Taliban 2.0: Analysing the Elements of its Victory in Afghanistan

 By Namita Barthwal


The victory of the Taliban came after a twenty-year-long military presence of the US and the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the form of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The cost put by the US in the entire arrangement, including developing the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), stabilising the Afghan government, paying the contractors and logistics, was evaluated to be around 2 trillion USD.  The conflict devoured hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives.[1] In the end, the two decades’ mega-structure of the US, the ISAF and the Afghan Regime to stabilise Afghanistan defiled within three months to the Taliban offensive.

The Taliban had achieved its military victory using hybrid tactics. The militant group had used unconventional means and other means such as diplomacy, political manoeuvring, social media, and social relations to achieve its political ends. Moreover, the continuous miscalculation of the Afghan Regime is a crucial element of its military victory.

The article discusses the key drivers of its victory.

Taliban’s Unconventional Means

The unconventional means are “the activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency” with an objective to coerce, disrupt, or coup a government or occupying power by operating through a covert, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area [2].

Figure 1: Taliban’s Unconventional Means

Source: Author

The Taliban used a wide variety of unconventional tactics. The group provided regular training to its militias with external support, principally from Pakistan. Through various reports, it was revealed that the Taliban organised several military training camps to train its fighters in Afghanistan’s rural and remote areas. In an interview, a Taliban fighter revealed that the militias ‘re-training occurs after every four months.[3] The training covered small-arms proficiency, utilisation of IEDs, firing from moving vehicles, and guerrilla tactics. Terrorist tactics, such as clandestine violence on civilians and intimidation through targeted assassinations of pilots and high-rank officers, kidnappings, night letters, and death threats to prominent civil society leaders, were its long-term strategies that had weakened the ANDSF and the credibility of the Regime. [4] The fighters were also trained to use conventional tactics such as massed assaults and multi-pronged attacks.

Intelligence activities of the Taliban’s were vigorous and accurate. They had logistical support throughout Afghanistan. The accuracy of intelligence helped the Taliban during its guerrilla attacks. Criminal activities, such as drugs smuggling, protection rackets, kidnapping for ransom, were undertaken by the Taliban to generate money for its fighters’ sustainability.[5]

Taliban’s Other Means  

Figure 2: Taliban’s Non-Military Means

 Source: Author

  1. Diplomacy:

The most critical element of the Taliban’s victory was the Doha Agreement (also known as the Afghan Peace Deal), as it formed the ground to launch the offensive. On 29 February 2020, Doha Agreement was signed between the Trump Administration and the representatives of the Taliban.[6] It stipulated the condition upon which the Americans would leave Afghanistan. The deal implicitly declared the legitimacy of the Taliban as a stakeholder and the government and security forces inept at managing the state. The deal signalled the end of Ashraf Ghani’s Regime in Afghanistan, making it difficult for the Regime to maintain unity in the counterinsurgency campaign.

As mentioned in the deal, in exchange for the safe evacuation of the ISAF soldiers, the US released 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Many of these released prisoners are former battle commanders of the Taliban. For example, the released prisoners include Maelavi Talib, who led the lethal attack on Lashkargah. [7] The release of the Taliban prisoners reinforced not only their numbers but also their capability and morale.  Moreover, the agreement and diplomatic talks with the US allowed the Taliban to take positions in key districts across the country and set conditions for their rapid advance on Kabul and other major cities.

  1. Political Manoeuvring

‘This is an old Afghan trick- they go with the winners, or at least they run away from the losers.'[8]

–  Former US General Wesley Clark

Alongside the Afghan government and the Taliban, the warlords are the third source of power. Afghanistan is a tribal country that traditionally had a ruler in Kabul, but regional warlords controlled specific regions based on their ethnicity or tribal identity. There are nine ethnicities in Afghanistan: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Aimak, Uzbek, Turkmen, Pamiri, Kyrgyz, and Nuristani. [9] The warlords who belong to a particular tribe or ethnicity call up men from their tribe or ethnicity to fight for their interests. In several parts, the Afghan army is often more loyal to their tribal association than the country. In the rural areas, by bringing tribal elders onto their side, the Taliban effectively cut off these outposts of the ANA (Afghan National Army).

