Col Sanjiv Kumar (retd)
The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan shocked the world, with the US being shocked more than others. The blazing speed and unpredicted victory of the Taliban against the mighty US Army which was equipped with the most modern and latest generation of arms and ammunition. The Americans used the “Mother of all Bombs”, drones, helicopters and aircraft and several other Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven weapons of war and assistive devices including satellite imagery in Afghanistan. All that the Taliban had only a few AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), hand-held and shoulder-fired missiles, and some captured arms and equipment.
The Taliban moved around in pick-up trucks and motorcycles, while the Americans used Chinooks, other helicopters and heavily armed multipurpose vehicles. To support the Americans there was a supposedly 300,000 Afghan Army trained and equipped to NATO standards which folded up without any resistance to the Taliban in most places.
What went wrong and where did the Americans goof up? Let us first discuss the Afghan Army who was raised, trained and equipped to, supposed to defend their motherland, but collapsed like a pack of cards.
The selection process of the recruits to the Afghan Army was not done professionally, anyone who volunteered was recruited. Most of the time even background verifications was not done. The recruitment was flawed from the beginning. A large number of Afghan soldiers were radicals and had a strong affinity to the Islamist idea, thus the Taliban was already present in the Afghan Army. This is evident that over 160,000 Afghan Army Soldiers deserted between January and July of this year.
Afghanistan was always a tribal federation. The tribes have their own rules and way of life. Recruitment could have been tribe-based and deployment of these Tribe specific Battalions in their respective regions to have a sense of ownership. Afghan army could have been comprised of battalions based on local tribes where recruits from the tribes populate the battalion. And the battalions could have been deployed in the tribe’s local areas.
The US tried to make a Nationalist Army by mixing the various tribes into one unit. While this model is very good as it overcomes tribal leanings and warlords’ fiefdoms, but for this, you require at least two generation-long cultures of nationalism, only then the individual tribal cultures take a back seat and a Nationalist Cohesive Force comes up. A mixed tribal force with limited nationalist feeling does not become a cohesive nationalist army unit in just over a decade time.
The British, during the 1800s, in India raised caste/region based units and these units performed exceedingly well in both World Wars as Izzat (Honour) and Dastoor (Traditions) were the motivating factors. This trend was continued by the Indian Army, for the Fighting Units well into the 1990s. Only in the last 15-20 years has India started raising mixed units, as by now the Indian Army has become a very Nationalist Army- where regions, caste and religions have taken a secondary position and the idea of India has become prominent.
High Tech Equipment
A huge amount of high-tech equipment was given to the Afghan Army. But were they trained to operate and maintain the same? The Answer is NO. Most of the equipment was being handled by the US forces and maintenance was outsourced to US Contractors. So, when the understanding of evacuation by the US from Afghanistan reached the first set of people to leave Afghanistan were the contractors and with them went the expertise of keeping the high tech equipment in fighting fit conditions. So, there is a huge amount of best of-the-weapons and equipment but the Afghan army does not know how to use and repair it.
The Americans believe in the use of technology and massive punishment of the target with the use of unique weapons and multiple platforms from a stand-off position instead of engaging with the opponent at close quarters. The war in Afghanistan was a set of small skirmishes and localised standoffs. The US is used to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, they were carpet-bombing, hi-tech drone attacks, aerial strikes/ helicopter insertion and extraction of combat forces etc, all this is supported by high tech communication equipment.
US Army had this luxury. But when it comes to small team operations and localised actions in the Afghan countryside, the US forces did not engage in these actions. Hence, they did not train the Afghan forces as well. Post withdrawal, the Afghan Ground units were left without any US backup. Incapable of fighting localised/ guerrilla type warfare, the Afghan army abandoned their posts without the fight.
While the Taliban remained a movement with a medieval mindset, therefore, it concentrated its battles in the remote backward territories of Afghanistan where the population, for most parts, were ideologically in tune with the Taliban. These areas were its recruitment grounds and areas from where they expanded their reach. The Taliban always adopted small team asymmetrical tactics and fought around villages groupings on grounds of their choosing that the US and Afghan troops could never seem to hold.
