A new book details the interaction between President Reagan and Afghan leader Najibullah, a complicated relationship where both sides attempted to outwit each other. The U.S.-backed government had been in power for just over three years when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, starting nearly 25 years of conflict with America’s Cold War rival that would ultimately end with their withdrawal from Syria last year.

How the Taliban Outwitted and Outwaited the U.S.

In December 2012, Taliban members and officials from the US-backed Afghan republic convened in a château north of Paris for a secret meeting, increasing expectations for a peace accord to end their intractable conflict.

The Taliban, whose warriors had been driven back by President Obama’s military surge, dined alongside Afghan warlords, civil society activists, and female MPs on pork-free French cuisine. The delegates delivered a message on behalf of the movement’s founder, the one-eyed cleric Mullah Mohammad Omar, during a ceremonial meeting in the Chantilly hideout.

According to the text, the Taliban would no longer attempt to rule Afghanistan on their own, and a new constitution will “pave the way for power-sharing in the future administration.” When the republic’s delegates returned to Kabul, many were impressed with how much the Taliban had progressed since the vicious government that controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban lulled the world with conciliatory propaganda for the following nine years while waging a deadly war at home and pursuing diplomatic attempts to accomplish their ultimate goal: an American military pullout.

“The tale of power monopoly is one of failure. That is why, six weeks before the Taliban invaded Kabul, ousted the Afghan republic, and monopolized all authority, Suhail Shaheen, now the Taliban’s ambassador-designate to the United Nations, stated in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Previous experiences have demonstrated that you will eventually fail and will not be able to achieve long-term serenity.”

Afghanistan has withstood foreign efforts to transform the country throughout its history, from the British Empire in the 19th century through the Soviet occupation in the 1980s to the disastrous American nation-building project.

The Taliban’s mastery of the diplomatic long game is shown by an investigation of why US peace attempts failed so miserably, putting the Biden presidency and America’s global status in jeopardy.

The speed of these discussions was accelerated by America’s growing dissatisfaction with its longest foreign conflict, which removed one by one the Taliban’s incentives to yield. According to Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as senior US negotiator under both administrations, “the focus was to get out, not the Afghan solution” for both Presidents Biden and Trump. “They made it clear—and the Talibs were reinforced as a result.”

In order to get out, US officials decided to depict the Taliban in the best possible light while embellishing the power of the Afghan republic they had created. Recognizing this opportunity, the Taliban leadership learnt how to hide their actual aims behind soothing rhetoric that appealed to Western diplomats and negotiators.

The issue today is whether Western countries can learn from their mistakes in order to persuade the Islamist movement to embrace more moderate views. The Taliban, based on past experience, are unlikely to surrender long-held traditions for Western funding and a role in the international community.

Part current and former US and Afghan officials think the Taliban they talked with were earnest, and that a negotiated settlement might have maintained at least some of the gains made during the 20-year international effort in Afghanistan. They say that President Ashraf Ghani’s intransigence sabotaged these attempts and encouraged the Taliban’s most hardline members.

Afghanistan’s military forces crumbled in August after losing American backing, enabling the Taliban to take virtually all of the country’s provincial capitals and reach the outskirts of Kabul in little over a week. After Mr. Ghani departed the nation on Aug. 15, the remaining government institutions collapsed, rendering US-backed negotiations on a peaceful transition meaningless.

“The tale of power monopoly is one of failure. That is why we need everyone on board.” Suhail Shaheen (Suhail Shaheen)

“The tale of power monopoly is one of failure. That is why we need everyone on board.” Suhail Shaheen (Suhail Shaheen)

The new Afghan administration, which took office in September, is nearly entirely made up of Taliban clerics who have played a key role in the fight. While the new regime has so far refrained from openly hosting terrorist groups or committing the kinds of atrocities that have drew international condemnation in the past, it has already severely restricted women’s rights, banned girls’ education beyond the sixth grade in most provinces, and marginalized ethnic groups that aren’t part of its Pashtun power base.

The new Taliban government is seeking diplomatic recognition, the lifting of American sanctions, and the unfreezing of almost $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets overseas in ongoing negotiations with the US and allies in Doha, Qatar. One of Washington’s main requirements is the establishment of a more inclusive administration in Kabul that respects human rights and fulfills commitments made by the Taliban since Chantilly.

“Before seeking international recognition, the Taliban administration should seek legitimacy inside Afghanistan,” said Thomas West, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, who is spearheading these negotiations.

The Journey to Doha

After a US assault deposed their government in 2001, the Taliban wanted to engage with Washington and other Afghans. Afghanistan’s new leader, Hamid Karzai, was appointed by the United States and wanted the Islamist movement to attend the Bonn conference that year, which formed the country’s new political system. The idea was blocked by Washington, which was still traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks, which Osama bin Laden orchestrated on Afghan territory. U.S. special operations soldiers and the Central Intelligence Agency tracked out potential Taliban negotiators and sent them to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

As the Taliban recovered over the next decade, American and partner views about confronting them shifted. By 2009, the Taliban had retaken control of huge swaths of Afghanistan’s countryside. Mr. Obama increased the US military commitment in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000 soldiers, intending to begin removing all American forces 18 months later.

