The War in Afghanistan: How did it go so wrong?

The War in Afghanistan: How did it go so wrong?

Plus: Uzbekistan all but halts exports of natural gas, Japan’s economy has unexpectedly shrunk, and last week’s Istanbul terror attack is bad for US-Turkish relations

Hi there Intriguer. COP27 ended yesterday with an agreement to help climate victims but not to phase out fossil fuels. We had planned to give you a summary of the conference today, but the talks ran a day longer than expected – be sure to check out tomorrow’s edition, where we’ll give you a rundown of the key takeaways.

Today’s briefing is a ~5.4 min read:

  • 🇦🇫 The War in Afghanistan: how did it go so wrong?
  • ➕ Plus: Uzbekistan all but halts exports of natural gas, Japan’s economy has unexpectedly shrunk, and why the Istanbul terror attack is bad for US-Turkish relations.

📆 Scheduling note: We’re taking a break this Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving in the US, but we’ll be back in your inbox next Monday.


Why democracy failed in Afghanistan

In brief:

  • According to experts and non-experts alike, the 20-year War in Afghanistan was a failure for the US and its allies.
  • A new US government report identifies six points of failure that hastened the Taliban’s return to power.

Taliban fighters in the Presidential Place in Kabul on 15 August last year. Source: AP.

The war on terror

It’s been a little more than a year since the United States and its allies ended their 20-year war in Afghanistan. The war ended as it started – with the Taliban in control of the government in Kabul.

  • ~70,000 Afghan security forces, 50,000 Taliban, 46,000 Afghan civilians and 3,500 allied troops died.
  • In total, the US spent $2.3T over their 20 years in Afghanistan.

Why the Afghan government collapsed

The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report last week on “Why the Afghan Government Collapsed”. We’ve briefly summed up the key findings:

1. 🏗️ Failure to prepare

Each US President promised to draw down US forces and end the war, only to then reaffirm America’s commitment and increase troop levels.

  • Even President Trump’s withdrawal agreement with the Taliban “left open the possibility that the United States would not leave Afghanistan until all the agreement’s conditions were met.”

So, when President Biden announced in April 2021 that US forces would officially withdraw, Afghan officials failed to prepare for the transition.

2. ❌ Afghans excluded

When talks began between the Taliban and the United States in 2018, representatives from the Afghan government were left out. According to Hugo Llorens, former US special chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan:

“Just talking to the Taliban alone and excluding our allies proved the Taliban’s point: The Afghan government were our puppets, you didn’t need to talk to them. You only need to talk to the Americans.”

3. 💭 Wishful thinking from senior leaders

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wanted to integrate the Taliban into Afghanistan’s nascent democratic system, even as the Taliban continued to violate ceasefire agreements.

  • In a sign of just how out of touch Ghani was, he was calling for elections in April 2021, just four months before he fled the country when Kabul fell.

4. 🙅 No compromises 

The Taliban did not negotiate in good faith.

Though negotiators feigned interest in finding a political solution, top Taliban leaders were committed to a decisive military victory that would drive Western powers out of the country.

5. ⬇️ Inappropriate leadership style

As soon as he won office in 2014, President Ghani centralised power and insulated himself from criticism.

  • He marginalised rural powerbrokers whose support he most needed and who were most likely to defect to the Taliban.
  • The Ghani government’s isolation from local leaders also disadvantaged Afghan military commanders.

6. 💰 Corruption 

Western governments pumped a lot of money into the Afghan economy to prop up the government and to ensure Afghanistan’s power brokers didn’t undermine democracy-building efforts.

  • That money played straight into the Taliban’s hands, who had little trouble painting Ghani’s government as corrupt, ungodly, and working for Western interests.

According to the SIGAR report:

“Efforts to build Western-style governance institutions and populate them with the heads of preexisting patronage networks simply empowered malign actors, some of whom had been deposed by the Taliban in the 1990s to widespread cheers.”

Extra credit

If you’re interested in the lessons of Afghanistan, we highly recommend checking out the new National Geographic documentary Retrograde, which examines the last few months of the war.


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North & Central Asia

🇦🇿 Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan will become the first majority-Shia Muslim country to open an embassy in Israel.

  • The timing is no coincidence: Israel’s top adversary, Iran, opened a consulate last month in Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan fought a protracted war in 2020.

🇯🇵 Japan

Japan’s economy unexpectedly shrunk in the third quarter as consumers contend with a cost of living crisis.

  • Between July and September 2022, Japan’s GDP decreased by 1.2% compared to the same period last year.

🇰🇵 North Korea

North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday a mere 200 kilometres off the coast of Japan.

  • The test missile, known as the ​​Hwasong-17, is believed to be among the most powerful in Pyongyang’s arsenal, with a range of 15,000 kilometres.

🇰🇷 South Korea

South Korea and Saudi Arabia have signed a series of deals worth $30B covering everything from gaming to hydrogen.

  • The investment agreements were signed during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Seoul.

🇺🇿 Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has dramatically reduced its natural gas exports to deal with surging energy demand.

  • Uzbekistan is forecast to export ~3.3 billion cubic meters of gas in 2022, mainly to China and other Central Asian countries.

What we know about the Turkey terror attack

Turkish police quickly identified a suspect in the bombing in Istanbul earlier this month. Credits: NYT.

The news: Six people died in a bombing along a busy Istanbul street last week, in what Turkish authorities have now labelled a terror attack.

  • Several suspects, including a Syrian woman who officials accused of planting the bomb, have since been apprehended.

Pointing fingers: Turkish authorities blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a nationalist militia that operates throughout eastern Turkey, northern Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

  • The PKK has denied responsibility insisting they “do not directly target civilians”.

The attack could have two significant consequences:

1. Expect Turkey to crack down on Kurdish armed factions

Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened a military incursion into Kurdish-held territory in Syria.

  • Last week’s attack will probably elicit a harsh response from Ankara.

2. Turkey’s likely reaction will complicate its relationships with the US

The US enlisted the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a Kurdish group that is closely aligned with the PKK, during its campaign against ISIS in Syria.

  • Shortly after last Monday’s explosion, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu suggested that the US shared some of the blame for emboldening Kurdish groups:

“We do not accept the US embassy’s message of condolences. We reject it.” 


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