Former Afghan Advisor: Biden’s Withdrawal Was the ‘Tipping Point’ for Afghanistan
Hamdullah Mohib, former Afghan national security advisor, spoke about what went wrong, who’s to blame, and what lies in store for his country.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed on Aug. 15, 2021, after senior leaders of the government, supported by the Western alliance for 20 years, climbed aboard helicopters and fled ahead of the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.
Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his closest advisors left behind one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world amid rumors they had personally pilfered millions of dollars meant for development. Afghanistan’s 40 million people now face hunger and destitution.
In 2019, Hamdullah Mohib, then-Afghanistan’s national security advisor, accused the United States of “selling out” after then-U.S. President Donald Trump opened a direct dialogue with the Taliban, sidelining the Afghan government, pledging a U.S. military withdrawal, and effectively sealing the Taliban’s victory in a February 2020 deal.
Since fleeing Afghanistan, Mohib has kept a low profile, exiled first in the United Arab Emirates and now, reunited with his family, in the United States. In a rare interview, Mohib told Foreign Policy why he thinks the republic collapsed, what went wrong, who is at fault, how things could have been different, and what Afghanistan’s future holds as economic and humanitarian catastrophes take hold.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: How do you assess the situation in Afghanistan?
Hamdullah Mohib: We had hoped to bring this decadeslong chapter of suffering to a peaceful end; it pains me that after over 40 years of war, the suffering of Afghans continues. Though the large-scale violence has [been] drastically reduced, it’s a dire humanitarian and economic situation overall. A lot of the rights and institutions we fought and worked for over the past 20 years have diminished. We are on the verge of economic collapse. We have lost political diversity and freedoms. Voices of opposition and civil society are being actively silenced. Media have largely been forced into self-censorship. The vibrant urban culture in Afghanistan’s major cities is disappearing. The country is fast becoming isolated as the world turns away from Afghanistan—as it has time and time again throughout our history. Against this backdrop, the future is uncertain.
FP: Why did the Taliban win?
HM: One major reason was a stark transition in U.S. foreign-policy priority, which originated during Trump’s administration and was executed in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
In 2001, the United States led a coalition in Afghanistan to eliminate security threats to its homeland and help install a government that would safeguard against future threats. As the U.S. pivoted to confront other threats—for example, those emanating from China and the cybersecurity space—and as each subsequent administration—[Barack] Obama, Trump, Biden—grew frustrated with what they saw reflected in the U.S. media as a “never-ending” war, Washington decided it needed to find a way to extract itself, to force an end to the war for themselves. Supporting engagement in Afghanistan was no longer a priority in their foreign-policy agenda. Perhaps they also thought they could achieve similar counterterrorism outcomes by investing more in other regional relationships.
We had consistently asked for a gradual withdrawal process that would allow us to properly prepare to fill gaps and shortcomings that would appear with a full U.S. withdrawal, but that did not happen. Whatever the reasons, and I am sure there are many, the United States did make that final decision in April 2021 during Biden’s administration to withdraw—at any cost—from Afghanistan. That announcement was a tipping point from which we were not able to recover. In the process, requiring guarantees from the Taliban seemed to become more of a priority than ensuring the survival of the Afghan republic.
Another major problem was confusion and mixed messages over who the enemy was that we were fighting. The government and people of Afghanistan, relegated to the sidelines of U.S.-Taliban negotiations, watched as the Taliban’s political legitimacy was quickly pumped up by what was unraveling in Doha, Qatar, from 2019 onwards. The United States, our key ally in the war against the Taliban, was making a deal with them that would allow Washington to end its war. The mixed messages coming from the United States created huge confusion and conflicting narratives within the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: America’s war with the Taliban would end, but it was clear to us the Taliban were set on military victory (which we had repeatedly warned of) and that our war with them would continue.
Just weeks before the collapse, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, was quoted by Afghan media as saying the fight was not worth dying for. Afghans heard that message. It was absorbed by Afghan society and recognized by the Afghan political class and military. Morale was at an all-time low. The perception of abandonment was heavily present. Uncertainty was out of control, and this had a very real impact on people and our soldiers. The Afghan economy and government were heavily dependent on U.S. and international support. As some reporting and research is showing now, there were a lot of deals being made at the local level and among power players, which led to some surrenders, some handovers, etc., and it was a domino effect to collapse.
FP: What role do you believe Pakistan played in the collapse?