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Fatima Gailani, a member of the Afghan republic’s Doha-based negotiation delegation.

Taliban commanders refused to meet down with Mr. Karzai’s government when Washington was ready to engage, rejecting it as an American puppet with no authority or agency of its own. Mr. Karzai, for one, objected to the US holding discussions with the Taliban without the participation of the Afghan republic’s democratically elected government. The Obama administration agreed not to debate Afghanistan’s future without Kabul, but it did support the concept of establishing a Taliban political mission outside of Afghanistan to promote diplomatic ties.

Negotiating tactical agreements, such as releasing five top Taliban commanders who had spent more than a decade at Guantánamo in return for the Taliban giving up Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier who strayed off his post and was seized by the militants, helped the US and the Taliban develop confidence. In 2013, Taliban representatives, some of whom had lived in Doha for years, legally established a political office there.

While the Taliban continued to avoid direct discussions with the Kabul government, its envoys in Doha started to meet with members of the Afghan republic’s political elites in a series of so-called track-two meetings. Similar conferences were held in Europe, Russia, and China after the Chantilly meeting.

The Taliban’s headquarters in Doha, as well as its members’ immunity from UN travel prohibitions, has enabled the insurgent organization to reach out to governments all over the globe, garnering increasing respect as a legitimate political party.

“One of the reasons the Taliban outsmarted the Americans is that they established relations with the entire world while negotiating with the Americans—something the Americans didn’t want to happen,” said Rahimullah Mahmood, a veteran insurgent commander who served as governor of Wardak province following the Taliban takeover and is now deputy head of the Kandahar-based military corps. “They were successful in persuading the rest of the world that the Taliban were not the terrorists represented by American propaganda.”

In 2018, President Trump, a vocal opponent of the Afghan war, dropped the long-held requirement that the US only engage in discussions with the Taliban if the Afghan republic’s government was also present. Mr. Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Kabul and the UN, has been named as a special envoy with broad powers to negotiate a solution.

Mr. Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan in 1951, has known Mr. Ghani since they were both high school exchange students in the United States. Mr. Khalilzad attended the American University of Beirut and got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, while Mr. Ghani attended Columbia University. Mr. Khalilzad’s ties to the Taliban extend back to the 1990s, when he worked as a consultant for the Unocal oil corporation, which was looking into constructing a pipeline across Afghanistan.

“His goal was to find out a way for us to depart fast and maybe zero out the force while still being able to call it a triumph,” a senior State Department source engaged in the endeavor said. “And it wasn’t necessarily clear that those things were almost invariably mutually incompatible.”

These conversations disturbed Mr. Ghani, a former American citizen who replaced Mr. Karzai as president in 2014. He bragged to other Afghan officials about his mastery of American politics, as co-author of “Fixing Failed States” and a former fixture of Washington’s think-tank circuit. However, he and top members in his government misinterpreted American intentions until it was too late, believing that Washington would never truly pull the plug on Kabul.

After all, the US had been discussing leaving Afghanistan for more than a decade. “There was this sense of Afghanistan being a unique geographical position that will always be an area of interest for world powers,” said Nader Nadery, the civil service chief of the fell country. “Until recently, several of our colleagues assumed that the US soldiers would never depart.”

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President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan misinterpreted American intentions until it was too late.

FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, KIANA HAYERI

Mr. Khalilzad, who left the US administration in October, agreed that “they were living in an impossible reality” in Kabul. “That was the colossal blunder.”

Mr. Khalilzad noted that the notion that America’s national-security establishment would not allow Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden to depart Afghanistan was paired with another strategic blunder: overconfidence in the Afghan republic’s own military capabilities. “They didn’t properly analyze their troops.” I’m not sure any of them expected the force to disintegrate so swiftly at the senior level.”

Mr. Ghani slowed down peace discussions between the Afghan republic and the Taliban on a prospective power-sharing arrangement as a result of these two miscalculations, which would have forced him to resign. It’s uncertain how much the Taliban would have been willing to give up. However, when the militants gained significant military ground, their calculations shifted. Over the months in Doha, talks shifted from hypothetical power-sharing to exploring a “inclusive government” controlled by the Taliban to effectively a Taliban surrender.

“Ghani was not flexible, and that is why we are in this terrible scenario,” said Habiba Sarabi, a former governor of Bamian province and a member of the Afghan republic’s negotiation team with the Taliban. “His mindset was that if the Taliban joined his administration, he would rise to the top.” In a peace process, this was not feasible. He was a power freak. He was insanely obsessed with power.”

