Ruknoon Dinder

Cannon Writer

The speed of the Taliban’s advance since the American withdrawal has surprised both the media and internet alike. Journalists are rushing to explain their success, usually pointing to morale or corruption. While those are undoubtedly important, they do not paint the full picture of the Afghan National Army (ANA) defeat. A great book will eventually be written on the “Fall of Kabul,” but since this development is so new, no comprehensive explanation exists so far. This post is my attempt to draw together the reports, expert opinions, and literature on this topic to explain what happened.

 

An Army on Paper

The manpower of the ANA in May was nominally 352,000, but Kabul could only prove 254,000 of those troops actually existed. Among those troops, 8% of the army (the commandos) were doing 70-80% of the fighting. The ANA was largely two armies: a mobile element capable of offensive operations, and a large auxiliary corps for internal security. While the structure of the Taliban was similar – the Taliban “Red Unit” being a cut above all other Taliban forces—the ‘average’ Talib was more battle hardened and motivated than the average soldier of the ANA. Having spent two decades fighting the world’s pre-eminent power, the Taliban’s battle-hardened militias found the resistance of ANA auxiliary units to be a cakewalk. Insulated from the worst fighting, the brunt of which until very recently was borne by Afghan, American, and Australian SOF, the “C divisions” of the ANA, in contrast, were almost completely useless for combat purposes.

 

Dispersion of Force

Having never before conducted operations without significant foreign support, the ANA high command had very little understanding of operational art (the maneuver of units before they are engaged in combat). While the ANA unarguably had excellent tactical leadership in some units (the commandos, as of 2017, had “never lost a battle“), its operational leadership was abysmal. Long after the US abandoned “surging” as a strategy, the ANA leadership elected to disperse all its units—including its mobile, offensive-capable commandos—across the country in isolated outposts. This strategy mirrored that of Bashar al Assad in 2013, with the same catastrophic result: despite outnumbering the enemy ‘strategically,’ the dispersed government force was cut apart and defeated in detail by more concentrated Taliban columns.

While the Taliban had only limited experience in managing large-scale conventional operations prior to American withdrawal, they had enough to beat the low standard offered by their opponents. The Taliban plan involved four major offensives as revealed by the timeline of their victories: one in the southwest towards Zaranj, one in the northwest towards Herat, one in the North to take the Tajik majority provinces, and a major spearhead from their stronghold of Helmand province all the way to Kabul. On its face, it appears as if their advance was also unnecessarily scattered, but their four-pronged offensive was a recognition of operational reality: the Taliban, like the ANA, had “A” and “B” units. The bulk of its local fighters were not mobile, either because of tribal alignment or because of a lack of rear services required to transport them. They had to attack everywhere in order to mobilize the entirety of their force, either to win or to pin the local ANA down and prevent them from reinforcing the rest of the country. This was the basic conclusion drawn by General Milley in the wake of the Taliban’s advances.

 

Morale

The ‘best’ ANA units were unquestionably better than the best Taliban units. Trained by the United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) and often shadowing them, the Afghan commandos are regarded as some of the best special forces in the region. Although the average Talib—owing only to greater combat experience—is better than the average ANA soldier, Taliban marksmanship and infantry skill still leave much to be desired and the edge is not night and day. Where the Taliban excel, however, is in morale. In the past two months, fear has conquered more than slaughter with half a dozen cities surrendering without a fight and entire divisions of ANA defecting or surrendering. The ANA was demoralized by the American withdrawal, and by the emptiness of their ideology. It is not entirely clear what stake the average Afghan had in the recognized Afghan government. It had failed to provide courts, law, and order. Its only true constituency is a class of 10,000 profiteers living in Kabul off of foreign money.

The Taliban, in contrast, has a coherent vision that appeals to Afghan youth because of recent history. Contrary to popular belief, the Taliban are not a tribal movement but an anti-tribal revolutionary movement. They blame the 40-year division of their country on Afghanistan’s squabbling warlords and tribal elders, and want to replace those elders with the Sunni ulema. They want to replace tribalism with a single identity based around Sunni Islam, in the same way that Ismail Safavi united the disparate ethnic groups of Iran under Shi’a Islam (though the Taliban would never speak favorably of Shah Ismail). The War on Terror has seemingly proved the Taliban right: the Afghan government, strongly supported by most tribal elders and the “powers that be” in Afghan society, has totally failed to govern. Even the Tajiks – historical enemies of the Taliban – now accept their rule. The media has stirred up hopes that warlords getting back in the business like Dostum and Khan would stem the Taliban tide, but they were quickly defeated. Some are left scratching their heads, wondering how men who held the Taliban back for years in the 1990s were now defeated in weeks. The answer is simple: Afghanistan has moved past its warlords. After their repeated failures to build a state, the warlords have lost all public confidence and are supported only by their old patronage networks.

 

The Inner Game of Command

Napoleon once said that “in war the moral is to the physical three to one.” There are two forces at work here. I have already discussed the impact of troop morale and the willingness of soldiers to fight. Less researched is ‘the morale of the commander.’ Tactical ‘coup d’oeil’ and operational art are only half of the art of war. The other half is the commander’s inner game. Paraphrasing Ulysses S. Grant: no one knows how strong his enemy is. In any battle, both commanders are scared and uncertain. Often, victory goes not to the stronger side, but to the one who stays engaged longest, he who “blinks” second. The Taliban understand this far better than the ANA. Their elite Red Unit are not known for their infantry skills, but for their zeal and ferocity. Taliban commanders have often attacked frontally in the past few weeks, and certainly attacked numerically superior forces, but in almost every case the government commanders “blinked” instead of holding fast.