HM: It is a well-known fact that the Taliban would not even exist had it not been for the nurturing support of Pakistan. There is ample evidence and literature about Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban. In Pakistan, the Taliban found a cooperative host that allowed them to openly and freely operate, organize, rally support, recruit, train, speak, raise funds, do business, procure arms, treat their wounded, house their families, and acquire residency and official documents for travel. The extent of this relationship has become even more obvious since the collapse. We repeatedly raised this issue, publicly and privately, but the ‘Pakistan question’ is even more of a foreign-policy conundrum for foreign capitals than [it was for] Afghanistan. I believe many countries did not even know how to handle it, so [they] chose instead to disregard Pakistan’s centrality to the problem. Some policies did not even incorporate Pakistan into the equation.
FP: How do you respond to accusations that Ghani, you, and the government generally were out of touch with the reality of what was happening in Afghanistan as the Taliban victory looked increasingly certain?
HM: I do not think we were out of touch with reality. There were multiple realities unraveling at an extremely fast pace across all provinces and districts of the country in those weeks before the collapse that we were juggling and trying to analyze to discern what would be the next best step to save the republic and prevent further bloodshed and displacement. Situations were changing at breathtaking speed down to that fateful moment on Aug. 15, 2021, when we felt we were left with no other option but to leave to prevent bloodshed on the streets of the capital and to remove the president from a likely assassination or kidnap scenario.
In retrospect, I believe that had we stayed and risked the president’s life and risked urban warfare in Kabul, that even if these two likely scenarios had not unraveled and a transfer deal would have gone through in the 11th hour, that it would have been, fundamentally, a thinly veiled surrender deal in which we, the Afghan republic, would have essentially granted legitimacy to a Taliban government. That would have been a terrible legacy, a betrayal of what we had stood for and fought for, and the greatest disservice to our national forces. I am not sure that it would have achieved some semblance of continued stable governance for Afghanistan either, as hoped for by the international community, or would have led us quickly to a civil war or another political collapse. The Americans were already slated to depart on Aug. 31, 2021, for good and not stay around to shepherd this proposed new government to stability, and I doubt the international community would have stayed engaged long enough to fill that role either.
FP: Are poverty and corruption a legacy of the failed republic? Are Afghanistan’s people now paying the price of your own inability—or unwillingness—to govern?
HM: Corruption and poverty have been long-standing, major problems for Afghanistan for years, and it’s something that Ghani’s government struggled with continuously. But it was also something Ghani tried to prioritize and combat in his reform agenda, with multiple legal reforms, including the country’s first anti-corruption law, consolidation of anti-corruption bodies, and the establishment of the first Anti-Corruption Justice Center to prosecute those accused of corruption, and implementing an online asset registry for government officials, to name a few efforts. If one actually looks back objectively at the figures recorded by the international organizations that monitor corruption, you will find statistical evidence that Afghanistan was making gradual improvements in curbing corruption.
There are many reasons for the problem of corruption, but I believe the problem is firmly rooted in 2001, when the international community dumped exorbitant amounts of unmonitored money into the country without channeling it through official institutions and then used it to buy political allegiances to achieve desired political outcomes, to cover up acts of impunity—the very same types of corrupt practices that 10 and 20 years later, the international community would then turn around and accuse Afghans of doing. This was the root of the problem—our institutions grew weaker because of it, our leaders grew expectant and reliant on it, and their constituents grew tolerant of it and played into it, seeing it as the new set of rules—and the problem became deeply ingrained. It will not go away so easily, and ultimately, it is the hard-working, average Afghan people who suffers the most for it.
The central problem is not only a tolerance for corruption within society but even the expectation of it. There were many times during my service in government where I was bluntly confronted with expectations that resources would be siphoned and doled out and that positions would be bartered for political gain from people who blindly assumed that I must be taking a piece of the pie, so why shouldn’t they? I witnessed on numerous occasions certain individuals speaking out against corruption publicly but, when given a chance, indulged in the same behavior they publicly condemned for their own personal gain.
FP: You and Ghani have been accused of stealing vast sums of money. Is this true?
HM: No, this is not true, and I reject, with deep disgust, accusations of corruption. I served my country with honesty and integrity. I believe people who know me and worked with me know this about me, even those who didn’t agree with me politically. And yes, I am already cooperating with those organizations that are investigating corruption allegations.
FP: Do you think the Taliban should be formally recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan? Should they have access to the country’s foreign reserves and development aid pledged earlier?
HM: I think there is a myth that formal recognition of the Taliban and release of reserves is what is preventing the Taliban from governing properly and relieving the country of its humanitarian and economic crisis. First of all, I don’t think it’s that simple of a fix. Second of all, there is already de facto recognition of the Taliban by many countries that are directly engaged with the Taliban, and some even have embassies in Kabul.
