Twenty years after they were ousted from power by US-led forces, the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in August, in a blitz that took the world by surprise. This time they were fighting not the US-led Nato forces, but the Afghan National Defence Security Forces (ANDSF), as the US and allied forces were preparing to leave under an agreement signed between the Taliban and the US in February 2020. The Nato allies of the US were not party to the negotiation, nor did they set the deadline for the departure of forces.
What were the reasons for the abject failure of the ANDSF which had, on paper, 300,000 personnel, to stop the advance of the 70,000-strong Taliban? After all, the US had spent around $83 billion to train and equip the Afghan army. Why did they surrender without a fight? In an article published in Al Jazeera (17 August 2021), Abdul Basit has argued that the virtual disintegration of the ANDSF was primarily due to the lack of any ideological cohesion within the Army or even a sense of national duty. It was not surprising, given the fact that there was widespread corruption in Afghanistan’s defence and interior ministries as a result of which “funds, ammunition and food deliveries were stolen before reaching soldiers,” wrote Basit.
What is more, there was embezzlement of funds by some Army commanders, and consequently soldiers remained unpaid for months while ammunition and equipment meant for them were sold in the black market ultimately reaching the Taliban. Under the circumstances, could one really expect the ANDSF to put up a fight, especially when they found that their leaders ~ political and military ~ were corrupt? The ANDSF had one of the highest desertion and casualty rates in the world, compared to other national defence forces.
To make matters worse, President Ashraf Ghani reshuffled his defence and interior ministers frequently; similarly senior police and military officials, including the chief of staff, were changed even during the period of US withdrawal, thereby weakening the morale of forces fighting on the ground. Finally, despite several years of training by US forces, and receiving equipment worth billions of dollars, the ANDSF failed to earn the capability of fighting on its own and depended on US and Nato forces to protect urban areas. But that support was gone once the withdrawal of Western forces began. In contrast, the success of the Taliban’s military and terror campaigns was facilitated by the decentralised command structure which gave flexibility to local commanders to plan their strategy and implement it.
These factors may explain the reasons behind the abject failure of the ANDSF, but they do not tell us enough about the Taliban’s winning strategy and the role others, particularly Pakistan, played in shaping that strategy. In a study ‘The Taliban’s winning strategy in Afghanistan’ (The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 20O9), Gilles Dorronsora wrote: “The Taliban are a revolutionary movement deeply opposed to the tribal structure in Afghanistan. They promote mullahs as key political leaders in the society and state they seek to create.” They “have a strategy and a coherent organisation” for taking over Kabul and establishing an Islamic Emirate based on Sharia, he wrote, and his words have come true. But what was their winning strategy?
It seems the Taliban had developed a two-fold strategy: (i) to create disaffection among the people about the government, and the US and NATO forces, and, (ii) preparing for a final military assault to take over Kabul once the foreign forces left which, they assumed, was bound to happen. The Taliban cleverly exploited the resentment among people about the lack of governance, particularly in the far-flung villages in southern and east Afghanistan where the Pashtuns are predominant. They have a well-developed propaganda machinery and depicted the US and its allies as occupation forces, just as the Soviet forces were during the 1980s, and the government of Afghanistan as a puppet serving the interests of occupation forces. Since the Afghans are a fiercely independent people, such propaganda worked well.
The Taliban were virtually running a parallel government, over vast swathes of land in eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan, collecting taxes and dispensing Sharia justice, since the local policing and judicial systems were weak and corrupt. They even earned the sympathy of the people as they were waging war against the “occupation forces” and their agent (the Afghan government). The operational mistakes committed by US forces further contributed to this. Take, for example, the night raids conducted by US-led forces in flushing out the ‘terrorists’ (read the insurgents). Senior American military officers often claimed that night raids played an important role in turning the tide militarily against the Taliban, but the reality was different. As then President Hamid Karzai pointed out on several occasions, such night raids were counter-productive and generated sympathy for the Taliban among the general population, a valuable asset for any insurgent group.
According to information released by the NATO headquarters, Special Forces carried out 2,832 night raids during the second quarter of 2011, which was twice the number of raids carried out during the same period a year earlier as a result of which 834 insurgents were killed and 2,941 captured. (John Cherian; ‘Striking reverses’, Frontline, Aug.27-Sept. 2011). But that did not prevent the Taliban from launching high-profile attacks in Kabul and Kandahar.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of then President Karzai and his political confidant, was killed in a suicide attack in May 2011. In June, Taliban militants attacked the highly fortified Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul killing 18 people and in the following month, killed Jan Mohammad Khan, one of the close advisers of President Karzai. This was preceded by the assassination of Mohammad Daud Daud, who was in charge of the security of eight northern provinces. In the first week of August 2011, the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter, that resulted in the death of 31 US Special Forces personnel ~ the highest single-day casualty since the US invaded Afghanistan ~ and seven Afghan soldiers. So much for turning the tide against the militants, especially at a time when the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan by the US had peaked, reaching 100,000.
The Asia Foundation in its Annual Survey of the Afghan People, reported that in 2009 nearly 50 per cent ~ mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans ~ had sympathy for armed opposition groups, primarily the Taliban and allied groups and this support stemmed from grievances against public institutions. However, the Taliban did not enjoy the support of all Afghans. There were other insurgent groups and warlords with strong local support, particularly among the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks who did not support the Taliban. Moreover, they had little support among the urban, educated middle class who had benefitted from the liberalisation of Afghanistan’s polity and society after the overthrow of the harsh Taliban regime. By 2019, support for the Taliban had plummeted to 13.4 per cent.
The quest for re-establishment of the Afghan Emirate began soon after the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, and their efforts were boosted by Pakistan, especially by the ISI and a section of the military establishment, who quickly evacuated the militants along with their ISI mentors from Afghanistan to the Northern Areas in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Senior leaders of the Taliban who had played a major role in the fight against the Soviet forces, set up a Council in Quetta in Balochistan. The leadership council, ‘Quetta Shura’, as it was called, was originally composed of ten members but the number rose to 33 in March 2003.
The Quetta Shura would take decisions on all political and military affairs including the strategy for conducting insurgent movements in Afghanistan and giving directions to the fighters on ground after periodic reviews. It is here that Pakistan’s role became important, as Pakistani leaders believed that by helping the Taliban to regain power In Kabul, Islamabad would be able to influence their policies thereby gaining strategic depth vis-vis India. As much was admitted by Asif Ali Zardari, a former President of Pakistan.
Pakistan was not only offering sanctuary to the Taliban and other insurgent groups, especially the Haqqani network, it was also providing them financial assistance, military training and arms. This was as clear ‘as the sun in the sky’, commented Taliban commanders, when asked about the close relationship between Pakistan’s security services ~ particularly the ISI ~ and the insurgency in Afghanistan (Matt Waldman; The Sun In the Sky: The Relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgency, Discussion Paper 18, CSCS, June, 2010.)
(To Be Concluded)