According to American generals, the entire Afghan command “blinked” the last week of July. Realizing the situation was hopeless, they belatedly ordered a panicked retreat back to areas of consolidation. The worst of the rout—the fall of Kandahar and Herat—happened only after.

 

Strategic Hopelessness

The last weeks had seen high level defections from the government to the Taliban, including generals and governors. As with the Afghan Communists, collapse has come from within. Why, then, could the Communists hold out for three years after foreign withdrawal and the ANA only three months? The answer lies in politics; unlike the Communists, the present Afghan regime had totally failed to build a state.

Paraphrasing Gilles Dorronsoro, states and especially Afghan states have always been built on financial motives. In order to collect taxes, you need to police the population and institute the rule of law. With foreign aid being the lion’s share of the Afghan budget, the Afghan establishment had no incentive to institute the rule of law. Thus, foreign aid had actually stymied Afghan state-formation. The Afghan elite were aware that even if the ANA successfully stabilized the front between North and South, there was no hope of victory as Kabul was dramatically behind the game in providing security and order to the population.

Defying expectations, the Taliban focused the bulk of their efforts in the North, whose population was traditionally hostile to them. This ended up being brilliant, as it undermined the consolidation strategy. By quickly capturing their enemies’ traditional base of support, they stole what hope remained in the Afghan brass. By August 10th, the “consolidated” Afghan state consisted of little more than Hazarajat and Kabul. As Sun Tzu advised, they did not fight the enemy’s army, “they fought his plan.” By robbing the Afghan elite of their master plan for victory, the Taliban threw them into despair and took several cities “without fighting.”

 

The Big Question: Iranian Intervention

Almost no one expected things to go so badly for the ANA. Russian intelligence predicted far more moderate gains, while the US held out hope that the massive ANA could hold on for years. Iran secretly backed the Taliban despite their sympathy for the Shi’a Hazara, probably expecting the situation to degrade into a “second Syria” (a civil war between the minorities and majority) that they could influence. Heads are no doubt rolling in Iranian intelligence, as the past few weeks have been a spectacular humiliation: Iran’s loyal Hazara allies are now alone facing the storm of the rest of Afghanistan.

Whether Iran will intervene depends on internal Iranian politics. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has no choice but to push for intervention: up to 20,000 Hazara fighters joined them in the Syrian Civil War, and the force has a record of success in its interventions in foreign civil wars. The civilian government, however, is dealing with a financial crisis owing to COVID, the oil glut, and American sanctions: another intervention is something they can ill afford.

If Iran intervenes, it will need to do so in a self-financing way. The IRGC makes money on drugs, but it’s slipping hold over Iraq and the devastation of Syria, plus the more competent enemy they find in the Taliban mean they may not have the wherewithal for a full intervention. Far more likely is a limited intervention, or an agreement with the Taliban to let Hazarajat be.

 

Summary

Though outnumbered at least two-to-one in May overall, the Taliban concentrated superior forces at every point due to the ANA’s dispersion. The Taliban’s forces, down to the village militiamen, were battle hardened from years of fighting the United States, while most of the ANA had never seen serious combat and never expected to. Even when inferior in material terms, the Taliban were able to eke out victories because the demoralization and inexperience of enemy commanders led to premature retreats and surrenders. The Taliban knew the value of delivering a strategic ‘coup de main’ to the Afghan elite, and, by capturing the North where some elites (namely Massoud, Dostum, and Khan) had expected to build a ‘consolidated’ state, they deprived the ruling class of all hope of victory and gained numerous cities and divisions through defection. Kabul had failed to articulate a theory of victory to its remaining supporters: how does the government plan to win and build a state when it has failed to do so for 20 years? This failure is due largely to an addiction to foreign money which deprived Kabul of an incentive to establish law and order, and therefore a reliable tax base. The Taliban, in contrast, have an anti-tribal ideology that promises to resolve all of Afghanistan’s ills, create a unified national identity, and end the longstanding division of the country: today even the historically hostile Tajiks are willing to give it a shot.

Overall, the Taliban’s victory is more than the victory of a ‘drug cartel’ over a corrupt, demoralized army as it has often been explained in the press and media (due to no fault of the journalists involved: this situation is so new and still developing). Instead, it is the victory of a smaller but motivated, aggressive, and concentrated force over a larger but dispersed and hopeless one. Just as importantly, the Taliban’s advance would have made Sun Tzu proud, conforming to his principles of “fighting the enemy’s plan” and thereby “winning without fighting.” By recognizing how the Afghan establishment planned to win (consolidating a minority regime in the North) and concentrating the bulk of their forces there to deprive them of hope, they threw the Afghan regime into despair and secured the defection of high level civil and military officials, along with their cities and troops.

Afghanistan is a complex place and the very reductive commentary around the current tragedy inhibits our chance to learn from the mistakes that have been made there. Simplistic analysis like “it’s just the graveyard of empires”, or “Afghans simply can’t be helped”, or (as the more extreme ‘pundits’ have suggested) “they just hate us” are not just meaningless, they actively work against an understanding of what happened here.

Similarly, there has been a spate of articles and posts here promoting the former Deputy PM and Ahmad Massoud Jr. as heroes for heading off to continue the fight against the Taliban that ignores the long history all the actors have, and that for the most part there aren’t really good guys and bad guys like some Hollywood movie.

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