Of Afghanistan’s 407 districts 233 are under Taliban control. Sixty-five are under the control of the Afghan government in Kabul and 109 are being contested.
Taliban gains are mostly in the Western provinces. The Kabul government controls the center of the country and is fighting to contest the districts on the border with Pakistan and near Kabul. The border with Pakistan is where the Taliban draw their supplies from. They also use Pakistan as a safe haven.
Two Marine battalions and one Army battalion are being sent to Kabul. An infantry brigade combat team of the Immediate Response Force of the 82nd Airborne Division is en route to Kuwait to support an evacuation of U.S. personnel from the embassy in Kabul. This brigade-sized unit is capable of rapid airlift by the Air Force. It will likely be used to secure the airport and the two-mile road that runs a straight line from Karzai International Airport to the embassy should evacuation be required.
Another 1,000 troops are being sent to Qatar and Afghanistan to process Special Immigrant Visas or “SIVs” for Afghans that have been useful to U.S. efforts in the region.
The Pentagon says this represents some 8,000 troops. The units being deployed have not yet been disclosed and their exact composition is difficult to determine because both Army and Marine battalion sizes can vary depending on additional companies that can be attached to them like artillery, and tank and armored fighting vehicle platoons.
The embassy is being told to burn sensitive documents. Although this is fairly routine in such situations, it’s not business as usual either.
The U.S. is asking the Taliban not to attack our embassy in Kabul.
The Biden administration says the Taliban should think about how they want to be seen by the rest of the world, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Taliban already have a decades-old reputation for being pretty awful.
The Taliban probably want to take Kabul by September 11 of this year, to make a point.
Meanwhile, China has already established a relationship with the Taliban. Afghanistan has iron ore, copper, zinc, gold, and other rare earth metals that China needs to feed its economy. China would also be happy to facilitate the movement of opium to the West as it does with Fentanyl. Mining and the drug trade are the two major industries of Afghanistan, worth nearly a billion dollars a year.
Why Doesn’t the Afghan Army Fight?
Imagine an army where only about 43 percent can read and write. Then, you pay them about $165 a month and their officers steal a third to a half of their soldier’s pay every month. Your troops use hashish, opium, marijuana, and even alcohol while on duty. They don’t join the army because of a love of country but because of rampant unemployment and grinding poverty.
Now imagine that this army is made up of as many as 50 ethnic factions all mixed together which may speak different languages, have different cultures, and practice a religion with sectarian disagreements that are settled with violence. To that, we may add a “ghost army” of 150,000 soldiers who are carried on the books as present but don’t actually exist. The salaries of these troops are entrusted to the officers who hand out their money on payday. There are numerous desertions with the same soldier then showing up again enlisted under a different identity.
For the most part, the government isn’t capable of checking on the background of these soldiers to determine if they are trustworthy or even loyal to the government. The officers of this army are notoriously corrupt themselves and receive their commissions based on their familial or tribal relations to the government rather than education, moral fiber, and leadership ability.
In the field, this army has equipment withheld (because it is stolen and sold on a thriving black market). They are months behind on their pay, and the food is substandard and sparse.
That’s the Afghan National Army on the whole with the exception of the Afghan Commando Corps units which are of better quality, get paid on time, and have good equipment. They do most of the fighting for the Afghan Army and number somewhere between 10,0oo and 20,000 troops.
Besides that, when the Afghan National Army is called upon to fight, they have their pick of wars to choose from.
There Are at Least Five Wars Going on in Afghanistan Right Now
A war between ethnic groups, Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek, and 30-some-odd smaller ethnic groups that join the larger factions just to survive.
There is a centuries-long war among the Pashtuns, especially the Ghilzai tribe versus Durrani. The Durrani tribe of Pashtuns has ruled the country pretty consistently since the 1740s with some interruptions by the Ghilzai. This was most notably during the period when the Soviets ran Afghanistan in the late 1970s to late 1980s and modernist factions within the Ghilzai and Tajiks adopted a weird hybrid of Islamist Communism.
