Can the Afghan army face up to challenge of Taliban

Updated: May 23, 2020 7:39 PM

The operations of ANDSF were ordered to be curtailed asking it to go in a ‘defensive’ mode prior to the signing of US-Taliban peace agreement in anticipation of a reduction in violence with Taliban agreeing to stop attacks.

The Afghan forces were no longer defensive in their operational conduct. (Representative image/ Reuters file photo)The Afghan forces were no longer defensive in their operational conduct. (Representative image/ Reuters file photo)


Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordering launch of ‘offensive’ actions against the Taliban is based on a sound judgement of the capabilities of Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) which over the years have transformed themselves into a battle-hardened force and have been successfully facing up to the challenges posed by multiple entities in a country perpetually in conflict over the last four decades.

The Afghan Army, once a very resolute and professional force, disintegrated by late 1980s post-soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. It split along ethnic lines with regional mujahidin commanders taking control of the armed cadres, mostly in North and West Afghanistan, transforming them into their personal militias. The Taliban raised from madrasas and armed by the US through Pakistan, gained control of the country in the mid-90s, leading to fierce conflict predominantly between the militias united under Northern Alliance and Taliban. Eventually, the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.

The defeat of the Taliban left Afghanistan bereft without a standing army. Various warlords, with huge militias, continued to hold sway with self-anointed high military ranks with a following of armed cadres. They frequently fought for control of territory and influence leading to armed clashes between various factions.

Some elements of militias continue to exist till date with most erstwhile war lords having made peace with Afghan government through brokered deals so as to enjoy perks of power by occupying high government positions at different levels of governance. A prime example of such largesse would be Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum who has continued to hold his own despite international and local condemnation to his misadventures.

The roadmap for a new Afghan National Army was laid out in December 2002 by erstwhile President Hamid Karzai. But it was only post 2004 that NATO and its allies set about the task of rebuilding ANDSF by taking it under their tutelage and putting it through a structured approach of training and equipping. It slowly and in a phased manner mentored it to undertake operations.

The Afghan security forces from the very beginning have faced the formidable task of enforcing governance, rule of law, tackling corruption and challenges posed by the Taliban. The critical areas to enable ANDSF to meet the challenges were to create an all enabling combat force with increased fighting potential and develop integral leadership amalgamating all ethnic entities in a new Army.

Maintaining an ethnic balance in ANDSF has always remained a challenge. Afghan National Army (ANA) has been predominantly manned by Tajiks while Pashtuns that comprise almost half the population of Afghanistan who are loathed to join it due to poor education standards and a tribal mindset. Resultantly, the overall composition of ANA has remained imbalanced, not reflecting on a composite Afghan national culture.

Over a period of near the last two decades the ANDSF matured with generational changes. Training provided by NATO forces, complemented by India and a few other countries saw the emergence of a new army and an officer cadre, confident to take on the leadership roles. The old army leadership is drawn from Soviet and Mujahidin era self-styled generals gave way to a more professional army. Afghan government under President Ghani also initiated changes in the armed forces by retiring a sizeable number of old generals as part of his long-term plans to reform and professionalize the security forces.

During the 2018 annual campaign codenamed Operation Nasrat, the Afghan Army changed its operational approach to adopt an offensive strategy against the Taliban. This resulted in gradual recapturing of districts that were previously controlled or taken by force by the Taliban. Similarly, during 2019 Operation Khalid it showed its offensive nature to take on the Taliban in the hinterland.

The Afghan forces were no longer defensive in their operational conduct. The special operations capabilities were enhanced to enable ANDSF to undertake independent operations. Appointment of HamdullahMohib as new national security adviser also helped in providing direction to Afghan security forces.

The operations of ANDSF were ordered to be curtailed asking it to go in a ‘defensive’ mode prior to the signing of US-Taliban peace agreement in anticipation of a reduction in violence with Taliban agreeing to stop attacks. However, immediately after the agreement was signed, the Taliban increased attacks on ANDSF positions. There was a perceptible change in Taliban strategy, especially after the Afghan government, refused to release all Taliban prisoners, forcing the Taliban to publically state its withdrawal from peace process.

Increasing ANDSF and civilian casualties as a result of Taliban refusal to back down from launching direct attacks forced President Ghani to order the Afghan forces to commence operations against the Taliban by going in an offensive mode, probably convinced (as per US assessment) that the Taliban to not “pose an existential threat to the Afghan government, given the current military balance”.

As per US Congressional Report released in May 2020, the effectiveness of the ANDSF is key to the security of Afghanistan. President Ghani must surely be aware o that to have ordered an offensive against the Taliban.

So far the US has provided approximately US $86.4 billion for Afghan security assistance between FY2002 and FY2019. Since 2014, it provides for around 75% of the estimated $5 billion to $6 billion a year required to fund the ANDSF.

The ANDSF strength is approximately 281,000 as of January 2020in comparison to Taliban’s 60,000 cadres.

Going into the offensive, the ANDSF face a major challenge of funding as fighting a war with a variety of terrorist outfits would not possible without military resources and financial assistance. President Ghani has admitted that Afghanistan will not be able to support its army for more than six months without U.S. financial support. The support of the US and its allies will, therefore, be crucial to help ANDSF take on the challenge of Taliban.

Another major challenge for ANDSF is the lack of air support. It will need to be assured support of NATO’s Resolute Support missions for launching aerial and special mission operations against the Taliban.

The Afghan army rank and file are young and drawn from new Afghanistan. They are well trained with high morale. Last year saw ANDSF launch nearly 3,000 operations and conduct more than 400 air assaults to foil the Taliban initiated attacks. President Ghani must surely be banking on these capabilities to put pressure on Taliban to return to a peaceful path of negotiation.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.)

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