Ms. Sarabi, who, like most of the Afghan republic’s leading officials and negotiators, is now in exile, adding that Mr. Khalilzad bears some responsibility since he repeatedly emphasized the Taliban’s claimed moderation and desire in a peaceful transition. “He wanted to sugarcoat the almond,” says the narrator. “However, the bitter taste emerged in the end,” she said.

“They were living in an impossible environment in Kabul.” That was the colossal blunder.” Zalmay Khalilzad (Zalmay Khalilzad)

“They were living in an impossible environment in Kabul.” That was the colossal blunder.” Zalmay Khalilzad (Zalmay Khalilzad)

Mr. Khalilzad, who argued in a 1996 op-ed that “the Taliban does not practice the anti-US type of fundamentalism,” said he trusted in the sincerity of Taliban negotiators and that the failure to reach a political solution was due to both sides’ faults. He stated, “They didn’t rise to the occasion.” “I couldn’t criticize one side for being more responsible than the other.”

Is it better to withdraw or to make peace?

Mr. Khalilzad required a Taliban partner with sufficient seniority to begin real discussions. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar matched the description. He was a co-founder of the Islamist group, served as the previous Taliban regime’s deputy minister of defense, and coordinated the insurgency’s leaders following the US invasion. Mr. Baradar, a relative pragmatist, had attempted to initiate discussions with the United States in 2001 and had covert meetings with Mr. Karzai’s administration in 2010. Mr. Baradar, one of the few top Taliban militants from the same aristocratic Popolzai clan as Mr. Karzai, was caught in Karachi by Pakistani and US operatives later that year and has been held in Pakistani prison since.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a trip to Islamabad in September 2018 to advocate for Pakistan’s assistance and Mr. Baradar’s release. Pakistan agreed, and Mr. Baradar flew to Doha a few weeks later to become the Taliban’s political director. Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s clandestine supreme commander who has never been seen in public, gave his permission to the talks.

The negotiations were hampered from the outset by Mr. Trump’s desire to bring the soldiers home. American negotiators said they awoke every morning terrified of seeing “the tweet of Damocles,” in which Mr. Trump might declare an unconditional withdrawal.

As American and Taliban envoys worked out a settlement in Doha, US Ambassador to Kabul John Bass lobbied Mr. Ghani for months to appoint a wide negotiation team that would be ready to start Kabul’s own talks with the Taliban. The Afghan president rejected, refusing to give up control of the process to anybody other than his government.

“President Ghani’s negotiating model—and this was the source of his dissatisfaction—was that he should be the one dealing with Hibatullah. Mr. Khalilzad said, “That he would carry his laptop under his arm, sit with Hibatullah, and negotiate a deal.” “Of course, it was never going to be feasible.”

Mr. Khalilzad’s team had worked out the main elements of the accord with Mr. Baradar in Qatar by the summer of 2019. The Taliban then abruptly changed tactics and requested prisoner releases, a significant concession. To end the impasse, the US gave up and agreed to a condition requiring Kabul to release up to 5,000 Taliban detainees held in Afghan custody. Mr. Ghani was permitted to see the draft text but was not permitted to retain a copy. He was also denied access to the agreement’s classified annexes.

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Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second from right, was the Taliban’s pragmatic point man in discussions with the United States.

A vehicle bomb exploded between the US Embassy and Afghan security facilities in Kabul, killing 12 people, including a US soldier, as preparations for Mr. Trump’s big signing ceremony around the September 11th anniversary were underway. The Taliban took credit for the attack. Mr. Trump, enraged, tweeted that he had “called off” discussions with the Islamist organization and canceled arrangements for a meeting in Camp David with Taliban officials and Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Ghani was encouraged by the apparent U-turn and hoped that Mr. Trump’s haste to the exits would now be curtailed. His national-security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, charged that the United States was “whitewashing the Taliban” because it was weary of the war and asked for a re-evaluation of the agreement. The peace negotiator, Mr. Nadery, was less enthusiastic. He binge-watched a Netflix series on the collapse of South Vietnam that September, observing that the US had kept the government in Saigon, as well as the government in Kabul, in the dark.

Mr. Trump’s then-national security advisor, John Bolton, had a similar viewpoint in Washington. “We were essentially selling out the government.” Mr. Bolton, who resigned the following month over disputes with Mr. Trump over Afghanistan strategy, used the Vietnam parallel. “Everyone, every other interested party could see that the primary US goal was to get out in both situations.”

The suspension was short-lived. Mr. Trump insisted on leaving Afghanistan before the presidential elections in the United States. Within weeks, US officials began negotiations to trade two American University in Kabul professors held captive by the Taliban for Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy commander Sirajuddin, who was being detained by the Afghan government. Because of its ties to al Qaeda, the US has labeled the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization since 2012.

