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As the Afghan forces collapse, an air of unreality grips the capital

KABUL, Afghanistan – After his military collapsed, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan fired a crucial part of his command structure and brought in a new one. He created a nebulous “Supreme State Council” announced months ago, which has hardly met. And while districts across the country are falling to the Taliban, he has installed a huge picture of himself in front of the airport’s domestic terminal.

On Friday, US officials announced the final closure of Bagram Air Base, the nerve center of 20 years of American military operations in Afghanistan, at the functional end of the American war here. When the last troops and equipment trickled in from Afghanistan, an atmosphere of unreality settled over the government and the capital, Kabul.

Americans have not been visible in the city for years, so the US departure hasn’t affected normalcy on the surface: markets are busy and streets are crowded with homecoming officials by the afternoon. At night, the corner bakeries are still lit by a single lightbulb as the vendors sell until late in the evening.

But there is discomfort beneath the surface as the Taliban steadily creep up on Kabul.

“There is no hope for the future,” said Zubair Ahmad, 23, who runs a grocery store on one of the main boulevards of the Khair Khana district. “Afghans are leaving the country. I don’t know if I’ll be sure in 10 minutes. “

The government’s passport office has been crowded with an urgent mob for the past few days, although visa options for Afghans are severely limited. Some of the humanitarian organizations on which the oppressed citizens depend said they would begin to limit the number of foreign workers held in the country to prevent the security climate from deteriorating.

The security blanket that the United States has provided for two decades tracks the actions, actions and policies of the Afghan government and, according to some analysts, encourages the stunting of all proactive planning. It is not clear whether there is a plan to counter the Taliban’s advance, as the government’s influence in the country is waning.

Intelligence estimates for the collapse of the government and a Taliban takeover range from six months to two years. Whenever it comes to that, the prospects for Mr Ghani and those around him are likely to be bleak, as recent Afghan history shows. Several of his predecessors in the top positions in the country have come to a violent end.

“The environment is extremely tense,” said Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister, noting an atmosphere of “semi-panic” in the government.

“It’s beyond a crisis,” he said, adding, “The mismanagement has brought us to where we are today.”

The causes of the current collapse within Mr Ghani’s government are threefold, officials and security experts say: the delusion of security of Americans whose determination to leave has never been fully believed by civil or military leadership; the tactical discrepancy between conventional Afghan forces and the more nimble guerrilla Taliban; and the reduction of government to the person of Mr. Ghani himself and a handful of aides, trained abroad, some with families safe abroad.

The first fatal weakness festered for years. Since the Americans were always ready to push the Taliban back, the tendency towards an aggressive self-defense stance waned.

“They did not have a strategic plan for the departure of the Americans,” said General Hilaluddin Hilal, a former assistant secretary of defense.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, confirmed this at a recent meeting: “We were not ready for the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan,” he said.

Over a quarter of the country’s 421 districts have been occupied by the insurgents since early May in a large-scale campaign that mainly targeted northern Afghanistan and even besieged some provincial capitals by Taliban fighters.

In some places, government troops capitulate without a fight, often because they have run out of ammunition and the government is no longer sending supplies or reinforcements.

The tactical mismanagement of the Afghan military and police forces is a replica, on a smaller scale, of lost battles fought against insurgent groups for 40 years.

“They have a highly centralized military that is waging a war against a highly decentralized insurgency, waging an irregular war,” said Tamim Asey, a former deputy defense minister who now runs a think tank in Kabul. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

It is a lesson painfully drawn but barely learned in over two centuries of war in Afghanistan. “We are seeing history repeat itself in this country: a vicarious insurrection is coming from rural areas to take power,” Asey said.

“It’s not about a person. It’s about leadership, ”said Hadi Khalid, a retired lieutenant general. “Our security leadership did not consider it their task to prepare a self-defense.”

Ghani’s newly appointed Acting Defense Minister General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a gray-haired veteran of previous wars, declined an interview request and said through a spokesman that he did not want to speak to the media until he had a track record. Younger Army officers expressed reluctant confidence, noting that they had no choice but to fight.

In the past few days, government troops have regained control of important districts in the northern city of Kunduz. But since the new cabinet appointments, more than a dozen other districts have fallen.

Humvees, guns and piles of ammunition have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, much of them triumphantly shown on videos posted on social media by the group’s propagandists. The insurgents have made it easy even in northern provinces, far from their home countries in southern Afghanistan, areas which they found difficult to conquer when they came to power in the mid-1990s.

But the government seems detached from attacking its soldiers and citizens. Government officials are involved in the more affluent neighborhoods of Kabul, a common high-stakes poker game that has up to $ 120,000 on the table, several people who watched the game told the New York Times. At least one observer said that he had seen people in positions of responsibility playing the game, which he complained as misguided at a time of national crisis.

Last month, not a single official appeared at a memorial for the nearly 70 schoolgirls who were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul in May. Mourning mothers wept softly in their black robes; The government dispatched a handful of police officers to protect the mourners, vulnerable members of the Hazara ethnic minority, like the victims.

Accordingly, civil militias are on the rise again in Afghanistan, with various ethnic and regional groups voluntarily defending themselves against the advance of the Taliban.

At one level, the militia movement may raise some hopes that a large-scale collapse will not happen immediately. But for many Afghans, the resurrection is so reminiscent of the country’s devastating civil war era that many fear it will herald even greater chaos as the insurgency war breaks up into a multilateral conflict with no centralized command against the Taliban.

Officials within the government and those who have left it describe an atmosphere of improvisation, a bureaucracy taken by surprise despite weeks of warning signs – even before the latest advance, the Taliban were slowly selecting districts – and the lack of a coherent plan.

Middle-level officials in the presidential palace expressed concern that they were not exposed to any plan to counter the Taliban during their attack. Some officials insisted that there was a plan, although they could not articulate it. A Western diplomat who was not empowered to speak publicly said he had seen signs that some sort of strategy was finally being implemented: abandoning non-strategic rural areas in order to better consolidate remaining troops in government-critical locations.

Public statements are largely limited to pounding denunciations of the Taliban and vows to defeat them, without any indication of how the government intends to do so. As a result, Afghan citizens feel in the dark, are concerned and are quickly losing the trust they once had in Mr Ghani.

“There is no reaction. They don’t have a counter-offensive strategy, ”said Mr. Asey, the former assistant secretary of defense. “Nobody knows what it is.”

It is not clear to the soldiers on the ground whether there is a military strategy.

After taking an army base in Andar in Ghazni province south of Kabul in mid-June, a member of the provincial council discovered that the besieged fighters had asked for help. “Nobody heard her voice,” said Councilor Amanullah Kamrani. The soldiers were almost handed over to the Taliban. Five were killed and the rest surrendered.

Mr. Ghani continued to isolate himself in the presidential palace.

Current and past aides to the president say he gets up at 5:30 a.m. to read a stream of reports, consult with a handful of close aides, and work late into the night. He has long had a problem with insomnia, they say, chopping up his days and nights into work bursts punctuated by naps. But most of the time he was absent in the public sense, save for the occasional comment about the economy or corruption.

Several former aides have criticized the president’s reliance on a tiny group of Western-trained advisors. They found that cabinet members were afraid to contradict him because he tended to yell at them.

“He is the republic,” said former finance minister Zakhilwal. “The government has two, three, four faces.”

“A soldier sits there and watches and asks, ‘Should I sacrifice my life?'” He added. “That’s why we’re seeing soldiers surrender across Afghanistan.”

Fatima Faizi, Fahim Abed and Kiana Hayeri Reporting contributed.

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