By Col Ronnie Rajkumar
The UN envoy to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, warned on 06 August 2021 (Friday) that Afghanistan risks “descending into a situation of catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels this century”…..and that was just scant hours before the first Afghan provincial capital, Zaranj, provincial capital of Nimroz Province, fell to the Taliban. As I write, the summation of the ground situation in Afghanistan in terms of territorial control is an entire nation disintegrating into a rapidly shrinking archipelago of government-held areas centering around Kabul. Today, a bare week after the fall of the first provincial capital, a total of 14(total of 34 all-Afghanistan) provincial capitals – four in southern Afghanistan, one in central Afghanistan, two in West Afghanistan and seven in northern Afghanistan – are under Taliban control. The map below affords a visual of the situation as of today: –
This Taliban blitzkrieg ostensibly commenced immediately following President Biden’s announcement on 15 April 2021 that US troops will leave Afghanistan by 11 September 2021. The seemingly unstoppable Taliban juggernaut has caused consternation among military analysts – not least amongst the ranks of US and NATO mentors – as to how could this have ever happened to an army trained and equipped by the US at a cost of USD 2.83 B for two decades that is now reduced to fighting in isolated pockets with no military or unit cohesion, devoid of leadership and higher directions of war and reportedly surrendering not singly but in units and abandoning posts stocked with war fighting equipment and supplies without firing a shot. This is no military sleight of hand achieved by the Taliban but simply because the Taliban was always there and they were there all the time. So how has it been achieved? I render this explainer in my own simple military language, understanding and research by having been on ground in Afghanistan since 2009.
The point of focus here are the nine Northern Provinces of Afghanistan that are the bastions of local warlords who fought with Ahmad Shah Masoud under the banner of the Northern Alliance to evict the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. These warlords enjoy feudal status and are powerful leaders of their clans / ethnic group and have carved out their territorial spheres of influence and command significant armed militias that are a law unto themselves. This power bloc is one the strongest props for governments in Kabul and many warlords have sought legitimacy by being elected members of parliament or other bureaucratic posts. And the Taliban achieved strategic surprise that imbalanced the governments’ military posture by striking at this Tajik-predominant power base rather than in the Taliban’s traditional Pashtun-dominated heartlands in the south. The reason, apart from the do-the-unexpected factor, is attributable to the Taliban establishing resident areas of dominance with a popular support base of Pashtun pockets in the ethnically predominant Tajik northern belt. These pockets were created by Pashtun kings who sat on the throne in Kabul and sought to defend their tumultuous northern borders from marauders by populating this vulnerable region with trusted Pashtun blood-kin and clans uprooted from the south and given land and property in the north often displacing the Tajiks. It is these same Pashtun-pockets that harboured, sheltered and offered their military-age youth to the fighting ranks of a growing Taliban Force that increased their operational areas and reach. Mobile groups of Taliban fighters moved up north from Badghis to coordinate with resident Taliban groups in Sar-i-Pul, Jawzjan, Faryab and link-up with groups in Kunduz to create a crescent of instability spanning Northern Afghanistan (I went through this region in January 2010 and it was already in most-part a NO GO area). Thus the stage was being set since 2009. So the sudden appearance of the Taliban in critical mass to engage on multiple fronts and invest in urban centres in Northern Afghanistan is not a phenomenon and should not surprise the Afghan government, both local and in Kabul, or the ANDSF as all this was happening with their full knowledge.
Presence of Force-Multipliers
The Taliban, by all educated assessments, fields a strength of approximately 65,000 full-time fighters so it can also be reasonably assessed, given the pace of battle, the time and the engagements on multiple fronts, that they did not accomplish this military feat in northern Afghanistan alone. According to an updated assessment the ORBAT of terror /insurgent organizations that served as force multipliers that lent momentum and firepower to the Taliban northern offensive is as under: –
Al Qaida (AQ)
The AQ is a resident group in 15 Afghan Provinces and fields a strength of approximately 5,000 fighters. The core membership is of non-Afghan origin, consisting mainly of nationals from North Africa and the Middle East. The AQ’s strategy in the near term is assessed as maintaining its traditional safe haven in Afghanistan for their core leadership. The assessments indicate a longer-term AQ core strategy of strategic patience for a period of time before it would plan to strike at international targets in an AQ 2.0 mode. AQ in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), is reported to number in the range of several dozen to 500 persons. The AQIS operates under the aegis of the Taliban from Kandahar and Helmandand consists primarily of Afghan and Pakistani nationals but fighters from Bangladesh, India and Myanmarhave also joined this group.
Islamic State of the Khorasan Province (IS (K))
Regionally, the IS (K) strategy covers the ‘Khorasan’ region of Central and South Asia including Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The IS (K) fields a strength of approximately 1.500 to 2,000 fighters based in Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces. The core group in Kunar consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, while smaller groups located in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul are predominantly made up of local ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks.
Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)
The ETIM consists of several hundred members, located primarily in Badakhshan and neighbouring Afghan provinces. This group is also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). The group seeks to establish a Uighur state in Xinjiang, China, and towards that goal, facilitates the movement of fighters from Afghanistan to China. Reports further indicate that the group has established corridors for moving fighters between the Syrian Arab Republic, where the group exists in far larger numbers, and Afghanistan, to reinforce its combat strength. The ETIM group is active in Afghanistan.
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)
The IMU consists of approximately 700 people, including family members of fighters, and approximately 70 Central Asians who left the IS (K) and joined the IMU. The group is currently based in Faryab, Sar-e Pul and Jawzjan Province where they are assessed to be dependent upon local Taliban for finances and weapons.
Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO)
It is estimated that the number of FTOs to be approximately between 8,000 and 10,000, mainly individuals from Central Asia, the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Pakistan and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Although the majority are affiliated foremost with the Taliban, many also support AQ. Others are allied with ISIor have ISIL sympathies.
Release of Prisoners
One of the unique features of Taliban tactics to boost their fighting strength is to attack and capture prisons and detention facilities (majority of prisoners are often Taliban fighters or sympathizers) and release the inmates – all bad guys – who join the ranks of the Taliban. This tactic has been repeated at the capture of every urban centre (Kandahar yesterday)
Given the above, I assess that the Taliban’s pledge to deny use of Afghan soil to terror FTOs and VEOs is but a delusionary vision the US and western nations continue to harbour. If the Taliban take Kabul and establish their regime over the nation, Afghanistan will become the world’s breeding ground for terror groups and jihadist VEOs.
Seizure of Border Crossings : Strategy
On 17 July 2021 as President Ashraf Ghani addressed a conference in Uzbekistan on regional connectivity, Afghanistan was being progressively disconnected from its neighbors by the seizure of seven key and strategic Border Crossings by the Taliban. Map below refers: –
These border crossings include major custom facilities that will provide the Taliban additional sources of revenue while denuding the coffers of the government. But more significantly the control of these crossings may generate de-facto legitimacy and an elevation of the Taliban from the status of an insurgency to that of a state. There is also a psychological dimension to the Taliban strategy in that it diminishes the Ghani government’s standing, weakens its mandate and creates the perception that a nationwide Taliban takeover is inevitable. This, of course, has an impact on the will of local Afghan security forces and power brokers to continue the fight. With the control / capture of most of Northern Afghanistan that hugs the southern IB of three of the five Central Asian Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the war and the insurgency has arrived at the borders of Central Asia. These neighbours are now contending with the fallout they face from a spill over of the conflict into their respective nations and they are choosing to both engage the Taliban while also bolstering deterrent measures to contain /repel the insurgency. The Republics are, at the very least, uncomfortable with a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan but they may ultimately have no choice but to engage whoever is the de-facto power on the other side of the border. They continue to support the Afghan government but are steadily increasing their outreach to the Taliban. As is Russia that has initiated and hosted regional forums to address the Afghanistan imbroglio but has reinforced its 201 Motorized Rifle Division stationed close to Dushanbe.
Possibility of a Civil War
In a measure to give the war the face of a popular citizen’s war and to provide the second line of defence against the Taliban onslaught, the government has approved the mustering, mobilizing and arming of the public from all provinces. These irregulars will be controlled from a central Command Center but that’s a big but….these irregulars often are the militias of warlords who have their own axes to grind. In the absence of formal training, RoE (Rules of Engagement) and a defined hierarchy of command and control, things could go badly wrong. Afghans are fierce warriors and every man can field strip and assemble an assault rifle and shoot with accuracy and this citizen’s army may just be able to blunt the Taliban’s inexorable expansion. However they will be divided along ethnic lines and may be more prone to settle ethnic rivalries and change the character of the battle to a bitter and destructive internal conflict to seize control and power…or barter with the Taliban. This is a nightmare scenario for Pakistan – with a destabilizing ripple effect that will be felt in all neighbouring nations – as a civil war in Afghanistan would spill over and infect Pashtuns living in the vast swathe of Pashtunistan in Pakistan.
The Countdown Has Started….
In June 2021, the US intelligence community had given six months for Kabul to fall to the Taliban but in view of the pace at which things are unravelling; this estimate has today been revised to 30 days. I assess this is a high probability provided there is no sudden reversal of US policy. A study of the two Google maps below explains the whys.
Pul-i-Khumri (PeK). See map above. TheTaliban now stand poised at PeK, provincial capital of Balkh Province that they seized on 10 August 2021. PeK is a vital strategic communication hub that lies astride the arterial MSR of Kunduz – Mazar-e-Sharif – Kabul. If Pek is choked, all North – South communication lines to and from Kabul will be severed. PeK is a scant 231 km from Kabul but the MSR has to traverse the redoubt of Salang Pass (3,800m) and negotiate the tunnel (2.6 km). If the ANDSF position their defenses on these ridges, it will pose a considerable challenge to the Taliban advance to Kabul. But Salang can be bypassed by mobile columns through Bamyan province (ethnically Hazara and fiercely anti-Taliban) to the West.