By February 2020, the Taliban had agreed to a temporary cease-fire as a gesture of goodwill, and Mr. Trump had given his approval to the agreement. Even though the Taliban made no pledge to discontinue combat activities against Afghan government and security services, it was dubbed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.”

The United States offered a complete military departure by May 2021 in return for the Taliban promising not to use Afghan land to threaten other countries. In a dramatic shift, the Taliban decided to begin peace negotiations with Mr. Ghani’s administration. Because Washington didn’t want to offer Mr. Ghani a lever to delay down the exit, the US withdrawal was not predicated on the completion of these discussions.

On February 29, 2020, Mr. Pompeo travelled to Doha for the signing ceremony. The Taliban held a triumph march with the white flags of their Islamic Emirate minutes before his arrival in Qatar, raising worries among Qatari hosts that the humiliation might kill the accord at the last minute. The Qataris were ready to stop the Taliban from bringing their banners inside the luxurious Sheraton resort. Representatives of the insurgency abandoned them in their trucks.

After officials tried to separate Mr. Baradar from the Taliban in the room, Mr. Pompeo sadly shook hands with him. Mr. Khalilzad signed for the United States, as Mr. Pompeo offered a solemn statement to media in a separate room. Mr. Khalilzad’s crew was happy that the day had gone well, and they partied till late in Doha, sipping pricey drinks.

Mr. Ghani originally opposed the Doha agreement’s pledge by Kabul to free thousands of Taliban detainees, which was made without his consent by the US. He also continued to defy American demands to form a negotiation team that included his political opponents in Kabul, such as Mr. Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, his presidential candidate in 2019. After all, any power-sharing agreement with the militants would be conditional on Mr. Ghani stepping aside. Instead of stepping down, the Afghan president hoped that Washington would reconsider the pullout decision, particularly if Mr. Trump lost his re-election attempt.

When asked what the Afghan government’s worst mistake was, Mr. Mohib, who served as Mr. Ghani’s national-security advisor until both men departed Kabul on Aug. 15, said, “We, the Afghan government, should have seen the writing on the wall.” “It wasn’t a peace treaty; it was a retreat.” Democratic principles were not as important as we had assumed. The improvements of the previous 20 years were not as important as we had anticipated.”

The Doha agreement displeased Taliban military leaders as well. Mullah Mohammad Fazel, a Taliban negotiator and one of the five former Guantánamo detainees released in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl, flew from Qatar to a conference with insurgent leaders from around Afghanistan to clarify the deal’s parameters.

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Mullah Mohammad Fazel, who served 12 years in Guantánamo, became a Taliban negotiator following his release.

According to others there, several of the guys wearing the Taliban’s black turbans and beards thought the deal was stupid. How could they have believed that the US would leave Afghanistan the next year? Why should they cease attacking American soldiers if Washington has the power to carry out airstrikes on them?

Mr. Mahmood, then the military leader of the Taliban’s eastern zone, who attended the meeting in Helmand province’s Musa Qala region, stated, “During the conversations, many were arguing that the Americans were fooling us, that it was all a trap for us.” “A large number of military officers wanted to resume assaults against Americans. The suicide bombers were especially depressed: they grieved and lamented the fact that they would not be martyred.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Mahmood said, the Taliban political negotiators’ argument that Washington would follow through on its Doha vows and withdraw from Afghanistan won out in the end. He returned to his men with the word, “It’s a victory treaty.”

The Taliban’s publicity department then released a calendar for the Islamic year 1442, which begins in August 2020. It depicted an American and a Taliban hand signing the Doha agreement, which was characterized as “the agreement to terminate the invasion,” and Afghanistan breaking free from foreign domination. Mr. Hibatullah, the Taliban’s ultimate commander, was quoted as saying, “We don’t want the monopoly on power.”

Drawdown

Mr. Trump became frustrated with the lack of progress in Afghanistan ahead of the US presidential election, and in June he ordered a new military pullback to 4,500 soldiers, with no concessions from the Taliban.

Except for suspending assaults on American forces, the Taliban had not delivered on any of its key pledges at that moment. They are still refusing to meet with a representative from the Afghan administration. Mr. Baradar offered verbal pledges to US negotiators that violence would cease as soon as the 5,000 Taliban captives were released, in an attempt to break the impasse.

Mr. Khalilzad, bolstered by Mr. Baradar’s guarantee of a near-complete cease-fire, wrote a cable to Washington. Mr. Ghani received the message from Ross Wilson, who had taken over as the chief US ambassador in Kabul. Mr. Wilson said that the promised cease-fire “was part of our selling of what was a very tough choice for legitimate reasons.” Mr. Ghani reluctantly agreed to a phased release of prisoners in return for the Taliban releasing 1,000 government workers held in their captivity.

