Last week, SOFREP shared a video from Afghanistan allegedly showing Taliban fighters capture and execute a contingent of Afghan Army Commandos who had just surrendered. As this video was making its way across the internet, one of the first questions that arose, was “is it real?” This question now seems to have been adequately answered and the video’s authenticity validated. So, the next, biggest question is obvious: what does this mean for Afghanistan?
The Talibans’ End Game
The Taliban are poised to take it all in Afghanistan. In the last couple of months since we shared this story, the situation has become even more critical. Recent events continue to support our prior analysis. The Taliban now control over two-thirds of all the districts in Afghanistan and have made major gains in the last several months. They have more than doubled their territory since April.
The Taliban are clearly winning. This is not just a traditional Afghan spring-summer offensive; it is a fully-fledged campaign to take back the country. If that idea also seems new to anyone, they have not been paying attention… for about 15 years since the Taliban started making gains in 2006. There has been an ebb and flow of Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other extremist factions in Afghanistan since then. And now, it’s a tsunami.
And yes: al-Qaeda is still fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Other foreign Islamic extremists have also joined the mix.
Could Afghanistan Again Become a Haven for Islamic Extremists?
I have, on a number of occasions during my time in Afghanistan, fought the Taliban and Islamic extremist fighters from multiple countries — at the same time. On one occasion, in south-central Afghanistan in Uruzgan province (the birthplace of the Taliban), during a multi-day mission to retake a small river valley along the Helmand river from Taliban control, we engaged fighters and intercepted radio chatter from fighters speaking Pashto (Taliban), Arabic (al-Qaeda), Urdu (Pakistanis), Russian (Chechens), and Farsi (Iranians). Let that marinate for a few minutes.
With all of these different groups and interests competing for influence, it is a safe assumption that Afghanistan can very likely become a safe haven for other extremist and terrorist groups. It is possible those groups will grow, strengthen, and train others to join their cause. Although it’s likely that some of these groups will turn on each other as they, at times, have competing ideas and agendas, their current presence in the country and confluence in capturing it cannot be ignored.
The U.S. and the Western allies cannot, and should not, look away and allow this to happen.
Even if the consensus is that we should pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and allow the Afghan government and military to stand on their own, we should not turn away completely. We should continue to offer support, funding, and even military aid so that the Afghan government has as much opportunity as possible to resist the resurgent Taliban.
It’s a Matter of Commitment
While President Biden and many other politicians are hopeful, naive, or just flat-out denying the reality in front of us, the Afghan government cannot hold or maintain control in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is spread thin. Further, it is far less effective without American and allied military capabilities and support.
The Afghan police is even less capable, more corrupt, and often more closely aligned with the local Taliban than the national government. Even more unfortunate and concerning is the fact that the ANA and government forces do not have the same will to fight and win, as the Taliban do. Therefore, they far too often surrender or retreat. They are not willing to go toe-to-toe without air support or coalition assets fighting alongside them. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.
Many issues have been plaguing the ANA for years now. They have taken tens of thousands of casualties. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars outfitting and supplying them, and even covering their salaries. Yet, despite all our training and efforts to legitimize them locally and prepare them to fight, they are very often incapable or unwilling to effectively engage or win against the Taliban and other extremist groups.
And it’s not a matter of salary. In fact, only in some cases do the Taliban pay their fighters a little bit better than what the government pays the ANA. Rather, simply put, the Afghan National Army is not motivated and committed to the cause. The Taliban are. Right or wrong, they are set on their cause.
A Different Concept of Allegiance
A very important aspect, which often people neglect, is that in the Middle East people do not define nationalism or national identity as we do in the West. Our ideas of governance and democracy — ideas that we take as inherently logical and a given— do not necessarily fit into Afghanistan’s thousand-year-old system of governance and ideological beliefs.
In Afghanistan, loyalty and allegiance to the local tribe come first. Then, comes loyalty to the larger, ethnic tribe, in this case, Pashtun, Tajik, or Hazara. After that, comes allegiance to Islam then your sect within Islam. (Hazaras are Shi’ite Muslims; the Pashtuns and Tajiks are Sunnis). Only then, and occasionally, comes allegiance to the nation of Afghanistan. And that’s asking a lot from a people, who for thousands of years know that governments come and go and never last very long in Afghanistan.
The End Could Come Before the Winter
By the end of the year, before the fighting lulls due to the winter cold, it is highly likely that the Taliban will have retaken most of Afghanistan. This will effectively delegitimize the current Afghan government and the little bit of consolidated power (if one can call it that) that the government has enjoyed over the years with U.S. support. The Taliban will continue to seize U.S. weapons and equipment from the ANA. This will further increase their combat efficiency and firepower.
The Taliban have captured Kabul and have taken control of nearly the entire country in the past. Do not think they do not have the capability, or the will, to do so again.
And the Taliban are not interested in taking prisoners.
Editor’s note: SOFREP welcomes Dustin Gladwell aboard as a Contributing Writer. Mr. Gladwell spent 12 years in the Army having served a mix of reserve and active duty time. In Afghanistan, he served as an Infantry Advisor and Embedded Tactical Trainer to the Afghan National Army. He was operationally attached to the 3rd Special Forces Group. He has a Master of Arts in International Relations and National Security. Mr. Gladwell is a certified civilian firearms instructor and competitive shooter in the IDPA, and instructs on defensive and tactical pistol and carbine.