The Taliban is a Pashtun dominant group that follows the theory of Pashtunwali (the culture of Pashtun).[10] Between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban was in power, it oppressed other ethnicities, especially the minorities. That is why many of the leading warlords are from the minorities. Ismail Khan, Ahmad Massoud and Atta Muhammad Noor are Tajiks. Whereas Abdul Rasheed Dostum is an Uzbek. These warlords also fight among themselves to sustain their power and are known for shifting their associations. In 1996, the Taliban could only take power because of the civil war. Several warlords turned against one another, which gave a chance to the Taliban to form its Regime. [11]

Nevertheless, the Taliban could not take over all of Afghanistan as these warlords continued to fight back against it as the Northern Alliance, controlling around 10 per cent of Afghanistan.  In 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance was the critical ally to fight against the Taliban. Soon, the ISAF and the Afghan government realised that warlords were unreliable partners. The warlords in Afghanistan are challenging to get on with but are extremely important for regional stability. For instance, in 2002, a warlord attacked the city when he did not get the governorship of a particular district.  Therefore, at many times, warlords became governors and were given the role in the government.  Hamid Karzai, the first President of Afghanistan, was an anti-communist Mujahideen. Later he was a prominent warlord in the Kandahar region. Abdul Rasheed Dostum became the vice president despite having a dismal record on human rights.[12]

After 2004, when the government became stable, and the movement of the Taliban declined, the reliance on the warlords decreased. In 2014, when the US started preparing to extract its military involvement, the government reached out to many warlords to fight against the Taliban. But it failed to garner the support of the warlords. Some of them, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was already shifted to the Taliban’s bloc. Ashraf Ghani, in comparison to Hamid Karzai, had a poor relationship with warlords. He often refused to engage with them and considered them impractical. Unlike the government, the Taliban is undoubtedly seeking the support of the warlords rather than eliminating them because it wants to maintain stability in the northern region. In the past, it had offered many warlords to join the Taliban.  Many warlords surrendered to the Taliban during the offensive without a fight, indicating the possibility of back-channel political settlements. For instance, Ismail Khan, popularly known as the lion of Herat, has joined the Taliban after his quick surrender. Mohammad Karim Khalili had shown little resistance to the Taliban before surrendering. It is unclear whether their surrender was a political negotiation or not. In late August 2021, media reports suggested that Abdul Rasheed Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor are also planning for negotiation with the Taliban. The Taliban also have an imperative to negotiate with these two because they are influential warlords in the region of Mazar-e-Sharif, one of the critical cities in the north and the gateway to Uzbekistan. [13]

  1. Information Warfare: Use of Social Media

“The Taliban of today is immensely savvy with technology and social media — nothing like the group it was 20 years ago.”[14]

–  Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group.

The Taliban members are no longer simply the bearded-turban wearing fiends from the 1990s   because now almost every Taliban fighter has a smartphone in his pocket. They used smartphones to take videos every time they captured any ANA outposts. These videos circulated in Afghan social media and reached other soldiers who assumed the army’s defeat from the mighty Taliban. In some videos, the surrendering soldiers were embracing and getting cash from the Taliban militias.[15] Such video gave the impression to the viewers that they and their families would be fine if soldiers renounced the Afghan army.  These videos surfaced at the same time when assassinations of Afghan air force pilots and high-rank officers were happening, which exacerbated the impact of these videos. The Taliban captured more places as the propaganda videos floodlit the surrenders as peaceful and jovial. Hence, the soldiers watching these videos surrendered without firing a single bullet on the Taliban fighters.

  1. Social Relations

Taliban has adapted its strategy according to various local conditions and exploited the ethnic divides in the country. The dynamics of social relations vary in rural and urban areas. In the rural and Pashtun dominated areas, the support for the Taliban is the highest. Whereas in urban and north Afghanistan, the support for the Taliban is the lowest.