After the release, Taliban and Afghan republic negotiators met at Doha’s Sharq Village resort for their own peace talks in September 2020. The club was built around a big seaside pool where bikini-clad visitors lounged while listening to loud pop music that filtered into the rooms of Taliban negotiators. Kabul instructed Afghan republic representatives to keep away from the pool to avoid making unpleasant headlines. The Taliban were unable of swimming.

Breakfast was held in different halls for the two sides, and they seldom interacted. Key Taliban negotiators, who had lived in Qatar for many years and had families and companies there, only visited the Sharq Village on rare occasions.

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Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai led the Afghan government’s delegation to Doha to negotiate with the Taliban.

As the two Afghan teams started their talks, a US military team in Afghanistan watched the level of violence to see whether the Taliban were sticking to Mr. Baradar’s promises. Instead, the team discovered an increase in rebel assaults. During frequent discussions with the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and other US government agencies, US Army Col. Brad Moses, who served as deputy to the US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, was informed on the frightening statistics on rising violence.

“It never went down,” he said. When presented with facts, the Taliban would claim to the US that the assaults were carried out by spoilers or criminals, he claimed.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government ordered its soldiers stationed in remote bases and outposts to halt offensive operations and engage in “active defense” during the discussions. According to Lt. Gen. Imam Nazar Behboud, commander of the Afghan army’s Kandahar corps, the militants gained a crucial edge because of the loss of initiative.

“All you had to do now was stand there and wait for the Taliban to strike.” You simply had to wait, no matter how many times you were murdered,” he said. “There were a lot of people killed. The soldiers were exhausted, they had no assistance from Kabul, and they had lost faith in the central authority.”

By October, the Taliban had amassed a large army in the south and launched a massive attack on Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital. To prevent the city from collapsing, the United States intervened with airstrikes. The Taliban advanced on Kandahar a few weeks later, taking the Arghandab area on the outskirts of the country’s second-largest city. Further advances were halted by another barrage of US airstrikes. Both parties have accused each other of breaking the Doha Accord.

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Nader Nadery, a top Afghan peace negotiator, binge-watched a Netflix series on South Vietnam’s collapse once.

Despite this, the Taliban kept their vow not to attack American objectives, demonstrating that they could control their troops when they wanted to. Despite suffering high deaths in the bombings, the Taliban commanders concluded that it was not in their best interests to obstruct what they saw as an inevitable American retreat.

“We persuaded our warriors that while we are negotiating with the Americans, we would not fire a single round at them.” “We demonstrated that we can keep our promises,” Mohammad Farouk Ansari, a member of the Taliban’s military committee, which brought together more than 50 senior commanders from throughout the nation, stated. “At the moment, we told each other it was a win.” We knew the nation was ours today or tomorrow when the Americans began shutting their outposts and vacating their bases.”

Officials in the United States continue to question whether they were duped by Mr. Baradar’s pledges, or if the insurgency’s true leadership was using the senior Taliban negotiator himself to lull Washington and Kabul into complacency.

‘It was always difficult to determine if the Taliban were serious about a political solution or not,” said Carter Malkasian, a Joint Chiefs of Staff official on Mr. Khalilzad’s team. “It’s possible that they didn’t intend it. They were expressing exactly what we needed to hear at the time. We may discover, as we did with the Vietnamese discussions, that they never intended to concede.”

Mr. Trump lost the presidential election in the United States on November 3rd. He ordered the Pentagon to take remaining soldiers out of Afghanistan while battling to overturn the results, and he picked Chris Miller, a former Green Beret and ardent war opponent, to carry out the plan. Mr. Miller and other close aides persuaded President Trump to retain a 2,500-strong force in Afghanistan to avert the country’s collapse, which they said would undermine Mr. Trump’s chances of running for government again.

Around the same time, Mr. Khalilzad circulated suggestions for a new temporary government made up equally of Taliban and republican officials. He said that the plan did not define who would be in control.

Mr. Miller said that the implicit purpose of keeping a small force in Kabul to keep the government afloat was to drive Mr. Ghani to strike a power-sharing pact. “And, let’s be honest, the Taliban would have had about 14 cabinet seats.” And Ghani would have had at least four. He most likely would have participated in sports and leisure activities. Mr. Miller continued, “Probably would have had, like, roads and sewerage.”

“He was a power freak. He was insanely obsessed with power. President Ashraf Ghani’s wife, Habiba Sarabi

“He was a power freak. He was insanely obsessed with power. President Ashraf Ghani’s wife, Habiba Sarabi

Mr. Trump’s tenure ends on January 20, and the Afghan president believed that the US commitment to depart from Afghanistan would come to an end with him. He was so confident that the incoming Biden administration would not carry out the Doha deal that he refused to meet with Mr. Khalilzad when he visited Afghanistan in January of that year. Mr. Ghani then turned down Mr. Khalilzad’s power-sharing offer, which was quickly leaked to the press, and continued to refuse to participate in real negotiations in Doha.

