The Afghan forces have been taking a heavy beating over the last few years. In September of 2015 they briefly lost Kunduz, the 5th largest city in Afghanistan, before regaining control with US support. They then managed to lose another 5% of the country in the four months leading up to July of this year. That same month, Kabul lost (at least) 1000 men alone according to a US commander; that’s 200 every week. The US and Afghan forces often play down casualties, so you know that the number must be much worse.
On August 26 the Taliban captured Jani Khel, a major district close to Pakistan. Controlling the district paves the way for the Taliban to bring in fresh supplies over the border and take control of new districts. They then followed up on the victory by taking control of Omna. As of August 30, 36 of the country’s 407 districts were deemed under insurgent control or influence, while another 104 were regarded as being “at risk.”
To say that the Afghan government has been struggling is an understatement, and the reasons why it barely stands up (even with an abundance of foreign backing) are numerous. It’s an overstatement to call them Kabul regime a “government” at all, since that term implies some form of centralisation and widespread control (military and administration-wise) of the country.
As with the Syrian regime, the Afghan “government” is little more than gangs of competing warlords vying for power. Vice President Dostum (a former warlord) is an Uzbek who leads his own private militia and is is engaged in a turf war with Balkh governor Atta Noor. This has hampered their efforts to combat the Taliban and hindered resources getting to the battlefield. Dostum and Noor’s men have killed, looted and abused civilians (especially in Fayrab province).
The US hss backed other warlords like Gen. Abdul Raziq with arms and cash, splintering the already-hollow Afghan army and police even further. Although the Afghan army and police are constantly referred to as “security forces” as if they represent a homogenous group, this is anything but the case on the ground. Local “police chiefs” are militia leaders that command groups of men tempted to their side with money and arms. These men have no allegiance to Kabul whatsoever; they get their money and arms from the local warlord or militia commander that supplies them. When a police chief deserts his post or leaves due to a dispute (or joins the Taliban) all his men go with him.
65% of Afghanistan is said to be under Kabul’s control. In practice, patchworks of warlords backed by Kabul control different parts of the country. All carry out their own policies and act with impunity while professing loyalty to President Ghani. “Government”-controlled territory is a series of mini-states. Balkh’s governor Atta Noor was actually dismissed in 2014, yet is too strong for the government to remove – he has refused to give up the office he has held since 2004.
Each local police chief/commander is known to act like a Medieval tyrant, requisitioning resources from locals and extorting them at checkpoints at will. The worst practice of the police chiefs is known as bacha bazi, which literally means “boy play”. Local boys are abducted at checkpoints and raped by the police chiefs. This practice is practically universal among local chiefs.
This causes huge levels of resentment against the government; many young men joining the Taliban have actually cited the actions of the police chiefs as one of their motivations. Having your son, brother or relative raped is naturally going to instil a demand for revenge in the locals, most of whom will then side with the Taliban. Which is exactly what they have done; during the Kunduz campaign the local population rose up to help the Taliban:
Summary executions, illegal taxation and other abusive practices have made the militias—and their government patrons—deeply unpopular, especially among the local Pashtun population. Most of the armed groups are led by ethnic Tajik and Uzbek warlords.
“The main reason Kunduz fell to the Taliban is that people were fed up with those militias,” said a resident who didn’t want to be named because he feared retaliation.
American complicity in the mass rape of children by the warlords has only created more support for the Taliban. American soldiers were explicitly ordered not to stop child rape on Afghan bases, even when they share the bases with the rapists. Two Green Berets soldiers who beat up a police chief for repeatedly raping a boy were forcibly separated from the US military. “Instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages”, admitted the New York Times in 2015.
The Taliban movement began as a movement to punish child-raping warlords, hanging them and driving them from their fiefdoms. The Taliban started out with as few as 30 men, but rose to prominence and popularity because of their Islamic principles and refusal to tolerate paedophiles. Now the US has brought those same warlords back into power. An uncomfortable truth that has not got unnoticed by the Afghan population.
Kunduz eventually fell back into government hands. Not because of any popularity on the part of the government, but because US airstrikes and American soldiers backed them to the hilt; the “security forces” were completely impotent without that support. A military force based on patronage, bribery and corruption can have little chance of success. Most of the men joining the Afghan forces have no morale or ideals to cling to. Not only because they are completely irreligious (many Afghan National Police militiamen are addicts) but because they come from small villages and depend entirely upon local warlords for their backing; the idea of fighting for a centralised state is alien to them.
