By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
The world is terrified as well as astonished. How the Taliban with a force of around 75,000 guerrilla fighters could so easily take over entire Afghanistan being manned by close to 3,00,000 trained soldiers is perhaps being discussed all over the globe. Inputs from experts and war veterans however indicate fudging of numbers by the Afghan commanders. The New York Times (NYT) in a journalistic piece informs:
“….the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totalled around just one-sixth of that, according to US officials….”
Corruption, coupled with mismanagement, directionless political objective and lack of legitimacy of the Ghani government have been cited as ‘other’ reasons for the ‘pack of cards’ like fall of the Afghan Security Force (ASF). Nonetheless, criticism has been heaped on the faux pas committed by the American military as well. Max Boot in particular has been vocal. Lauding the contribution of the ASF in the last two decades of Global War on Terror (GWOT) in the rugged topography, Boot is categorical when he says:
“It was the US pull out that brutally exposed the shortcomings of the Afghan forces and precipitated the military’s collapse.”
Whereas Benjamin Jensen on the other hand attempted to unravel the ‘operational art’ of the Taliban victory. Jensen specifically discusses the targeted killing of Afghan pilots by the Taliban which in practice severely affected a nouveau Afghan air force. This ploy of targeted assassinations of key personnel was as if a sort of counter to drone-assisted elimination of Taliban leadership.
In sum, with whatever data and information is available at hand at this juncture in a coordinate external to the enclosure called Afghanistan, it could be inferred that training in warfare is extremely important no doubt, yet the set of trained soldiers ought to be under a well-knit command-and-control structure and nourished with proper logistics in order to succeed in war.
That precisely was not available with the ASF in Afghanistan when the US withdrew, and in the process paved the way for a smooth takeover by the Taliban guerrillas. Another lesson which shoots up in this fiasco is the shrapnel called ‘information and psychological warfare’.
It is widely reported that the Taliban had been adept in spreading disinformation as well as ‘highlighting issues of corruption and maladministration’ through social media and cell phones – which almost 70 per cent of the Afghans have access to – so as to create a façade of illegitimacy of the working government in the minds of the ordinary Afghans, especially the ASF. And with a lack of supply of food and ammunition, the two fundamental instruments in any battle, it was all the more pragmatic for the utterly shaken ASF personnel to cut deals with the Taliban fighters or flee the battlefield.
Retired from the US Army in 2019, Colonel Mike Jason seems to put the blame on the US military more than what Boot had to say:
“We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan; we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time, without a sense of direction. The US military can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan—I hold us responsible.”
The colonel may be right, but what is noteworthy is the question whether the US in 2001 at the first place had an agenda to build a war-torn Afghanistan or it was journeying through the treacherous terrain in order to get hold of the Terrorist Number One – Osama bin Laden. The latter seems more probable and logical too.
In fact, Colonel Jason tells us that a similar case erupted in post-reconstructed Iraq when the Iraqi forces were unable to confront the Islamic State (IS) after the Americans withdrew. Jason laments:
“We did not successfully build the Iraqi and Afghan forces as institutions. We failed to establish the necessary infrastructure that dealt effectively with military education, training, pay systems, career progression, personnel, accountability—all the things that make a professional security force.”
Indeed, as analysts and researchers wade through the labyrinth of operations and tactics of the guerrillas in this apparently unprecedented blitzkrieg of the proto-state Taliban 2.0, it is important to remember what Richard English in his Modern War (A Very Short Introduction) had written:
“As Michael Howard has pointed out, the history of war is ‘more than the operational history of armed forces’, involving as it does ‘the study of entire societies’………as Vivienne Jabri [has] suggested, we cannot fully understand war if we divorce it from social relationships and from questions of power and community.”
If ASF personnel were deputed all across Afghanistan in outposts, then surely it indicated that ASF or non-Taliban forces were immersed in a pool of Taliban fighters. That is, the Taliban had never been completely ousted from Afghanistan in this two-decade GWOT. The fact of the matter was the Taliban was very much in strength, with the US Department of State in its 2018 country report on Terrorism having ranked the Taliban as the deadliest global terrorist organisation.
The finalisation of a peace deal last year between the Taliban and USA clearly indicated that the former was being granted a position of political and military significance.
So, even after two-decades of GWOT, the Taliban could not be exterminated. Rather, they still remained embedded in the Afghan society. It was just a matter of time for them to swoop onto the fragile structures of democratic government created by external states, demolish those feeble institutions and kill the participants.
This truth in a ‘post-truth world’ emphasises that additional chapter on doctrines of warfare – insurgency. A conventional war may be won with superior technology. But to defeat insurgents, time is the key, along with taking the population by your side. In Afghanistan, somewhere these crucial links must have been missing. If the democratic government didn’t appear to be people-friendly, then of course the very act of counterinsurgency appeared to be a charade to the ordinary Afghans.
Though drones, artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber-war and space-war would continue to enthral discussants on war, yet a large chunk of the globe would remain enmeshed in issues of religion, water, land, minerals. Warfare for them would continue to be straightforward human combat.
Land warfare is here to stay, at least in the Asian geopolitics. Let us not forget this simple problem before we shift our focus on the extraordinaire.
-The writer is a PhD specializes on Left Wing Extremism [LWE], insurgency and counterinsurgency, since 2008 and in that capacity has contributed chapters in edited volumes and also been a television commentator. In February 2021, he was invited by the Overseas Security Advisory Council of the US Department of State and the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila to speak on LWE in India and Philippines. In 2020, the New Delhi based think-tank Vivekananda International Foundation inducted him in the nine-member Task Force on LWE. Any opinion expressed is author’s own.