“We, the republic, were the ones who lingered.” “The Taliban were a lot more accommodating,” said Fatima Gailani, a republic negotiator who comes from one of the country’s most powerful families. “In negotiations, there must be a give and take, and an honorable compromise is ideal, but that was not the case. It was purposely lingering in anticipation of Biden’s arrival. I’m not sure why they thought Biden would provide a miracle.”

Mr. Khalilzad presented his plan to Mr. Baradar, who agreed to think about it but did not respond in writing.

By that time, Taliban leaders on the ground, buoyed by military victories and the prospect of an American pullout, had little willingness to share authority with their adversaries. “When a colonizer is pushed out of a nation, its tactic is to leave its offspring behind in order to avoid breaking the colonization chain. According to Mr. Ansari, a Taliban military commission member who worked southeast of Kabul, “the Americans intended to maintain a parallel administration here so that the Taliban and the others would have equal influence.” “From the outset, we were opposed to this. We declared ourselves to be the country’s rulers. The country is where we call home. We don’t have room in our house for a second ruler.”

District-level control areas

How-the-Taliban-Outwitted-and-Outwaited-the-US

21st of October, 2020

About a month after the Afghan-Taliban negotiations began, the Taliban launched strikes in the south, breaking verbal promises to limit violence made to US negotiators.

13 April 2021

The Taliban have announced that they would not participate in an international meeting that the US had anticipated would result in the formation of an interim administration.

30 June 2021

The Taliban make substantial advances in the areas they control by the end of June.

1640404886_420_How-the-Taliban-Outwitted-and-Outwaited-the-US

21st of October, 2020

About a month after the Afghan-Taliban negotiations began, the Taliban launched strikes in the south, breaking verbal promises to limit violence made to US negotiators.

13 April 2021

The Taliban have announced that they would not participate in an international meeting that the US had anticipated would result in the formation of an interim administration.

30 June 2021

The Taliban make substantial advances in the areas they control by the end of June.

1640404886_108_How-the-Taliban-Outwitted-and-Outwaited-the-US

21st of October, 2020

About a month after the Afghan-Taliban negotiations began, the Taliban launched strikes in the south, breaking verbal promises to limit violence made to US negotiators.

13 April 2021

The Taliban have announced that they would not participate in an international meeting that the US had anticipated would result in the formation of an interim administration.

30 June 2021

The Taliban make substantial advances in the areas they control by the end of June.

The dreams that Mr. Ghani had for Mr. Biden were immediately crushed. When he was Mr. Obama’s vice president, he argued for leaving from Afghanistan, and he has shown no willingness to overturn Mr. Trump’s decision.

Interagency officials had an unending series of discussions on how to manage risks from the exit for months after Mr. Biden assumed office. The White House projected that abandoning the Doha accord would compel the Taliban to restart assaults on American troops, necessitating a significant troop increase with no end in sight. The White House judged that the possibilities of success in the Doha peace negotiations, led by Mr. Khalilzad, were too weak to warrant postponing the departure.

“There isn’t a lot of evidence that either side regarded the Doha conversations in good faith,” according to a current senior Biden administration official engaged in the decision-making process.

On April 12, the Taliban declined to attend a peace conference in Turkey that the US was attempting to organize under the auspices of the UN, believing that they would be compelled to make concessions.

Mr. Biden stated two days later that all US troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11, regardless of whether the Taliban and Afghans achieve a political agreement or any other events on the ground, removing the conditionality tied to the 2020 Doha accord.

“We are not going to make a hurried getaway.” Mr. Biden declared in the White House Treaty Room that day, “We’ll do it…responsibly, methodically, and securely.” “More and limitless American military power would not be able to establish or maintain a long-term Afghan government.”

Kabul was taken aback. Mr. Ghani called a meeting of senior Afghan security officials the next day to consider Mr. Biden’s surprise. When American advisors and contractors departed, the army chief of staff concerned how the Afghan force would continue to service its planes. According to one individual present during the meeting, Mr. Ghani was composed and said that he was striving to maintain US assistance.

Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who used to work closely with the CIA, hesitated to believe that Mr. Biden would truly pull all American troops out of Afghanistan. According to many there, Mr. Biden’s declaration might merely be a pressure strategy to persuade Kabul to make concessions to the Taliban in Doha.

Mr. Saleh, Afghanistan’s former intelligence head, told the Journal that his American interlocutors had assured him until the very last minute that Washington would not leave his government. Mr. Saleh claimed when Kabul fell to the Taliban, “I questioned the visiting dignitaries, diplomats, intelligence officials, generals, and members of the US intelligentsia on so many times whether the US would give over Afghanistan to the Taliban.” “The response would be an unequivocal no, with subtleties given later but meaning no.”

