(Reuters) - It took just a few days for the Taliban to sweep across Afghanistan and seize territory they did not already control, sometimes taking major provincial capitals with barely a shot in anger.
While much has been made of the Afghan army's military collapse, interviews with Taliban leaders, Afghan politicians, diplomats and other observers suggest the Islamist militant movement laid the groundwork for its victory long before the events of the last week or so.
Prepared for a harder struggle to re-take control of a country they ran from 1996-2001, for months the insurgents said they cultivated relationships with low-level political and military officials as well as tribal elders.
That, combined with the pre-announced withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan some 20 years after America's longest war began, shattered confidence in the Western-backed administration in Kabul and encouraged people to defect.
"The Taliban didn't want to fight battles," said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security analyst affiliated with Stanford University. "They instead wanted to induce a political collapse."
The speed of the Taliban's gains surprised even them. Last week, cities and towns fell like dominoes, even in the north of the country where the Taliban are traditionally weaker, culminating in Sunday's capture of the capital Kabul https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/evacuation-flights-resume-kabul-airport-biden-defends-us-withdrawal-2021-08-17.
One Taliban commander in the central province of Ghazni said that once government forces could see the United States was finally leaving, resistance crumbled. In just a week, all of Afghanistan's major cities, from Kunduz in the north to Kandahar in the south, had fallen.
"It doesn't mean these Afghan leaders surrendering to us had changed or become pious, it's because there were no more dollars," he said, referring to financial support the government and military had received from the West for nearly two decades.
"They surrendered like goats and sheep."
Western-backed President Ashraf Ghani https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/ashraf-ghani-departing-afghan-president-who-failed-make-peace-with-taliban-2021-08-15 fled abroad and most other members of his administration have gone into hiding and cannot be contacted. Ghani's own defence minister criticised his capitulation.
A July report from SIGAR, the Congressional watchdog body appointed to monitor the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, said that in some areas Afghan forces put up some level of resistance, "while in others they surrendered or fled in disorder."
As his fighters took over the presidential palace, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the main architects of victory as head of the Taliban's political office in Doha, said it was an unrivalled triumph but one that had come unexpectedly swiftly.
"We have reached a situation that was never expected," he said.
'NOT THE SAME SITUATION'
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman based in Doha, said large numbers of districts were secured though the kinds of contacts that have a long tradition in Afghanistan, where inducing rivals to switch sides has been a common tactic.
"(We had) direct talks with the security forces there, and also through mediation of tribal elders and religious scholars," he said. "All over Afghanistan, not in a particular province or a particular geographic location."
After being driven from power in the U.S-backed campaign of 2001, the Taliban gradually rebuilt, financed by opium and illegal mining and generally avoiding large-scale encounters so long as U.S. air power was available to support the Afghan army.
Instead they preferred to pick off remote centres and isolated checkpoints and spread fear in cities through suicide bombings.
Meanwhile, they took control of many provincial areas with a form of shadow government with its own courts and tax systems.
In northern and western areas, where the mainly ethnic Pashtun Taliban movement has been traditionally weaker, it moved to shore up local support and win over Tajiks, Uzbeks and others in Afghanistan's patchwork of ethnicities, residents and officials there have said.
"We have mujahideen and fighters in every area. We have Panjshiri mujahideen in Panjshir province, Balkhi mujahideen in Balkh province, Kandahari mujahideen in Kandahar province," said Waheedullah Hashimi, a senior Taliban commander.
Throughout the advance, Baradar managed to preserve a united front between the Taliban's political leadership and fighters across the country, despite sometimes competing interests over issues ranging from peace talks to sharing revenues from poppy cultivation.
"Our security chiefs and seniors of other commissions, they are all from ethnicities residing there," said Shaheen. "That is why they were able to take all those provinces' districts though negotiations and talks."
"It's not the same situation as in the past."
'CURSES ON GHANI'
Once U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed the agreement reached with the Taliban by the previous administration in Washington, the long campaign in the provinces quickly paid off, events on the ground indicated.
Despite peace accords signed ahead of the American withdrawal, U.S. commanders and the Defense Intelligence Agency pointed to clear signs the Taliban had stepped up attacks on district centres and looked to cut off key highways as they prepared to attack provincial cities.
In addition, a series of targeted killings of key Afghan security personnel including pilots was carried out "with the goal of weakening ... morale and undermining public trust in the government," the State Department's lead inspector general said in a report in July.
After taking over swathes of remote countryside, the Taliban secured border posts, cutting off a key source of government revenue and support from local clans that traditionally extracted a share of customs levies in exchange for their loyalty.
The strategy fatally weakened the government led by Ghani, a Western-trained academic backed by Washington but with little popular support outside Kabul and poor relations even with some of his own commanders.
Once he fled the palace on Sunday, his defence minister, General Bismillah Mohammadi, tweeted that he had "tied our hands behind our backs and sold our country. Curses on Ghani and his gang."
As a Pashtun mistrusted by members of other ethnic groups, Ghani had relied for support on unruly leaders from the former Northern Alliance which the U.S. recruited to defeat the Taliban in 2001. They included Atta Mohammad Noor, former governor of the province of Balkh, and ethnic Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum.
But the Taliban's patient efforts undermined the system of patronage that kept such leaders in place, and on Saturday, they fled.
Atta Noor blamed "a large, organized and cowardly conspiracy" as his once-impregnable stronghold in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif fell without a fight, a day before Taliban fighters entered Kabul.
(Reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad and Alasdair Pal in New Delhi; Editing by Mike Collett-White)