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Explainer: How did the Afghan military collapse so quickly amid Taliban takeover?

Published: Updated:

The Taliban have made some major advances throughout Afghanistan in recent months, showing that the US’s efforts to transform the country’s military into an independent-fighting, robust force have failed, online news media the New York Times reported on Friday.

Despite about $89 billion budgeted by the US for training the Afghan army, it took the Taliban little more than a month to brush it aside.

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In the past few days, Afghanistan’s military has collapsed in over 15 cities as the Taliban continued their advance which began in May. On Friday alone, the extremist militant group captured the country’s key provincial capitals, Kandahar and Herat.

The Taliban’s offensive has led to mass surrenders and captured helicopters. This came in spite of US efforts to bolster the military’s weapons arsenal, in addition to training and providing equipment over the past 20 years, the New York Times reported.

Fighting was happening on the outskirts of some Afghan cities for weeks, but the Taliban then managed to overtake defensive lines and infiltrate cities with little to no resistance.

Around 18 provincial capital cities have fallen under the control of the Taliban.

Ammunition-depleted military

While the country’s future is becoming more uncertain by the day, it has become clear that US efforts to create an Afghan institution that could outlast the American presence failed.

The disintegration of the Afghan military became apparent months ago when starving and ammunition-depleted forces were surrounded by Taliban fighters who promised them safe passage if they surrendered, leaving their equipment behind.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers rebuild a checkpoint recaptured from the Taliban, in the Alishing district of Laghman province, Afghanistan July 8, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers rebuild a checkpoint recaptured from the Taliban, in the Alishing district of Laghman province, Afghanistan July 8, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

The forces had run out of food and did not have air support, according to the New York Times.

This then gave the extremist group more control over some roads which then led to greater control over entire districts.

Less manpower than initially anticipated, desertions

In addition, prior to this, the number of soldiers in the country’s military numbered at around 300,000 on paper, but it’s claimed that the total number was actually around one-sixth of that, Reuters reported on Sunday.

Dependent on a small number of elite Special Forces units that were shunted from province to province as more cities fell to the Taliban, the already high rate of desertion in the regular army soared.

As the depleted government forces started to collapse, local militias were recruited that were loyal to prominent regional leaders such as Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northern province of Faryab or Ismail Khan in Herat, according to Reuters.

As the Taliban advanced, Dostum fled to Uzbekistan as the Taliban advanced and Khan surrendered to the Taliban.

Training issues

Whether it was ever a realistic goal to create a Western-style army in one of the world’s poorest countries, with a literacy rate of 40 percent and a social and political culture far from the developed sense of nationhood underpinning the US military, is an open question.

Jonathan Schroden, an expert at the CNA policy institute, who served as an adviser to US central command CENTCOM and the US-led international force in Afghanistan, said the Afghan army functioned as much as a “jobs program” as a fighting force “because it’s the source of a paycheck in a country where paychecks are hard to come by.”

But the chronic failure of logistical, hardware and manpower support to many units, meant that “even if they want to fight, they run out of the ability to fight in relatively short order.”

Afghan forces have been forced repeatedly to give up after pleas for supplies and reinforcements went unanswered, either because of incompetence or the simple incapacity of the system to deliver.


Lack of food

American officers have long worried that rampant corruption, well documented in parts of Afghanistan’s military and political leadership, would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied front-line soldiers - some of whom have been left for months or even years on end in isolated outposts, where they could be picked off by the Taliban.

Over many years, hundreds of Afghan soldiers were killed each month. But the army fought on, without any of the airborne evacuation of casualties and expert surgical care standard in Western armies, as long as international backing was there. Once that went, their resolve evaporated.

Last week, on the frontline of the Afghan city of Kandahar when the military forces were unable to fight off the Taliban they only had potatoes to eat.

The few potatoes available were passed as a police unit’s daily rations, the New York Times reported, but had only received the food over several days in various forms for a number of days, leading to hunger and fatigue.

A convoy of Afghan Special Forces is seen during the rescue mission of a policeman besieged at a check post surrounded by Taliban, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, July 13, 2021. Picture taken July 13, 2021.(File photo: Reuters)
A convoy of Afghan Special Forces is seen during the rescue mission of a policeman besieged at a check post surrounded by Taliban, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, July 13, 2021. Picture taken July 13, 2021.(File photo: Reuters)

The frontline collapsed by Thursday and the Taliban officially captured Kandahar by Friday morning.

“In the last days, there was no food, no water and no weapons,” trooper Taj Mohammad, 38, told online news media the Wall Street Journal.

‘Psychological war’

“Unfortunately, knowingly and unknowingly, a number of Parliament members and politicians fanned the flame started by the enemy,” Afghan army commander Brigadier General Abbas Tawakoli, who was in a nearby province when his base collapsed told the New York Times.

“No region fell as a result of the war, but as a result of the psychological war,” he added, noting that it has been played out at varying levels.

Afghan pilots have said that their leadership cared more about the state of the aircraft itself rather than the people who were flying them, whilst the Taliban carried out an assassination campaign against them.

What is left of the elite commando forces are being moved from one province to the next without proper sleep or any clear, definitive objective.

With Reuters

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