Afghan army and police field commanders came to a different conclusion while members of Mr. Ghani’s inner circle clung to illusions: the end was near. Survival meant forging secret agreements with the Taliban, and planning for a rainy day meant black-market sales of their troops’ ammo, food, and gasoline.

By May, the Taliban had taken over one region after another, sometimes without fighting, enabling government forces to return home unhurt and providing them with road money. Nonetheless, in line with Mr. Khalilzad’s verbal promises, the rebels did not seize any of the country’s 34 provincial capitals. Taliban negotiator Mohammad Nabi Omari, a former Guantánamo detainee linked to the Haqqani network, hammered out a transition plan with a small group of Afghan republic delegates in Doha.

Mr. Hibatullah, the Taliban’s ultimate commander, would become Afghanistan’s head of state under the proposed agreement, but the nation would be administered under the 1964 constitution proclaimed by King Zahir Shah, with an elected parliament. Mr. Hibatullah, who hadn’t been seen in public in years and was generally assumed to be dead, was an ideal head of state, according to Ms. Gailani, who was engaged in the negotiations. Mr. Hibatullah, her Taliban contact told her, was still alive. Both parties decided to keep the upcoming accord under wraps.

“They weren’t simple. There were several issues with which they would not compromise. They would never embrace Afghanistan’s Islamic Republic. Ms. Gailani said, “They will never accept our constitution.” “However, at least 60% of our valuables may be saved.” “It’s possible that our flag will be saved.”

Mr. Omari’s concept, according to Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, the Afghan government’s top negotiator in Doha and a former defense minister and intelligence head who routinely informed Mr. Ghani on the discussions, was only an individual thought, not a firm proposal endorsed by the whole Taliban leadership.

Mr. Ghani travelled to Washington in late June in a last-ditch attempt to urge the US to continue supporting Afghanistan. Mr. Biden agreed to see Mr. Ghani at the White House only if he brought Dr. Abdullah, the leader of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation at the time. “We’re going to stand by your side.” In combined comments, Mr. Biden stated, “And we’re going to do our best to make sure you have the tools you need.”

Mr. Ghani said that President Trump’s pullout decision in April “has made everyone recalculate and reevaluate.” “Like President Lincoln in 1861, the Afghan population is uniting to the protection of the country.” It’s a matter of choosing between the ideals of an excluding society and the values of an inclusive one.”

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In his office at Gul Khana Palace, President Ghani delivers an interview.

FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, KIANA HAYERI

During that trip, Ms. Gailani met with Mr. Ghani in Washington and informed him on the initiatives she had discussed with Mr. Omari and other Taliban negotiators. She stated Mr. Ghani pushed her to keep talking. “I thought, well, excellent, he’s going to be the de Klerk of Afghanistan instead of Saddam or Gadhafi,” she said. “It was obvious that this was going to be the end, but it might have been a good ending.” At the very least, the institutions, such as the army and the police, would not have crumbled.”

Mr. Ghani, on the other hand, continued to play for time in the weeks that followed. “He stayed and lingered,” Ms. Gailani said, “which just made things more difficult.”

A top foreign ambassador paid Mr. Ghani a visit in Kabul in July. The Afghan president remained belligerent, bragging about the strength of government soldiers stationed in the city and claiming that if the Taliban attempted to invade the capital, they would suffer 50,000 deaths. Nonetheless, he told his security to give him a deadly injection if he was in danger of being kidnapped by the Taliban, according to the envoy.

Later same month, US Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie came to Kabul to meet with Mr. Ghani, publicly pledging further airstrikes in support of Afghan troops. “A Taliban triumph isn’t a foregone conclusion,” he stated at the time. Mr. Ghani was informed privately by Gen. McKenzie that Mr. Biden was still weighing possibilities for providing air assistance to Afghan troops from facilities in the Persian Gulf after the pullout.

The Republic is Destroyed

Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the Taliban’s military commission chairman, assembled military commanders in the insurgent stronghold of Aryub Zazi in eastern Paktia province in early August. Mr. Zakir proclaimed that the moment had come for the Taliban to seize provincial capitals, but that they should take their time and not hurry.

“It was determined that we should infiltrate the cities gradually, selecting areas that are easy prey,” Hajji Qari Osman Ibrahimi, a Taliban military committee member who attended the conference, stated. “We were also advised not to invade Kabul since we had promised the Americans that we would.”

Almost all of the cities turned out to be easy prey, and the Taliban were on the outskirts of the Afghan capital barely a week later. Dr. Abdullah returned to Kabul after another round of discussions in Doha to update Mr. Ghani and other political leaders: It was yet conceivable to reach a transitional agreement that would safeguard at least part of the Afghan republic’s institutions. The Taliban had a vested interest in cooperating. The US had promised the rebels that such a transitional government would be recognized diplomatically and given access to billions of dollars in Afghan central bank reserves as well as continuous foreign assistance.

