Despite 19 years of war, the Taliban are still a dominant faction in Afghanistan. Their ability to wreak havoc at will highlights the Afghan government’s feebleness. A frailty that becomes ever more pronounced as U.S. and coalition forces gradually withdraw from the country. In their way toward defeating their opponent – or reducing his will to fight – the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are facing a mountain that isn’t becoming smaller. In fact, it only becomes larger as Taliban forces grow stronger, both in terms of technological advances and combat effectiveness, by the day.
A recent United Nations (U.N.) report has found that Taliban units field with an increased frequency Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) and Vision-Enhancement Devices (VED). This translates into more effective and lethal Taliban units. Although ANSF Special Operations Forces (SOF) also sport NVGs, the fact that their opponents also do puts them on a more equal footing and further decreases their combat effectiveness.
According to the U.N. report, “the Taliban have continued to undermine the morale of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces by carrying out nocturnal attacks against isolated checkpoints, aided by new supplies of night vision scopes and sniper rifles arriving into Taliban arsenals. This simple yet effective tactic has aided the Taliban’s battle for control of rural areas and is likely a key reason for the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces ceding further ground to Taliban forces this year in an effort to consolidate government-held areas without taking excessive casualties in remote military outposts.”
To acquire the NVGs and other materiel, the Taliban are relying on their staple opium poppy fields, as well as on illicit mining, extortion, and donations from abroad.
Furthermore, the Taliban can field a force of approximately 60,000 to 65,000 fighters, and half-that number in facilitators and other non-combat personnel. This figure doesn’t include other factions in the country that are opposed to the U.S-led coalition and the Afghan government.
U.S. and coalition SOF can rightly claim that they own the night. NVGs, body-heat sensors, infrared devices, and other gadgets allow American and allied commandos to find and destroy the enemy, whether that is a Taliban sentry guarding a high-value-target on a remote Afghan village or a Somali pirate high on khat watching for the dreaded men with the green eyes.
That advantage, however, would decrease, or diminish altogether, in case of a conflict with a near-peer adversary. China, and Russia to a lesser degree, both field professional militaries with similar capabilities to the West’s. And in a potential contingency, U.S. and allied troops would be at an equal footing with their enemies – after decades of fighting technologically inferior opponents.