Gul Ahmad Rasooli’s phone rang the day the Afghan government collapsed.
The now-former governor of Zabul — the remote, mountainous southern Afghan province bordering Kandahar — had taken refuge in Kabul as the security climate in Afghanistan unravelled over the summer.
The Taliban had overrun Qalat, the provincial capital, and Rasooli had escaped with his life.
The call was from his son, an Afghan special forces soldier assigned to the elite protection detail around Ashraf Ghani, the president of the western-backed regime.
Then-Afghan president Ashraf Ghani speaks during a media availability after his meeting with President Joe Biden in Washington, Friday, June 25, 2021. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)
The president had told the troops to secure the command centre at the ministry of defence and to prepare for his arrival.
But Ghani never arrived. In an extended telephone interview with CBC News from Kabul, where he is hiding from the new Taliban regime, Rasooli said his son told him most of the protection detail watched live video feeds of the command centre in disbelief as an aircraft carrying the president departed Afghanistan.
They were on their own.
The Taliban advanced, the defence department decamped
Around the same time, at the ministry of defence, a now-former major-general in the Afghan National Army noticed that the halls and offices around him had fallen strangely quiet.
CBC News spoke with the major-general on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his former position and threats made against his family.
He said he had been aware of the president’s planned visit to the ministry and visited the office of defence minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi earlier in the day.
As word spread that Ghani had fled the country, the building emptied out. The former major-general — a combat veteran trained and mentored by Canadians — wandered the empty halls and offices. With no one left to command and an enemy about to come over the wall, he decided to simply go home.
“I was the last man in the building,” said the former major-general, who has since fled the country.
Tribal rivalries, corruption and incompetence
In hindsight, both the major-general and the governor had seen the ruin of Afghanistan and two decades of western-backed nation-building coming for months, even years before the victorious Taliban rolled through the streets of Kabul last month.
They insisted it’s too simplistic to say the Afghan military folded and refused to fight. They said that through 20 years of fighting and the deaths of more than 60,000 Afghan troops — the vast majority of them in the last decade — Afghanistan’s army and fledgling air force had shown it wasn’t prepared to cede ground easily to the Taliban.
Rather, they said, the disintegration of Afghanistan was driven by a mixture of toxic tribal rivalries and deal-making, corruption, political indifference and incompetence.
Taliban soldiers walk towards Afghans shouting slogans during an anti-Pakistan demonstration near the Pakistan embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2021. (Wali Sabawoon/Associated Press)
Their view is backed up by a half-dozen other former Afghan government officials, politicians and security officials, as well as western experts who witnessed the government’s unravelling. Many of them are still in the process of fleeing the country and asked CBC to keep their names confidential.
Political signs that the end was near began to emerge last winter when the Taliban took advantage of stymied peace talks to co-opt political parties and convince key tribes to sit out the coming fighting season.
Part of the peace initiative involved a proposal to hold elections. The president himself insisted that any handover of power to the Taliban would have to happen democratically.
The Taliban’s political coup
To that end, Grant Kippen — a Canadian who until last month was the chief electoral adviser to the United Nations Elections Support Project Afghanistan — began canvassing the various political parties last winter. He said he was startled by what he heard.
“It came up in conversations that there had been discussions with some individuals that were identified as Taliban representatives. Who they were, what position they held in Taliban, I don’t know,” Kippen told CBC News.
“Most of the political figures had what you might call back channel communications with the Taliban representatives, the people that they knew.”
There was widespread dissatisfaction among Afghans with the government in Kabul and with Ghani in particular, who alienated and publicly belittled both regional warlords and members of his own cabinet.
What Kippen appears to have heard were the early rumblings of the Taliban’s political strategy — to undo the complex web of tribal allegiances that kept the fragile western-backed government in place.
Sitting out the fighting season
As fighting season — the period from spring to late fall when, according to centuries of Pashtun tradition, the tribes make war — unfolded this year, some of the more important tribes which could have stood in the way of the Taliban declared themselves neutral.
