no leaders,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief, who fled to Uzbekistan after the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15. “The vacuum only adds to public confusion and endangers the hope for positive change.”

Over the past two decades, Kabul was transformed from a run-down, war-ravaged city to a modern capital, with high-rise condominiums and elaborate wedding halls, Internet cafes and beauty parlors, ATMs and mobile phone shops everywhere. Men and women mingled on college campuses and worked side by side in banks. Today, many people are lying low at home, and posters of women outside beauty parlors have been defaced.

Fear and anticipation on the streets of Kabul as Afghans adapt to Taliban rule

The Taliban's intentions are still far from clear, and its talks with Afghan officials about forming an inclusive interim government have progressed awkwardly. Senior Taliban leaders, cognizant of their need for international aid and support, if not full recognition, insist they have changed since their repressive five-year rule in the 1990s, pledging not to persecute civilians or confine women to their homes.

But the group’s tough young fighters, suddenly assigned to patrol the capital as deputized police, have beaten people trying to reach the airport. Worse abuses have been reported in the countryside. And Taliban leaders have barred most women from work and school, though explaining that this is because their underlings have not been taught how to behave “kindly” with them.

The country is also battered and exhausted from years of war, which has exacted a heavy toll in casualties and other costs. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan, including the 13 who died Thursday in a suicide bombing while providing security for evacuation flights. At least 48,000 Afghan civilians, 66,000 Afghan defense personnel and 51,000 opposition fighters have also been killed as a direct result of the conflict.

Demands on American forces became heavier each year as the war dragged on with no end in sight. Thousands of enlisted personnel were required to serve in repeated deployments. Nearly 800,000 U.S. troops rotated through Afghanistan at least once, and nearly 30,000 saw at least five deployments, according to Pentagon data provided to The Washington Post.

The U.S. military role was often controversial in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, who served as president from 2002 to 2014, stoked domestic antipathy by accusing foreign forces of occupying the country and blaming U.S. airstrikes for killing civilians. Public resentment showed in several protests and riots, one after a traffic accident in Kabul in 2006 and another in 2012 over allegations that Korans had been thrown out and burned at Bagram air base.

Even after 2014, when a majority of U.S. combat troops pulled out, thousands of service members remained as trainers and advisers in a continuing effort to build a modern, professional Afghan military and police corps. In the end, though, that long and costly effort proved to have been in vain. Afghan forces were demoralized by neglect, corruption and ethnic bias among their superiors. Often they went without pay and ammunition, and sometimes without rations.

“If there is a stalemate, the question is why and how it can be improved,” the U.S. special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, John Sopko, told The Washington Post in 2017. “The why is corruption, the why is poor leadership,” he said. “If leadership is poor, the people below don’t care, and they wonder why they have to die.”

The demoralization intensified after the Trump administration, tired of protracted peace talks and eager to get out of a distant quagmire, signed a bilateral pact with the Taliban in early 2020. In return for a total U.S. withdrawal within 14 months, the deal called for the insurgents to cut ties with Islamist terrorist groups. It also led to the release of some 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison. To many Afghans, the pact seemed like a sellout.

By then, three administrations in Washington had spent huge sums — an average of $500 million in assistance per year — to help build a new country, modeled after Western institutions and rights, from the ashes of successive failures under Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban religious oppression.

Much had been accomplished, from surging enrollment in girls schools to widespread electrical power and cellphone access in once-isolated rural regions. There were projects to reduce opium poppy cultivation, promote women’s rights and hold credible elections. And year after year, the United States covered nearly three-quarters of public salaries, from teachers to traffic police.

But both the war and peace talks remained at a stalemate, and when Biden reached the White House, he decided it was time to cut American losses and turn to more pressing foreign concerns. In May, having rejected advice from U.S. military leaders to keep a sizable force in Afghanistan, Biden suddenly announced that all U.S. forces would leave by Sept. 11, then moved the date up to Aug. 31. Afghans, he said firmly, would have to determine their own future.

After that, the gradual drip of diminishing U.S. commitment became a more deliberate and urgent effort. American bases were stripped of equipment, and dozens of military cargo planes carried it away. Then, on July 1, U.S. military officials surreptitiously abandoned Bagram air base, the vast compound that had been the nerve center of the war effort for years, without informing some of their Afghan counterparts.

For Afghan forces, this meant diminished U.S. combat airstrikes that had been critical to the ground war. For the Taliban, it meant an opportunity to spring into action, pact or no pact. By late June, the militants had launched a fast-moving offensive across northern Afghanistan, overrunning province after province. Afghan troops, seeing no reason to die or sold out by their leadership, turned over their weapons and surrendered by the thousands as the Taliban gained territory and psychological momentum.

The Taliban momentum kept building in early August. Within little more than a week, its fighters overran Afghanistan's three largest provincial capitals and were poised to enter Kabul. On Sunday, Aug. 15, they paused at the city gates and then entered, encountering almost no resistance. Just weeks before, U.S. intelligence officials had estimated that the government of President Ashraf Ghani would survive for at least another six months. But by that Sunday, Ghani had secretly fled the country.

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“We knew if they took Kandahar, they could reach Kabul the next day, but we believed the Americans when they said they would never let the Taliban take the capital,” said Haroun Mir, a former adviser to onetime vice president Amrullah Saleh. Mir was evacuated from his government office and flown to France. “But it turned out the Americans were not prepared either. They had stopped doing air raids, and the Taliban didn’t even have to fight. They had all the momentum.”

Now, the Taliban appears to be trying to restore order to the city, and its leaders are interacting regularly with senior Afghan political figures, including former president Hamid Karzai and Ghani’s former chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah.

But Thursday’s suicide bombing, which was claimed by a regional affiliate of the Islamic State, has thrust the Taliban and the United States into an awkward anti-terrorism partnership and has already resulted in the United States carrying out two counterterrorism strikes against suspected Islamic State targets inside Afghanistan. The United States has said it will continue to conduct counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State after the withdrawal.

While Biden has decided to withdraw all diplomatic personnel, the administration may now need to remain closely engaged with Kabul’s new leaders against a common enemy.

“President Biden, like President Trump before him, came to see Afghanistan as a problem to be gotten rid of because it had become too costly to solve,” said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, who was evacuated from Kabul to Istanbul last week. “Now, it seems, not only did the U.S. fail to get rid of the problem, it is likely to be dragged back into it for a long time to come.”