The Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan caught many people by surprise, perhaps including the Taliban themselves. However, it is not the country’s first episode of an unexpectedly quick military victory and consequent rapid change in regime. Historical examples may provide relevant lessons for the victorious Taliban as they begin to govern the country, including pitfalls to be avoided in their own and the nation’s interest.

The seal of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is painted on a wall around the former U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)
The seal of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is painted on a wall around the former U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Without going back to the 19th century or earlier, prominent examples in recent Afghan history include:

  • The April 1978 coup (famously termed the “accidental coup”), which unexpectedly brought small but tightly knit parties of Marxist-Leninist ideologues and pro-Soviet army officers into power. 
  • The Taliban sweep of most of Afghanistan in 1994-1997, taking Kandahar, Herat, Kabul and then in 1997 racing to the north and capturing Mazar-i-Sharif, before being pushed back and then resuming expansion to control 90 percent of Afghanistan’s territory by the end of the 1990s.
  • The surprisingly rapid and comprehensive defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, accomplished by a modest investment of U.S. airpower combined with Afghan anti-Taliban forces and very small numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, lubricated by liberal amounts of money. 

There are, for example, some striking similarities between what happened this year and in the Taliban’s 2001 defeat, though they were accomplished by different means. As with the current Taliban victory, the speedy, thorough defeat of the Taliban regime in 2001 surprised most observers. Following the initiation of U.S. airstrikes in October 2001, provinces and cities fell in quick succession, with Kandahar — the Taliban capital where they might have been expected to make a last stand — abandoned with little fighting in December 2001.

What lessons can be learned from these episodes of rapid victory and regime change in Afghanistan?

Resist overconfidence in the wake of an unexpectedly quick victory and avoid related overreach. All three of these speedy regime collapses led to unwarranted conclusions by the victors. Similar events earlier in Afghan history did, too, such as King Amanullah’s 1919 takeover and subsequent success against the British in the Third Afghan War, which possibly led to overreach in his westernization reforms and ultimately his toppling from power. The rapid and comprehensive defeat of the Taliban in 2001 not only gave rise to U.S. complacency about Afghanistan, which translated into less attention, priority, and resources in the early years, but also may have engendered overconfidence in the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which turned out to be extremely damaging to U.S. national interests.  

Don’t dissipate the victory through factional in-fighting. The PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) regime was plagued by tensions between its factions in the first several years after it came into power in the 1978 coup, including open violence and internecine assassinations of top leaders. The post-2001 Afghan government failed to build a broad and cohesive coalition and instead dissipated its political capital and eroded its strength as various leaders and groups jockeyed over positions, power and access to resources. This pattern persisted even in recent years, when the government faced existential threats related to Taliban expansion and the U.S. military withdrawal.

Understand the country you are taking over. In all three examples the new regime and its outside supporters showed limited understanding of ground realities in Afghanistan. The PDPA regime’s forced reforms — including an attempted comprehensive land reform and imposed changes in the role of women — gave rise to snowballing resistance and rebellion. The Taliban in the 1990s were insensitive to different ethnic groups’ perspectives and urban-rural differences. And the post-2001 international intervention brought with it a plethora of initiatives that did not factor in the Afghan context.

Afghanistan is now much more urbanized and educated than when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s. The roles and profiles of large numbers of Afghan women have greatly changed, and there is a huge youth bulge and generational shift in population. Not recognizing and adjusting at least partially to these changes and taking a regionally differentiated approach in line with local contexts could give rise to resistance and potential instability, as it did in the past.

Don’t expect the country to suddenly transform into your own ideal of what it should be. This mistake notably was made by the PDPA regime, with its coercive reform program, but also was evident in the other two episodes. Evolutionary change, not forced from the top but rather driven from the bottom up, has had a better chance of being sustainable. There is a need to maintain pragmatism and realistic expectations.

Avoid cycles of vengeance and reprisals. Settling scores and reciprocal atrocities, often spiraling out of control, began in earnest with mass arrests and executions by the PDPA regime when it came into power, followed by “scorched earth” practices against rural communities during the Soviet intervention in the 1980s. Subsequently, all sides to the conflict engaged in repeated cycles of tit for tat and targeted killings, as well as atrocities against opposing ethnic groups and tribes. After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, warlords took revenge against opponents, some — but far from all of them — associated with the Taliban. This aggravated grievances and led many to side with the Taliban. Similar behavior now would perpetuate cycles of violence and atrocities and undermine stability, as happened during the past 20 years.  

Don’t demonize and ostracize the losers. The failure to reach a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban in the aftermath of the 2001 victory over them reflected not just the counter-terrorism mentality of the time but also the arrogance and overreach of the victors. The U.S. government’s refusal to talk to the Taliban for many years — or allow the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban — was damaging to durable peace and stability in the country.

Rule by fear alone engenders further grievances and resistance. The PDPA regime in its early years was the most prominent example — though not the only one — of governing by the unrestrained use of force.

Reach accommodations with regional countries to discourage them from fomenting or supporting instability. There is ample scope for regional countries and other powers to intervene in various ways to protect their perceived self-interest in Afghanistan, if not actively destabilize the country. After 2001, Pakistan’s provision of sanctuary and support to the Taliban meant that a durable military victory over the Taliban was impossible. Pakistan and other countries’ support for the resistance against the PDPA regime and Soviet occupation similarly made stability impossible to achieve in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Focus on governance, deliver services and promote economic development. The post-2001 government achieved considerable success in service delivery with international support, evidenced by sharp improvements in human indicators such as infant and child mortality, life expectancy and educational attainment. Unfortunately, improved state capacity and effectiveness were accompanied by burgeoning corruption that undermined the government’s legitimacy. Maintenance of basic services to the Afghan people, payment of civil servants’ salaries (which the 1990s Taliban regime could not manage on a regular basis) and continuity of government functioning will be very important.

Maintain macroeconomic stability. The now-deposed Afghan government consistently focused on economic stabilization, starting with a successful currency reform during 2002-2003 and then regulating the Afghani money supply, containing inflation and managing the balance of payments, supported by large inflows of international assistance. With the notable exception of the Kabul Bank scandal (the worst single example of fraud and corruption in Afghan history), a functional banking system was established over time, having normal financial relationships with the rest of the world. In contrast, the PDPA regime in its later years and the 1990s Taliban government presided over hyperinflation that damaged the economy and undermined the credibility of both governments. A key lesson, therefore, is the need to effectively manage inflation and other key macroeconomic variables, ensure a serviceable banking system and the flow international financial transactions, and maintain good relations with multilateral financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.   

The Taliban have acknowledged that mistakes were made during their previous stint in power and that Afghanistan has changed since the 1990s. Whether these observations will effectively translate into action remains to be seen. Recent moves — including violent crackdowns on women protesters, brutality against journalists, the non-inclusive nature of the caretaker government, as well as reports of targeted reprisal killings — raise doubts.

Still, the Taliban do seem fully aware of the need to reach workable accommodations with neighboring countries. They have accepted many surrenders that were offered to them. Moreover, for the most part, they were able to avoid prolonged urban warfare in Kabul and other large cities, unlike what happened during the 1992-1994 mujahideen civil war when Kabul was largely destroyed and depopulated. A substantive dialogue on the lessons put forward here, as well as other possible ways to learn from Afghanistan’s history, is therefore worth pursuing.

However, we should be clear: The U.S. and international community lack standing to lecture the Taliban on lessons learned, given that the post-2001 U.S.-led international intervention itself failed to learn lessons from previous Afghan history and repeatedly made the same mistakes over the past 20 years.

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