These problems plague the Afghan army as well as the police. One of the most telling signs of the lack of fighting spirit and unpopularity of the US-backed Kabul administration are the constant “insider attacks” that plague the police and army. Soldiers and militiamen turning their guns on their comrades and then defecting to the Taliban. Such attacks have frequently targeted coalition soldiers and sown immense distrust in an already reluctant force.
This is a reality that has been learned at great cost on the battlefield. Over 7000 Afghan soldiers and “police” (backed by air support) fled Kunduz from as few as 500 Taliban on September 28 2015. On September 29 they began a counterattack which was fully backed by the USAF. The attack was so ineffectual that not only did they fail to advance, but they ended up surrounded by several hundred Taliban in the very airport they had launched the assault from. The Taliban then assaulted the airport as Afghan National Police fighters dropped their weapons and abandoned the defences. Hundreds of fighters loyal to Kabul fled from the airport in terror, its fall only being prevented by US Green Berets (special forces) engaging the Taliban, despite allegedly being present in an advisory role only.
On September 30 the American and Afghan forces agreed that US troops would be forced to directly join the battle against the Taliban, despite it being questionably legal for US troops (which were supposedly “advisors”) to do so. The abysmal performance of the Afghan forces had made it a necessity. The Taliban withdrew and the operation was presented as a “success”.
At this stage there can be no doubt that the 8400 US soldiers in Afghanistan (and the USAF) are the only pillars preventing the Kabul administration from collapsing. The dire military situation in Kunduz (which, despite US help, is again in danger of being lost) is being repeated across the country. 100 US Green Berets are all that stand in the way of the Taliban taking Lashkah Gah, the capital of Helmand. Most of Helmand province is now under Taliban control. Afghan and US forces are “besieged” in Lashkah Gah, only keeping their pocket from collapsing with overwhelming firepower and airstrikes. The Taliban has enforced the siege by deploying “Red Unit”, a special forces group armed with night vision and US rifles.
The US and other ISAF nations often measure “success” in Afghanistan based on ostensible Afghan government control of cities and towns. American commanders cite the city or city centres of major population centres like Lashkar Gah, Kunduz, Jalalabad etc being under ISAF control. However, this “control” doesn’t mean much when the countryside (the centre of gravity) is anti-government & resistance controlled. According to the Long War Journal, the Taliban control or contest more than 80 of the 407 districts in the country (at least). The others are controlled by Afghan forces. On paper, anyway.
“Control” is measured by determining if the government controls the centre of town or just a few administrative buildings. The Taliban are often in complete control of the countryside and the remaining 90-95% of the town, deliberately leaving a minor government presence in the centre of towns to avoid drawing attention to themselves and provoking the retaliatory strikes which would occur if they took complete control.
More often than not, government “control” of a district is utterly meaningless when it becomes a few militiamen and bureaucrats cowering in isolated buildings. The countryside is the crucial power-broker in Afghanistan. Local politics plays out there, resistance groups operate there, and deals are done there. The countryside started the uprising against the communists that culminated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That same countryside is tearing down Ashraf Ghani’s fiefdom today.
The Taliban don’t come from outer space. This group isn’t mutually exclusive to the Afghan people. The Taliban are anything but; they are local men drawn from villages and towns across the country. Men join them because their country is occupied by foreign powers that have installed child molesters in positions of power, dissolving the Islamic system (an affront to a devout population) and indiscriminately killing civilians.
In contrast to the conduct of the government, the Taliban strictly forbade looting and killing when they took over Kunduz in 2015. Although traditionally viewed in the west as racist Pashtun fighters seeking to marginalise Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups, the Taliban fight alongside a patchwork of different ethnic groups which includes Arab and Turkistani fighters. The two soldiers that shot dead 12 of their comrades on September 27 of this year were Uzbek and Turkmen as opposed to Pashtun. Kabul’s military leaders have actually made the insurgency worse by excluding the Pashtun majority from their forces (most of Kabul’s soldiers are non-Pashtun, including Hazaras and Uzbeks).
A combination of government corruption, paedophilia, military ineptitude and huge levels of unpopularity is lethal. This regime is in a worse state than Najibullah’s puppet government was when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989. It took the mujahideen forces three years to get to Kabul and destroy his dictatorship in 1992. There were over 200,000 of them at the time. Today there are around 80-100,000 fighters bearing arms in the Taliban and allied groups , much fewer than in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion. Yet the government is barely holding together; anti-Kabul forces are wreaking havoc against an administration which is better armed and numerically superior.
115,000 Soviet troops and eight years of indiscriminate warfare directed against the Afghan countryside (with chemical weapons and artillery) couldn’t save the Soviet-controlled Democratic Republic of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. So how can 8400 American soldiers save Ghani?