Dr. Abdullah, Mr. Karzai, Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and other Afghan officials intended to go to Doha to reach a deal, but Mr. Ghani’s resignation was required first. Once again, the Afghan president delayed for time, wrangling over the makeup of the mission and insisting on close advisers like Mr. Mohib taking part. The group was supposed to depart on the 16th of August.

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At the outset of discussions with the Taliban in Doha, Afghan government official Abdullah Abdullah, sitting third from left, discusses with other negotiators.

Mr. Hekmatyar’s party’s senior member, Amin Karim, a former advisor to Mr. Ghani, paid a visit to the Afghan president at the palace that week.

In English, he began the meeting by saying, “It’s game over.” Flustered, Mr. Ghani accused Mr. Karim of defeatism, insisting that Kabul was secure and that tens of thousands of elite soldiers from around the nation were ready to defend the Afghan capital.

Mr. Wilson, the American ambassador, met with Mr. Ghani on August 14. By that time, the Taliban had taken control of the key towns of Kandahar, Herat, and Ghazni. He was stunned by the Afghan leader’s calm demeanor, he said. The conference was unique in that reporters were asked to attend. Taliban leaders in the highlands around the city had no idea that they would be in control of the Afghan capital only hours later.

“We were certain that provinces would fall without a fight, but we weren’t so sure about Kabul.” The government’s bluffing gave us the impression that there would be a confrontation,” said Mohammad Salim Saad, a senior leader of the Haqqani network’s Badri unit, which controlled rebel activities in the capital. “We were concerned that a war for Kabul would result in the city’s destruction.”

Armed Taliban supporters began to emerge in the city on the morning of Aug. 15. The Taliban released a statement in Doha on Washington’s proposal, requesting that all Taliban troops stay away. Mr. Wilson directed that all remaining staff be transferred from the US Embassy complex in Kabul’s Green Zone to the airport, where they would be detained by American forces.

The remaining employees were advised to leave their personal belongings at home and were only permitted to bring one bag. Mr. Wilson left his clothes and shoes at the embassy and only brought the necessities, which included a book that had recently come by Amazon delivery. Mr. Ghani had been sighted exiting Afghanistan by helicopter approximately 30 minutes earlier, the pilots informed him as he boarded the chopper to go for the airport.

“He didn’t give us any indication that he was going.” Mr. Wilson noted that there was “no sign” that he was planning to depart the country. Mr. Ghani claimed his abrupt departure “was the best way to keep the guns quiet and rescue Kabul” in a statement issued weeks later from the United Arab Emirates, where he currently lives.

Senior Taliban figures met on the 21st floor of Qatar’s foreign ministry in Doha for a meeting with Mutlaq al Qahtani, the country’s special envoy for Afghan affairs. They followed the news of Mr. Ghani’s escape with amazement. They requested whether the US military would be willing to safeguard Kabul for two weeks in order to facilitate a smooth handover.

That afternoon, Mr. Baradar, Mr. Khalilzad, Gen. McKenzie, and other officials convened in Doha. “A feeling of chaos was brewing.” “Law and order in Kabul was crumbling,” Mr. Khalilzad remembered. Following Mr. Ghani’s departure, the Afghan republic’s officials, including the defense minister, hurried to the airport to evacuate the country.

The Biden administration was adamant about not taking on long-term responsibility for the beleaguered Afghan capital and its five million inhabitants. “It’s not my responsibility.” According to Mr. Khalilzad, Gen. McKenzie responded to the Taliban proposition, “My responsibility is to securely remove my soldiers.” “We’ll defend ourselves if you attack.”

By 8 p.m., Taliban forces, largely from the Haqqani network, had poured into the city, bolstering the first tier of covert agents who had taken control of important areas.

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After President Ghani departed the nation on August 15, Taliban gunmen took possession of the Afghan presidential residence.

Zabi Karimi/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Zabi Karimi/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Zabi Karimi/ASSOCIATED

Instead of the negotiated transfer of power with international recognition that had been agreed with the US, the Taliban found themselves in charge of a government with no funds, sanctioned by the US, and denied a UN seat.

Mr. Baradar, who was widely anticipated to become the Taliban’s next leader, was demoted to one of three deputy prime ministers and then vanished for weeks. For Afghanistan’s new leadership, his verbal assurances to American and other foreign negotiators, such as a vow to safeguard girls’ education, were no longer binding.

The Haqqanis and southern military officers, led by Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, emerged as the actual power brokers in Kabul.

Mr. Hibatullah’s commitment of not pursuing a monopoly on power was no longer included in a newly released Taliban calendar for the Islamic year that started in August 2021. Rather, it promised to implement a “clean Islamic system.” The message was represented by a pile of damaged Humvees left behind and a squadron of Chinook helicopters flying away with shredded American flags.

Taliban Rule in Afghanistan

—This essay was co-written by Gordon Lubold.

Yaroslav Trofimov and Jessica Donati may be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.

Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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