Five key factors contributed to the Taliban’s ability to seize power in Kabul, Mason professor says

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Ellen Laipson

As the government in Afghanistan collapsed and the Taliban seized power on the heels of the American exit from the country, Ellen Laipson, former vice chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council and director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government, gave her assessment of the situation in an opinion piece for Asia Times. This tip sheet is adapted from that column.

“First is the political context, dating from the very beginning of the post-9/11 invasion,” Laipson, said. “Because the U.S. relied on the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power in 2001, the old warlord system of regional militia and power centers was never dismantled.” This impeded both the creation of a more democratic system, and the establishment of a new security culture that would imbue Western-trained national-security forces with necessary power and prestige, she said.

“Second is the reality of the human capital available to create a modern security sector…. At the pivotal turning point in 2014, U.S. experts estimated that half of the recruits to the armed forces were illiterate.” Before the United States could address essential skills for the defense of Afghanistan, they had to teach reading and writing to troops, with the goal of bringing them to a third-grade vocabulary level. Before an automated payment system was established, “soldiers would routinely leave their posts after payday and walk to their villages to provide their meager pay to their families,” which would often mean they were gone for long periods before returning to training.

“Third are the shortcomings of the political system that evolved through contested elections and failures to confront corruption and mismanagement. Former president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Sunday, failed to inspire Afghans,” Laipson said. Even though national leaders publicly embraced the World Bank and development theories, that was not enough to overcome the country’s socio-economic realities. 

“A related fourth factor is captured in Biden’s exasperation with the Ghani administration and its military leaders: Where is the political will to fight?” Laipson said. Without the will, the equipment and training provided by the U.S. could only go so far, she said.  

“And last but not least is the hubris of the outside players who believed their own rhetoric about the desire and the ability of the Afghans to emulate the models of a national, integrated military force that would be apolitical and loyal to the nation,” Laipson said.

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About the Schar School

The Schar School of Policy and Government is one of the 10 schools and colleges of George Mason University, with approximately 2,000 students, 90 full-time faculty members, and 23 degree and certificate programs offered on Mason’s campuses in Fairfax and Arlington, Va. Among the degree programs are government and international affairs, public policy, public administration, political science, international security, and international commerce and policy. The Schar School prepares undergraduate and graduate students to be leaders and managers who solve problems and advance the public good in all sectors and levels of government—in the United States and throughout the world.