ARGUMENT: Afghanistan rapid collapseHow the Taliban Exploited Afghanistan’s Human Geography

Published 3 September 2021

The Taliban managed to seize power so quickly because it used Afghanistan’s human geography to exploit that state’s fragility: The country’s low population density empowers fast-moving and cohesive attackers, for which the poorly trained, disorganized, corrupt, and unmotivated Afghani army was no match. Alec Worsnop writes that, still, the evacuation could have been made safer and more orderly if a small Western contingent with air support would have been left behind to hold the Taliban at bay for a few more weeks — but this would only have delayed the inevitable: “Leaving a limited outside force in place, without significant reinforcement, could not have prevented an inevitable Taliban takeover within a matter of months,” he writes. “There were few prospects for long-term stability without a notably larger foreign troop presence.”

How did the Taliban manage to seize power so quickly? Alec Worsnop writes in War on the Rocks that while the weakness of the Afghan state was no secret, the speed of the Taliban’s victory stemmed from a little-appreciated factor: their ability to use Afghanistan’s human geography to exploit that state’s fragility. In other words, the country’s low population density empowers fast-moving and cohesive attackers.

Afghanistan’s overall population density is low — only about 148 people per square mile (57 people per square kilometer). By comparison, Iraq’s population density is 231 people per square mile (89 people per square kilometer). Even in the populated areas of Afghanistan, people are quite spread out, with 26 percent of the population living in urban centers compared to 71 percent in Iraq.

The dispersed population of Afghanistan would have made it a challenging task for a strong state with a cohesive, mobile, and well-trained army to stand firm and counteract the Taliban’s quick-moving offensives.

But the Taliban did not confront that sort of opponent, and thus were able to conduct lightning offensives across many fronts. The poorly trained, disorganized, and unmotivated Afghan National Defense and Security Forces were no match for the Taliban.

Worsnop notes that in an analysis he wrote in 2012 — as the United States began troop reductions under President Obama — he considered potential outcomes in the event the International Security Assistance Force fully withdrew from the country. His analysis found that the weaknesses of the Afghan security forces and the state’s illegitimacy, combined with the low force-to-space ratios generated by Afghanistan’s terrain and its population distribution, made a quick Taliban victory a reasonably likely outcome.

The steady reduction, beginning in 2013-14, in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan meant one thing:

It had long been clear that [the Afghan military] was an anemic force which was ill-prepared to take on a major challenge in a coherent and steadfast fashion. As many have notedsince summer 2013, when Afghan forces assumed the lead responsibility for security in the country, things got worse and worse. By 2021, the Afghan military was poorly organized, lacked the ability to provision and pay its soldiers consistently, and was inadequately trained.


As I predicted in my earlier analysis [20212], after the exit of Western troops, Afghan forces retreated from outposts and checkpoints to urban areas when confronted by Taliban threats, thereby ceding control of supply lines and major highways. This allowed Taliban forces