Fourteen years after its defeat, the Taliban in Afghanistan was able to hold the strategic Northern Province of Afghanistan for at least three days. During that time, the Taliban conducted some brutal ethnic cleansing, carried out prosecutions, killed female doctors, and looted public and private properties, including massive military tanks and ammunition dumps.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the office of President Ashraf Ghani’s office confirmed that the Taliban committed crimes against humanity in Kunduz. But the Taliban also sent a powerful political message to the beleaguered Afghan government and its Western partners, namely that its military machine is effective, its hope for forming a repressive Islamic Emirate is undeterred, and the line between Afghanistan’s tragic past and a democratic future – something that Afghans and their partners envisioned in 2001 – is extremely narrow. The country has the potential to return to its past at any time if the situation in the battlefields does not change in favor of the Afghan forces and government.
From a mere military perspective, including the balance of forces, Afghan soldiers enjoy a clear strategic advantage. They have more manpower, better weapons, and are trained and supported by American and NATO mentors. They are widely respected by the people of Afghanistan and are, perhaps, regarded as the country’s best hope for survival. A combination of serious political and military factors are, however, undermining the soldiers’ ability to fight harder and defeat the enemy.
To begin with, Afghanistan’s election last year produced the fragile and unhealthy National Unity government (NUG). By now, it should be clear that NUG was never a political victory, nor was it a viable replacement for a government that emerges from a transparent election. The detrimental political wrangling and confrontations between Ghani and his chief executive, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, have polarized the country and left the armed forces defenseless and vulnerable. As with any institution, an army is the reflection of a country’s people, political system, and values. When the country’s political leadership in chaos, amid ceaseless competition for power and crippling corruption that also encompasses army ranks, command, promotion and appointments, soldiers on the frontlines capitulate and perish. The leadership crisis has already had devastative consequences for Afghanistan’s fledgling armed forces. Their escalating casualty rate of 300 casualties per week is shocking and unaffordable for a young army. There is a growing and legitimate fear that if the army is not adequately reinforced and continues to lose soldiers at the same pace, the country soon will run out of the manpower it needs to continue the war.
The civilian and military leadership has been unanimously cited as a principal factor in every major battles that Afghan forces fought and lost this year. Early on April, 2015, the Taliban killed and beheaded more than 30 Afghan soldiers and arrested a larger number in Badakhshan province. A subsequent investigation revealed that the soldiers’ exhaustive calls for logistical assistance and reinforcement were either ignored or did not reach the authorities in Kabul or the local government. In a similar episode this July in Wardak province, just 30 miles from Kabul, 30 local police were killed and desecrated. The investigation commended the bravery of the encircled men, who fought to the end, while confirming that they were not given timely assistance.
Ordinary Afghan soldiers have demonstrated incredible morale and resistance in this violent and protracted war. However, corruption and disintegration at the leadership level have hamstrung their effectiveness on the battlefields. How can the soldiers win a war when their top civilian and military leadership is yet to understand and define the enemy? The ethnic nature of the Taliban has created a real conundrum within the Afghan government and often prevents decisive action. Following the collapse of Kunduz province, the Director of National Directorate of Security (NDS), said that his agency had shared all information with the government about the intentions and magnitude of the Taliban operation and had requested preemptive action, but unexplained political considerations and delays in the president’s office handed the opportunity to the Taliban.
The total breakdown of inter-agency communications and blatant intelligence failures at critical junctures account for the bulk of military setbacks and casualties. In this unconventional counterinsurgency, commanders and their soldiers need first-hand intelligence and swift channels to communicate, analyze and take action. The festering political confrontations in Kabul and Ghani’s unabated political appetite to concentrate decision-making in his office have literally incapacitated the field commanders and their soldiers. After every major offensive by the Taliban, intelligence officials in Afghanistan claim that they knew what was going to happen and had shared the information with the government. The claim was repeated when the Taliban were able to free 350 prisoners from prison in Ghazni province. The government is unclear on why intelligence reports and warnings are not heard or reflected in the decision-making and military operations.
Can Afghan Soldiers Stop the Taliban?
The answer is yes if the government does what it has conspicuously failed to do a year since its formation. Ghani and Abdullah are, perhaps, spending more time and resources in winning their own battle than they are on the war against the Taliban, ISIS and other insurgents. Their fierce and repeated confrontations have demoralized Afghan soldiers and pushed the country in a perilous direction. On its first anniversary, the National Unity Government’s promise of restoring security, spearheading economic development, and transforming the war-torn country into a sustainable and responsible partner with its strategic allies proved to be more political bluster then achievable goal. The economy is stagnating, a brain drain is shaking the country, and Afghan refugees – many of them fleeing for security or employment reasons – constitute the second largest group after Syria. On the front lines, the soldiers are routinely losing some of their best combatants and commanders who could have been saved if provided with leadership, timely reinforcement, and logistics.
Ghani, Abdullah, and their partners in the NUG should be reminded by Afghan history that the current situation is bad and could well get worse. If they fail to overcome political differences, the country will fall to the Taliban or public revolt. The best hope for safeguarding Afghanistan is to support its armed forces. The soldiers urgently need cohesive military and political leadership, equipment, effective intelligence gathering, and timely reinforcement.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at Texas A&M University, Bush School of Government and Public Service where he is completing a master’s degree in Intelligence and National Security. Reza graduated from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) where he was also in charge of the university’s enrollment management plan. Moh. Sayed Madadi is an Afghan Fulbright Scholar at New York University pursuing a graduate degree in International Relations. He was previously a Hurford Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC. His writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, Al-Jazeera.