The Taliban has exploited the three societal problems in Afghanistan:

First, the Pashtuns. They form 42 per cent of the population.[16] They always felt alienated from the central government, which they believed was unfairly influenced by non-Pashtun leaders and only upheld their interests.

Second, the public discontent against the ISAF and the ANDSF. Earlier, the ISAF and Americans were regarded as Mehman. In a decade, the term changed to Dushman, and they were seen as colonisers.

Third, people are deeply frustrated by and frightened of the insecurity created by the absence, fecklessness, and corruption of the government’s institutions at the local level.

Since 2006, the Taliban has systematically destroyed the local administrations at the district level and eliminated people’s contact with the administration. In such isolation, the Taliban pushed people to accept its system of justice and order.

The unpreparedness of ANDSF and the Afghan Regime

The Taliban offensive was against the made-up 350,000 ANDSF. A large part of this number is not the armed forces. It includes police forces and other law enforcement agencies. The actual number of armed forces was around 1,85,000. In this number, only 60 per cent of them received their basic training at the time of the Taliban offensive. [17] The number of Taliban, on the other hand, was around 80,000. It used Toyotas, Kalashnikovs, basic machine guns and had only rudimentary combat expertise. Then how did the Taliban defeat the ANDSF?

The significant part of ANDSF’s defeat is the Ghost Battalions, which only existed on papers, not in reality. The commanders pocket the money assigned to recruit, train and pay soldiers’ and buy equipment. Corruption of this kind was rampant through all levels of the Afghan government. The American high-tech equipment meant for the ANDSF was sold onto the black market by the soldiers and the commanders. The Taliban purchased these high-tech weapons, equipment and ammunition.

The politicians and army commanders siphoned off soldiers is a widely known fact. However, it was not only the lack of pay and insufficient supply of food. At the time, it was the ammunition they needed but not received to fight against the Taliban. Among soldiers, the prevailing feeling was that they were not protected and adequately supplied by the government in Kabul. Because of all these factors, desertion was a massive problem for the ANA. Despite being aware of desertion rates, the ISAF, the US, and the Afghan government never addressed the problem.

The role of the Airforce was to keep the Taliban at bay by bombing runs, surveillance and supply at remote locations. The Airforce had some of the up-to-date Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft from the US that could have given the edge over the Taliban as it did not have any air power. The Biden Administration proceeded to pull out all the Americans, including contractors and logistics that the Afghan air force relied upon for operations.[18] The withdrawal created a challenge as the air force did not have the skills, technicians or means to repairs these aircraft. The assassinations of pilots increased the desertion rate in the Airforce, which further weakened the state of the airpower of the ANDSF.


In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said: ‘strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.’  The blitzkrieg of the Taliban has proved that it had both strategy as well as tactics [19].

The military victory of the Taliban had exploited hybrid tactics. In its offensive, the Taliban had used both unconventional and other devices to attain its political objective, i.e., to form its Regime in Afghanistan. The use of unconventional tactics was no surprise for the world. However, it is its sophisticated use of social media that took the world by astonishment. The fighters of the Taliban are known as the best guerrilla fighters in the entire history of Afghanistan. But, the way its fighters strategically used social media to build its narrative that pushed the ANA soldiers to surrender without fighting proved that it is not an old Taliban. It is Taliban 2.0.

Nevertheless, the military victory of the Taliban has two dangerous consequences:

  1. It will create a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as it is not a political victory. According to Regional Refugee Preparedness and Response Plan’s report, half a million people could flee Afghanistan by the end of 2021.[20]
  2. It will create a possibility of replication, especially in the states like Iraq and Syria.[21]

End Notes

[1] Ellen Knickmeyer, “Costs of the Afghanistan War, in Lives and Dollars,” AP NEWS (Associated Press, 17 August, 2021),https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-business-afghanistan-43d8f53b35e80ec18c130cd683e1a38f.

