How to make an army disappear: the story of the Afghan Defence Forces

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

As the Taliban marched into Kabul earlier this month, the biggest question on everyone’s mind would have been the same: where did the Afghan Army vanish? Like the German chancellor Angela Merkel commented, the Afghan armed forces fell at a “breath-taking pace”. However, looking at the amount of funding and training it had received in the 17 years since its formation, it becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend how a force 300,000 strong could be so easily defeated by a militia less than 1/5th of their numbers. On a closer look, however, the cracks are much more visible.

The problems start with the numbers. Multiple agencies quote the strength of the Afghan Defence Forces at around 300,000. But that’s a very vague description of the ground reality, because of that figure, only 180,000 serve as regular army troops. The rest are civil police forces, trained mostly to maintain law and order in the provinces they control. But surely, one could argue, that 180,000 is still a formidable number. It would be if it were true. Reports show that a significant portion of the Afghan National Army is made up of “Ghost Soldiers”, that is, contrary to the military records, there is no other indication that points to the existence of these soldiers. This has increasingly led to serving soldiers being subjected to overexertion, and some of them were even denied pay at times. And this plundering doesn’t stop here. Vital supplies, including food and even ammunition, are stolen, often sold on the black market, which serves as the primary source of supplies for the Taliban forces. In essence, corruption in the armed forces helps the Taliban procure American weapons, and helps them defeat an American trained army. But the cracks run deeper than just corruption.

The Afghan National Army, when formed, comprised various militiamen and irregular fighters serving under the warlords who had come together to form a government. And while one could say the leaders had a vision of a united nation, this may not necessarily have seeped on through to their followers. After having fought against each other for so long, it becomes difficult to understand the reasons for them agreeing to serve side by side with their rivals. But the answer is not that difficult: money. Most Afghan soldiers joined the armed forces to get their hands on the lucrative American paycheck. Retired Army General Wesley Clark said in an interview, “People signed up with the Afghan military to make money. They fired their weapons. Did they want to die in service of the Afghan military? Remember, Afghanistan is not a conventional nation. It's really tribal. And so they were earning a paycheck -- some of them didn't even get that paycheck -- but they did not sign up to fight to the death, for the most part.” He also pointed out that, “This is an old Afghan trick -- they go with the winners, or at least they run away from the losers, and that's why it (their defeat) happened so quickly.” (CNN, 2021). Crucially, as long as the pentagon were in charge of paying their wages, they stayed on to fight. The moment the Afghan government took control, salary payments started dropping, and soldiers with no other reason to stay behind simply wandered off and deserted their posts. Desertion rates were frighteningly high, with reports suggesting that average monthly attrition could reach around 5000, while only 500 soldiers could be recruited.

It must be noted that not all soldiers were in it just for the money, for there were quite a lot of patriotic soldiers enthusiastic about serving and making a difference, but just not enough of them. For the most part, they joined the elite commando forces, a decision for which they were brutally punished. This is more or less because of the poor quality of troops in the “regular” army. Most of the soldiers would usually be tasked with manning outposts and checkpoints, while the coalition forces and the Afghan commandos would do most of the fighting. In fact, of all the conflicts involving Afghan units, over 70% of them involved the commandos. This put a huge strain on an already small contingent, numbering at most 30,000, less than 7% of the total armed forces strength. The regular troops were almost never selected to be a part of a major offensive, due to them making the habit of breaking and running under enemy fire. This was primarily because of the fact that even though Afghans had a long history of fighting wars, and while they could be considered a sort of “martial” people, they were not regular soldiers. They did not adhere to the norms that western armies bound themselves to. The Soviets realised this the hard way when they tried to raise an army of 200,000 during their occupation of the country, with little to no effect. These Afghans were much more effective in fighting unconventional, guerrilla-style combat that suited the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan. Instead of training a small, well equipped and well-trained force to fight to their strengths, the Americans just like their Soviet counterparts hoped to reign in the militiamen with a large, poorly trained and largely demotivated army.

On top of that, the Afghan army was spread out across the nation, often finding itself surrounded by Taliban controlled provinces, effectively cutting off land supply routes and making them dependent on airdrops. The Afghan army heavily relied on American logistics, and in the wake of their withdrawal, all systems collapsed, leading to troops being isolated and undersupplied. The closest thing to a relief option for these stranded soldiers was the Afghan Air Force, but it was in an even worse condition than that of the army. Even though the air force was well equipped to carry out the necessary operations, it severely lacked maintenance personnel. Added to that, the commanders cared more about the state of the aircraft rather than the pilots themselves, often burning out the pilots by sending them on countless supply and evacuation sorties under extreme circumstances. This meant that the pilot had to ensure that they brought back the equipment safely after every operation. The US military had predicted that the Afghan Air Force would not be able to carry out operations for long without the support of private contractors, who had been responsible for the maintenance and training of ground crew for years. For the Afghan Army, this meant that the crucial air support, which they had been taught to rely on by their American counterparts, would never come.

So when the Taliban surrounded these trapped, weary, starving and undersupplied forces, they were prompted to accept the (arguably) lenient terms of surrender that they had been offered. After all, having seen their commanders and politicians lead lavish lifestyles while they struggled to secure food and ammunition, and lacking a general sense of unity, and on being promised better conditions and safety for their families in the event of their surrender, it becomes difficult to blame them when they eventually give up fighting.

P.C : New York Times

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