The strength of the Taliban is their over-simplistic command, control and operational structure based on local or geographic administrative support. It is loosely knit, and a complete loss of any module doesn’t affect the overall efficiency. No formal orders or strict adherence is needed from any commander. Their troops use their ingenuity to perpetuate the regime’s Islamic guidelines and edicts.
The US provided the leadership to the Afghan Forces as long as they were there. A US Army Corporal had more say in an Afghan unit than an officer of the Afghan Army. The Afghan officer cadre was weak, unmotivated and due to mixed tribes in units, there were regular standoffs in the units between different tribe members.
The Afghan leadership, including the President, were divorced from ground realities. They were running their operations from Presidential Palaces in Kabul. There were no known reports of the top Afghan leadership visiting and motivating the forces on the ground.
The US pumped in billions of dollars for the Afghan Army however, what tricked down was the only pittance. There were reports of soldiers not being paid for long durations. The repeated shortage of food and other essential items is well documented. The Afghan Army ran out of ammo while engaging with the Taliban. Thus the corruption and siphoning off of the funds by the national Leadership left the country with an army not better than a militia.
Kabul claimed to have a 300,000 strong army, which folded up against a 30,000 Taliban militia in less than three weeks. It is well known that there were ghost muster rolls and the on-ground soldier numbers were far less than claimed.
The Afghan Army was not trained to counter the Psychological-Warfare launched by the Taliban. The Taliban continued with their dominance on the minds of Afghans by instilling fear that if anyone betrayed them, the consequences would be unforgiving and brutal. The frequent suicide attacks, targeted assassinations, Green-on-Blue insider attacks, all lowered the morale of the Afghan troops and made them feel inferior, vulnerable and in awe of the reach of the Taliban into their most highly protected areas/zones. In over two decades the Taliban thus created a fear psychosis that caused the greater portion of the Afghan Forces to desert or surrender without a fight.
The Taliban 2.0 is not the Taliban of the 1990s, they are a mix of three types of groups which form the Taliban, which I say, “Is not an Army but “An Idea”.
- Doha Group – Well educated in foreign universities they are the lot who face the world at Doha and project the image of Taliban to the world media.
- The Clerics who project the Sharia Image and motivate the lower cadre.
- The ground fighters are uneducated and operate with minimal logistics support and orders.
To overcome their handicaps of the 1990s, the Taliban in the last 20 years of US Coalition presence in Afghanistan formed several alliances with various groups with similar ideologies coming from other parts of the world and received major support from Pakistan as well as China. Despite all this, a 30,000-strong Taliban force was no match to a US-led coalition. Still, the Taliban emerged victorious against all odds and at unprecedented speed, without a bloodbath—an unthinkable outcome that shocked the US Government more than anyone else. It is the second time that the reins of Afghanistan are in the hands of the Taliban.
One of the specific characteristics of the Taliban that stands out in their favour is the patience with which they bided their time for two decades against the Americans. They knew there would be a time when the US would lose its patience, and the public will cry out against the American body bags flying back home. President Donald Trump provided this opportunity when he decided to make a deal with the Taliban and went on to declare that the US forces would leave Afghanistan by mid-2021. In his turn, President Joe Biden was under pressure to keep his election promise of US troop withdrawal. Thus August 31, 2021, was the Red Line on which the Taliban was not willing to negotiate with the US.
The Afghan Army was not prepared to hold on to their own and the zero resistance offered by the Afghan forces in the 17 provinces fits into this scheme of things and those who were putting up a fight, e.g. the western Herat commander Ismail Khan, was reportedly betrayed and handed over to the Taliban by their colleagues.
While the prolonged war has ended, the current version of the Taliban, having just taken over the reins of Afghanistan, will face the acid test once they are faced with holding on to all the factions and warlords together. The withdrawal of the US troops has provided the opportunity to those who have waited for long to extract their pound of flesh as well as share the spoils of war. We have to see what happens on the ground in the coming weeks and months, does Afghanistan plunge into a civil war or taken over by different terrorist groups or there is some semblance of governance by the Taliban.
But, whatever it be the Afghan National Army is dead and gone
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.