The more religiously-minded Ghilzai led the Taliban (who also contained factions of Durrani-Pashtuns) and overthrew a Tajik government run by Mohammed Najibullah who was himself an Ahmadzai-Ghilzai tribe member. When the U.S., in turn, toppled the Taliban after the September 11 attacks in 2001, we somewhat put the Durranis back in charge, in the form of the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was a Tajik-led coalition of Hazara, Uzbek, and Pashtun-Durranis. Except that the current President of Afghanistan is an Ahmadzai-Ghilzai like Najibullah.
If this seems overly confusing, it is.
There is also a war between the more moderate urban Afghans versus the more strictly religious people living in the rural farming areas. The urbanities embraced officially atheist communism from the Soviets but had to season it with Islam in order to placate the more religiously conservative rural population. For a while, Afghanistan was an Islamist, secular communist state. The problem with a society trying to be Islamist and atheistic Communists at the same time should be obvious. The result was a civil war which resulted in the Soviet occupation of the country.
Then you have a proxy war going on between Pakistan and India. Both countries want to exploit Afghanistan for their own reasons. India sees a pro-Indian Afghanistan as enabling it to squeeze Pakistan from two directions. India gave aid to the Northern Alliance after the September 11th Attacks. On the other hand, the Taliban were supported by the Pakistanis.
Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a kind of redoubt to retreat into should the Indian army invade them. In the Afghan mountains, they could regroup and stage a counter-offensive. Pakistan also has a rather belligerent and large population of Pashtuns in its northern provinces that it has to keep placated. Pashtuns make up about 15 percent of Pakistan’s population. There are also 1.1 million refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan; most of them are Pashtuns.
The Northern region of what is now Pakistan has served as a haven for Pashtuns fleeing ethnic violence for hundreds of years. Should Pakistan support any other ethnic faction in Afghanistan other than the Pashtuns, it might find itself fighting its own civil war. The current prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi, is himself Pashtun. His family comes from a village called Qila Niazi in Gardez which is located 140 miles south of Kabul.
There is also a war against Iranian intervention. Iran is there because both the Pashtuns and Tajiks are Iranic peoples, speaking Farsi, sharing cultural and religious ties to Iran for over 1,000 years. Instability in Afghanistan causes tens of thousands of refugees to flood into Iran, which then has to feed and house them. Many are forcibly conscripted to go and fight in Syria and Yemen.
Finally, you have the U.S. war against the Taliban.
So if you are an Afghan Soldier with a rifle serving in a unit full of other Afghan tribal groups, you might have a hard time figuring out who to point your rifle at.
What Will a Taliban Rule Mean?
The Taliban will arrive as a ruling class, set up their governing council and courts, and leave a small garrison of enforcers to make everyone follow their Sharia-based religious rules. They will levy taxes (as best they can) but don’t really know how to offer useful municipal services. During their past rule, the country fell apart and there was a serious famine. They may be able to run a small district but don’t have the administrative skills to govern an entire country.
Otherwise, life will return to a relative normal for an Islamist country. The district will retain its local warlord who in turn answers to the provincial warlord. The Taliban are careful about not upsetting this order or they run the risk of causing an internal insurrection by the larger tribes. Under the current government, there were always three forces all trying to control a district: the Kabul government, the local warlord, and the Taliban. And they were all opposed to each other.
The central government in Kabul had criminal and religious laws that were less harsh than the brutal Taliban laws, but the power of those laws only extended as far as the government’s control. In most of the provinces, law and order remained in the hands of the local warlord. So, hands and heads still got chopped off and women were still beaten for not wearing their burkhas in public, while a more lenient secular law was practiced in Kabul, including freedom of religion.
There are even different factions among the Taliban. There are the Pakistani-trained Pashtuns and then there are the organic Taliban internal to Afghanistan itself.
