By Brad Settelmeyer and Alison O’Neil
News of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, months earlier than anticipated, took the world by storm last weekend. Chaotic scenes out of Kabul Airport — airplane holds packed with fleeing refugees, footage of desperate Afghans clinging to the sides of a C-17 and images of evacuee-laden Chinooks — have prompted comparisons with Saigon and even calls for resignation of elected officials.
Many Western observers had predicted, albeit lacking understanding of the situation on the ground, that the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) would be able to hold out against Taliban aggression as U.S. forces withdrew.
It thus came as a surprise that the ANA fled or surrendered to advancing Taliban troops, though in hindsight many have argued that the ANA was not adequately trained or supported to fight a foe like the Taliban.
Some observers have drawn comparisons to the American Revolution, during which professional British forces failed to defeat an “irregular” and comparatively weak American militia. While circumstances, technology, and military strategy might vary considerably, it is clear that raw military power is far from the only ingredient required to achieve victory.
As Christina Lamb writes in Foreign Affairs, the Taliban drew on a cultural understanding and relationship with rural Afghans that the ANA and Western forces lacked.
The ANA’s long history of corruption also fed into the Taliban’s mythos and played a significant role in the Taliban’s resurgence, which Lamb and others point out. Although the rapid collapse of the Afghan state is recent, Afghan security forces’ paper trail of corruption stretches back years. Numerous sources have reported on “ghost soldiers,” nonexistent figures serving no purpose beyond inflating the ranks of the Afghan security forces on paper.
The U.S. military found itself tasked with removing 30,000 of these unverifiable names from its payroll after they failed to turn up ID or biometric identification, according to a 2017 Wall Street Journal report.
As early as 2014, The Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff ordered investigations into aspects of Afghan corruption that had both abetted and hindered U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts.
According to JCOA’s study, the United States’ need to secure transport and other logistical arrangements in Afghanistan — a necessity given the country’s mountainous terrain and lack of reliable infrastructure — forced U.S. planners to work with private contractors.
While these contractors streamlined parts of the COIN process, they often found themselves competing with the Afghan government. Meanwhile, NGO involvement in Afghanistan surged, and funding flowed into Afghan coffers with little oversight. Corruption proliferated in this anarchical environment.
The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers, released in late 2019, threw another international spotlight onto the myriad factors — Afghanistan’s opium trade, mission creep, corruption, and others — that intertwined with and often hampered the United States’ COIN efforts and cooperation with Afghan security forces.
As one Afghanistan Papers document put it, “Abusive and predatory behavior was driving people to the insurgency. To a degree, there was a consensus that corruption was fueling the insurgency…Corruption also undermined the institutional capacity of Afghan institutions. At the end of the day, if we’re trying to execute COIN, we can’t do it with highly corrupt institutions.”
Afghanistan’s corruption left few favorable options for poor and increasingly desperate soldiers. “Some were reluctant to fight for a government whose insatiable demand for bribes they felt was the bane of their lives,” Lamb writes. “They saw little utility in risking their lives for a predatory government when the Taliban seemed just as likely to return.”
The countless years of conflict and numerous casualties Afghan soldiers endured could’ve been a tell-tale sign of what outcome would unfold after U.S. forces inevitably retreated from the region. Given the circumstances in which Afghan forces had to fight, perhaps it is no surprise that soldiers would rather live to die another day than fight a reinvigorated Taliban force.
U.S. assistance also strengthened the soldiers’ morale, giving them “the heart and confidence to stand their ground,” according to an Atlantic article. It may have been wishful thinking by both the Biden Administration and State Department to expect the army of Afghan soldiers they had so heavily invested in to hold their ground against extremists like the Taliban once the U.S. withdrew its most significant support. The events between August 9th and August 16th might have revealed just how disjointed from reality this thinking was.
It is also crucial to recognize Afghan security forces’ role in allowing the U.S.-backed government to fall at such a staggering pace. As mentioned previously, the Afghan government inflated the number of ground soldiers at its disposal. This most likely gave the government a false sense of security against any threat the Taliban posed to them on the ground. It could also have led the U.S. to falsely believe the ANA was capable of defending itself.
But though the Afghan government and army failed to prevent the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country, the way regional groups (villages, tribal communities, and city governments) fell so quickly suggests its cause is more complex.
Given the countless years of fighting and corruption, perhaps regional groups believed switching to the Tablian’s side would be easier than a protracted war. There is an old saying, as the Independent puts it: “Afghans never lose a war – because they always join the winner before it comes to an end.”
While some hope to share the spoils of winning the twenty year war against the U.S. and ANA, observers may recognize the Taliban’s rapid takeover as a sign the war needs to end.
All may not be lost for Afghans still hopeful of resisting the Taliban. Resistance leader Ahmad Massoud, son of famed anti-Soviet mujahideen Ahmad Shah Massoud, has launched an offensive against the Taliban based in the historically and strategically significant Panjshir Valley. Massoud’s forces have already gained a substantial following and have appealed to the United States for aid in the wake of Kabul’s fall.
Time will tell whether the Taliban can remain in control of such vast swathes of Afghan territory, but in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover the United States would be wise to invest in dedicated local resistance fighters rather than corrupt bureaucracies like the ANA.
Brad Settelmeyer is a regular contributor for the Realist Review. A recent master’s student at Northeastern University, his interests include conflict resolution and humanitarian crises.
Alison O’Neil is a regular contributor for the Realist Review and a freelance writer on international affairs. She is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter: @Alison_Does_IR