See map above. Capital of Ghazni Province. This city has been under persistent threat since 2014 and partially overrun in 2018. It lies on the MSR connecting Kabul to Kandahar. It provides a staging area for the Taliban to assemble their forces before the final push through Wardak Province to the North and onto the gates of Kabul.
The proximity of Kabul to the Taliban’s forward line of fighting elements and the known mobility of the Taliban to mobilize and position its fighting groups by foot or transport (Technicals and now HUMVEEs), I assess the time frame given of 30 days for the Taliban to invest Kabul City is realistic – and it just may be sooner. But to take and subdue a city of 6M, will take considerably more time.
Major Factors for Taliban Success
A lot of data exists that chronicles the reasons on how a resurgent Taliban has achieved such success but, in my personal experience and views, I feel that the major reasons are as under: –
Apathy of the Afghan Government
The insurgency has been brewing since 2003 but picked up momentum in 2007 – 09. The government in Kabul had a ringside seat and watched while its areas of influence and governance were whittled away by the establishment of Taliban shadow governments in 11 provinces in 2009 and all 34 by 2013. The president of Afghanistan came to be known as the ‘Mayor of Kabul’ as that is what he actually controlled. Rampant and predatory corruption, ethnic infighting, weak justice and legal systems and lack of political will to take the fight to the Taliban and evict them from their known lodgments in the provinces are primary factors
Hold the Ground
The Afghan security forces could never hold ground. All clearing operations they mounted in critical areas drove the Taliban to take refuge in safe provinces. But as soon as the operation was over, the Afghan forces withdrew to their bases leaving a nominal force behind. So the Taliban moved back into the space they had temporary vacated.
Posts in Critical Areas manned by the ANP (Afghan National Police). The government and securityforces had too many small posts in critical areas manned by the police. Undertrained, unmotivated, and ill-equipped and not being a counter-insurgency force in the first place, the police were outgunned and outmaneuvered by the Taliban. And village by village, district by district, the Taliban began to wrest Afghanistan from the authority of the Kabul government.
GREEN on BLUE / GREEN on GREEN Attacks
These attacks are essentially insider attacks. GREEN is the colour code for the ANDSF and BLUE for NATO forces. Commencing from 2008, there was a rising surge of GREEN (ANDSF) on BLUE (NATO) attacks that had a devastating psychological, tactical and operational effect on military operations in Afghanistan. It destroyed the fabric of camaderie and the rapport between the Afghans and their NATO / US mentors and drove a wedge into their cooperation in the field. The attacks were attributed to Taliban infiltrators in the ranks of the ANDSF but cases came to light of animosity and hatred of the Afghan soldiery towards the foreigners. After the cessation of the combat role of NATO in 2014, GREEN on GREEN (fratricidal attacks) among the ranks of the ANDSF started picking up.
As on 22 July 2020, a SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a US agency led by a US Army two-star) audit report revealed “getting an accurate count of Afghan military and police personnel has always been difficult but that, supported with evidence, a recent Afghan government assessment in Kandahar, Zabul, Helmand, and Uruzgan reported that 50% to 70% of police positions were “ghost soldiers”—fictitious entries”. The SIGAR report further stated “investigations found that the Afghan Ministries of Defence and Interior had officials who created fraudulent payroll records for non-existent ANDSF personnel. Even the auditors responsible for oversight had been negligent and resisted follow-up audits”. It is anyone’s guess as to how many active ANDSF personnel were actually present on the field of battle against the Taliban in these recent months.
Taliban’s targeted assassinations have taken outthe cream of Afghanistan’s security officials – dedicated, courageous and committed to exterminating every fighter of the Taliban. Abdul Raziq was the police commander of Kandahar (before that he was commander at the Spin Boldak Border Crossing) and he was the mainstay of the provinces resistance to all attempts by the Taliban to expand and take control of the province and the city. The Taliban feared him like no other. Raziq was assassinated in 2018 after numerous failed attempts.
RAND Corporation has conducted a study of 89 insurgencies the world over and found that ‘modern insurgencies last approximately ten yearsand the government’s chances of winning may increase slightly over time’. It has not happened this time – the Afghan insurgency has lasted 20 years and the government is on the brink of losing out within the next few weeks. Another table, appended below, shows that Anocracies – that is what RAND classifies the Afghan government as – loses out more than it wins….I wish someone had taken a look at this earlier…..
So is Afghanistan collapsing? Well, the assessment above would suggest a collapse is more than imminent…
(The author is Indian Army Veteran with 33 years of service. Post retirement in 2008, he has worked with an international consultancy in Afghanistan as the Divisional Security Advisor based in Kabul. Trained in Kabul in COIN (US) and Country Security Management (Netherland), he has extensive ground experience of 11 years in Afghanistan and the region. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)