At the same time, I don’t believe the international community’s current approach is going to result in desired outcomes for the same reason it never did in the past. That approach currently is to leverage foreign aid and official recognition in hopes the Taliban will meet certain expectations on human rights, political freedoms, and counterterrorism.
When in office, I argued with our foreign allies who believed that aid money and official recognition could be leveraged to get desired outcomes from the Taliban. The Taliban are not a typical government. They were not elected by the people. They took over by military force. They will rule by force. They are, at their core, a rigid religious and ideological movement, not a political movement.
I argued then and I argue now that to deal effectively with the Taliban requires many in the international community to recalibrate their perspective and perceived understanding of the Taliban’s worldview, which is the jihadi worldview. As long as they are recognized by jihadi groups, the Taliban will have all the recognition they feel they need.
In the meantime, the Afghan people are the ones who continue to suffer from continued political failures. This is the ongoing tragedy of the Afghan people.
FP: If you could go back and have your time over, how would you do things differently?
HM: I am still contemplating my deepest regrets, and I have several.
First, creating a political consensus on the way forward was something that I had identified as a top national security priority in my first month as national security advisor in 2018. I believed that political cohesion was necessary to keep the security forces unified. We worked to bring several different leaders from different backgrounds and representations into the government and to work closely with and respectfully include the voices of those who remained outside of government. This became incredibly difficult to achieve during the 2019 presidential elections, which once again completely ruptured the work we had done on political cohesion. I believe that our inability to put national unity ahead of political rivalries and competition for power sources was one major reason we failed.
Second, there are some security matters about which I believe I should have been more assertive in expressing my divergent views. In late 2020 and 2021, I developed divergent views on the management of the security sector with [then-Afghan] Vice President Amrullah Saleh. The analysis and information he was providing directly to Ghani did not correspond with the information that the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) was receiving from the security ministries and the analysis produced by my own colleagues in the ONSC. The president was in a difficult place, where he received two different analyses. To resolve this, Ghani decided to directly chair security meetings, where security ministers, the vice president, myself, and others were present. I believe now that this approach further muddied the waters instead of its intended outcome to lead to decisive action and solid, cohesive decision-making.
Third, it was a mistake not to see the writing on the wall—that writing being the finality of Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally, at all costs, knowing that would mean the withdrawal of systems that enabled our military and resources that supported the republic and the economy and everything we had all invested in and sacrificed for over the past 20 years. To be clear, we were not unaware or in denial of the fact that the international community and Americans would withdraw; what we did not anticipate was a total, unconditional withdrawal at all costs with no transitional planning process.
As early as the first week of Biden’s presidency, I reached out to my counterpart in the U.S. administration. In our call, he assured me that the Biden administration would be reviewing the [Doha Agreement] and the conditions stated in it, that the Taliban would be held accountable to what they committed to in that deal, including a reduction in violence against Afghans and engaging earnestly in negotiations with Afghanistan’s delegation in Doha. These assurances were repeated to us consistently until April . We believed Biden would convene and respect the opinions of an interagency process. Recommendations made by the Afghanistan Study Group and others in the political establishment reflected the belief that a conditions-based approach needed to be pursued in negotiations with the Taliban, and we held that belief too. I believed in our partnership.
Though I am absolutely sure that the Afghan government would have been heavily criticized and demonized at the time had we chosen an alternate path, I have given thought to the argument that many have made, that perhaps cowing to U.S. demands to help facilitate a Taliban-dominant government while the republic still existed may have produced a better outcome for the Afghan people than what we have now. I am referring to opportunities over the past couple of years for the government to do so during the American negotiations with the Taliban and American efforts to push an interim government. Perhaps some of the democratic and security institutions would have been salvaged, but I do not think so. I think it is more likely that such a deal would have been fatally plagued by political disunity, fear, and mistrust, and it could have quickly spiraled into civil war.
FP: What are your plans now? Do you wish to return to a political, or any, role in Afghanistan?
HM: I am still contemplating and reflecting on the loss of not just the republic but our home, our purpose, our flag, and our country. It is the greatest tragedy of my life. I feel heavily my portion of the responsibility, and I am still processing it before taking any steps forward. I am focused now on stabilizing and providing for my family, reflecting, processing, learning, and moving forward. My goal is to continue to serve Afghans and Afghanistan and remain engaged in a constructive way, though not politically. I was active and engaged on Afghanistan even when I was a student in the United Kingdom. I will continue to be active and engaged with my country, and of course, one day I will go back to Afghanistan. It’s my country, and I will always be a citizen and a son of Afghanistan.