Additionally, there are numerous local militias, drug gangs, and other criminal organizations that will hoist the Taliban flag as a way of intimidating their rivals. No doubt, some of the gains by the Taliban were achieved by local groups with only the loosest affiliation with the leadership of the major Taliban groups.
We Didn’t ‘Fail’ in Afghanistan
Pundits will write millions of words on why the U.S. effort in Afghanistan failed to dismantle the Taliban and build a government at least nominally friendly to the West. It is probably sufficient just to point out that the Afghanistan of 2021 is little changed from the country we found in 2001 when U.S. Green Berets arrived and helped the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban in a few months. It has taken the Taliban 20 years to come back from that loss. Yet, I would assert that that isn’t the reason we were even there.
We had no chance in forging a national government out of three dozen ethnic groups who hold their loyalties in the order of family, tribe, ethnic group, and then loosely by national identity as an “Afghan.” That doesn’t mean that nation-building never works.
But nation-building requires a very particular thing. We didn’t fail at it, we never even tried. Presidents Bush and Obama and Congresses controlled by both parties certainly talked like we were going to nation-build in Afganistan but, they never put up anything close to the kind of money or muscle required to have gotten the job done.
We did screw up in thinking that the strategic competition between Iran, India, Russia, and Pakistan in the region would suddenly cease just because we were there. Rather, our presence made the competition more intense.
The biggest player by far was Pakistan. On the one hand, it gave refuge, food, money, arms, and freedom of movement across their border to the Taliban while on the other it provided us with ports, roads, and air facilities to move our own supplies and arms to fight the Taliban. Pakistan was working both sides for 20 years. It should be remembered that Osama Bin Laden managed to build and occupy a home in Abbottabad, where Pakistan’s military academy is located. Bin Laden managed to spend nine years in various locations in Pakistan, which is a surveillance and security state that keeps close tabs on its population. They were taking millions from the U.S. to help find Bin Laden while they were basically hiding him. If you wonder why we took no action against Pakistan over that is because we also needed Pakistan.
Where we did succeed was in wrecking al-Qaeda, killing Bin Laden, and ensuring that Afghanistan could not become a safe haven for terrorist attacks on the United States and its citizens while we were there. The American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who gave up their lives in Afghanistan to protect Americans from another 9/11 attack were not a waste of lives.
They did it for 20 years.
And all those who used to claim that America did not have the guts or the patience to fight a long war were proven totally wrong.
The Options of America Going Forward
The U.S. withdrawal represents the removal of one chess piece off the board. But it doesn’t mean that the U.S. can’t still exert some control over the game. Our withdrawal just gets U.S. soldiers out of the way of a centuries-old civil war being fought between the ethnic factions in Afghanistan. We still have options within that civil war.
Firstly, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, they really only exerted control over the districts with a heavy Pashtun population. As soon as one faction rises the others combine to knock it down. The U.S. can offer support to these other factions to erode the control the Pashtun-Taliban exert. To keep the Forever War in Afghanistan going. We can play a part as all the other regional powers do. Leaving means we are no longer hamstrung by Pakistan which we can sanction economically and increase aid to India which is Pakistan’s enemy. If the U.S. punishes Pakistan, it also punishes the Taliban by extension.
Secondly, the U.S. can keep the Kabul government in power with airstrikes and a limited number of U.S. troops on the ground. Kabul is not a small city; it will take a considerable concentration of Taliban troops to take Kabul. These troops can be bombed, along with the Taliban lines of supply. We could probably keep Kabul in the hands of a friendly faction for as long as we continued to pump money, men, and arms into the place. With the country’s natural resources mostly in the hands of the Taliban, that entire bill would be on us and NATO.
Thirdly, we could just leave altogether. Pull stumps, close our embassy and demolish it, evacuate all Americans, and write the entire place off. The United States didn’t make Afghanistan a mess: we’re just leaving a mess we found when we arrived 20 years ago.
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