[2] “Unconventional Warfare (UW): About,” USSOCOM Library, https://jsou.libguides.com/unconventionalwarfare.

[3] ibid.

[4] “Taliban Use Traditional Afghan Method of ‘Night Letters’ to Intimidate,” The Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/taliban-use-traditional-afghan-method-of-night-letters-to-intimidate/articleshow/85795913.cms.

[5] Person and Jonathan Landay, “Profits and Poppy: Afghanistan’s Illegal Drug Trade a Boon for Taliban,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, August 16, 2021), https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/profits-poppy-afghanistans-illegal-drug-trade-boon-taliban-2021-08-16/.

[6] “Agreement for Bringing Peace…” (US Department of State, 29 February, 2020), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf.

[7] Alan Cullison and Saeed Shah, “Taliban Commander Who Led Attack on Afghan City…” The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company, 3 August, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/taliban-commander-who-led-attack-on-afghan-city-was-released-from-prison-last-year-officials-say-11628010527.

[8] Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, “Former NATO Commander Speaks to CNN about the Taliban’s Takeover,” CNN (Cable News Network, 19 August, 2021), https://edition.cnn.com/world/live-news/afghanistan-taliban-us-news-08-18-21/h_10d2c797318aff2a0d10497b762164d5.

[9] Benjamin Elisha Sawe, “The Ethnic Groups of Afghanistan,” WorldAtlas (WorldAtlas, September 10, 2019), https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/ethnic-groups-of-afghanistan.html.

[10] “Understanding Taliban through the Prism of Pashtunwali Code ” Centre Français De Recherche Sur Le Renseignement,” Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, August 30, 2017, https://cf2r.org/tribune/understanding-taliban-through-the-prism-of-pashtunwali-code/.

[11] “The Past and Future of Afghan Warlords,” Clingendael spectator,https://spectator.clingendael.org/en/publication/past-and-future-afghan-warlords.

[12] ibid.

[13] FP Staff, “Who Are Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum? Why Do They Want a Peace Pact With Taliban?,” Firstpost, 30 August, 2021, https://www.firstpost.com/world/why-negotiations-with-atta-mohammad-noor-and-abdul-rashid-dostum-are-imperative-for-taliban-9923651.html.

[14] Cristiano Lima Craig Timberg, “Today’s Taliban Uses Sophisticated Social Media Practices That Rarely Violate the Rules,” The Washington Post (WP Company, 19 August, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/08/18/taliban-social-media-success/.

[15] “Gravitas: 5 Videos That Show How the Taliban Is Taking Control of Afghanistan,” YouTube (YouTube, 23 June, 2021), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz9pnAz9S5U.

[16] Amna Puri-Mirza, “Afghanistan: Share Population by Ethnic Group 2020,” Statista, 20 August, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1258799/afghanistan-share-of-population-by-ethnic-group/#:~:text=As%20of%202020%2C%2042%20percent,is%20currently%20around%2033%20million.

[17] Chas Danner, “Why Afghanistan’s Security Forces Suddenly Collapsed,” Intelligencer (Intelligencer, 18 August, 2021), https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/08/why-afghanistans-security-forces-suddenly-collapsed.html.

[18] Paul McLeary, “Biden Is Betting Big ON Afghanistan’s Air Force. but Their Problems Continue to Grow.,” POLITICO (POLITICO, 23 July, 2021), https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/10/biden-afghanistan-air-force-499020.

[19] Anant Mishra, ” Post-Taliban Blitzkrieg: What’s next for Afghanistan” – Center For Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), 9 September, 2021, https://www.claws.in/post-taliban-blitzkrieg-whats-next-for-afghanistan/

[20] “Where Will Afghan Refugees Go?,” Council on Foreign Relations (Council on Foreign Relations) https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/where-will-afghan-refugees-go.

[21] Dr. Manjari Singh, “After Afghanistan, Is Iraq Preparing Itself for Impending American Pullout?,” Center For Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS, 31 August, 2021),https://www.claws.in/after-afghanistan-is-iraq-preparing-itself-for-impending-american-pullout/.