Sean Maloney, a professor of history at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., said earlier this summer that such a strategy could have been achieved only through negotiation or buying off some of the tribes months ahead of time.
Pashtun tribes always back a winner — or someone who looks like a winner, he said.
The institutional rot started long before the Taliban’s political exercise, however.
A Taliban fighter lays his AK-47 rifle down during Friday prayers at a Mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)
The former major-general said there were signs of it in 2018, when Ghani appointed notorious former Kandahar governor Assadullah Khalid as defence minister. Severely wounded several years ago in a failed assassination attempt, Khalid spent many months absent from his job while he sought ongoing treatment in the U.S.
The cronyism Khalid was famous for in Kandahar during the Canadian combat mission took hold. Inexperienced colonels became generals and some of the more professional soldiers — the ones trained by Canadians and Americans — were sidelined and even shoved into retirement, said the major-general.
Corruption in the supply pipeline
There was corruption in the contracting and the supply system, said retired Canadian major-general Dean Milner, who led Canada’s last combat task force and later the Kabul-based training mission.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. spent more than US $83 billion training and equipping all branches of the Afghan security forces. But money intended for ammunition and food was routinely siphoned off before it reached the soldiers on the ground.
Ammunition and other items of equipment were sold on the black market; some even ended up in the Taliban’s hands. Local commanders embezzled money by submitting funding requests for troops they didn’t have — the infamous “ghost soldiers” of the Afghan military.
Back when he won the hotly contested 2014 presidential election, Ghani was seen by western nations as someone who could clean up the country’s corrupt and dysfunctional government.
As Afghanistan’s finance minister and a former World Bank executive, he had been the darling of the international community.
Paralyzed in the face of Taliban attacks
But Ghani became notorious for micromanaging the military and civilian government and prized personal loyalty over competence and straight talk.
Rasooli said he found that out on April 24, 2021, during a critical security meeting in Kandahar with the embattled president, top security officials and fellow governors.
They discussed the rising tempo of Taliban attacks. In a stifling conference room at a fortified compound at Kandahar Airfield, Rasooli said, Ghani lectured his officials about the crumbling hold his government had on the country.
An Afghan refugee holds a banner during a protest against the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in New Delhi, India, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)
The meeting took place just days after Afghan security forces stunned many – including the Taliban — by surrendering a crucial outpost in Rasooli’s province. In exchange for a guarantee of safe passage, government troops and police who once held the lonely, isolated Mizan district fled their positions, giving the insurgents a video-ready victory that was splashed all over social media.
Rasooli, a former soldier and intelligence officer, was horrified. He said he urged Ghani and his advisers to investigate the calamity and worried about the loss of weapons and vital equipment.
The president, he said, seemed unconcerned and brushed aside his plea with a partial embrace of the insurgents.
According to Rasooli, Ghani smiled and told the room that the Taliban “are Afghans as well. We have equipment at our disposal, let them have some as well.”
“I suspected at that moment something really bad was happening,” Rasooli said.
‘All you have to do is lie’
He said he publicly disagreed with Ghani in front of the others and was backed up by the intelligence commander of Kandahar, as well as his own police chief.
It proved to be the political kiss of death. Rasooli said the governor of neighbouring Uruzgan province pulled him aside after the meeting and gently rebuked him, saying he should simply have told Ghani that everything was fine.
“I said what was the truth,” Rasooli said. “He said to me, ‘You’re dealing with the wrong people. This is a government where truth will never prevail. All you have to do is lie. And these people will not even acknowledge that there is a problem within this government even if they see a firefight right outside of their door.'”
A few weeks later, a letter arrived from the president’s office. Rasooli was to be relieved as soon as a replacement could be found. His replacement arrived three days before the province fell to the Taliban.
Rasooli said that in the hours and days after the fall of Kabul, as he’s waited with thousands of other Afghans for a chance to flee the country, he’s thought a lot about that last conversation with Ghani.
Rasooli has applied to come to Canada.