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Can Afghan Forces Hold Back The Taliban Without U.S., NATO Troops?

Afghan forces on an offensive operation with a Mobile Strike Force vehicle received from the United States in April 2020.

A powerful presence in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, the withdrawal of the last 2,500 U.S. troops from the war-torn country has U.S. intelligence chiefs and policy advisers concerned the Afghan military will be unable to hold off extremist Taliban forces by itself.

And it won't just be U.S. forces that will be leaving.

Shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden's announcement of the pullout on April 14, NATO confirmed it will follow Washington's timetable and pull its remaining 7,000 non-U.S. soldiers out of Afghanistan by September 11.

In fact, Afghan government forces have been responsible for security in their country since 2014.

But they depend heavily on the U.S. military and its contractors for logistics, close air support, and the maintenance of crucial equipment.

A recent U.S. intelligence report -- an annual threat assessment delivered to the Senate shortly before Biden’s withdrawal announcement -- warns that the prospects for a peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban “will remain low during the next year.”

“The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” the April 9 report predicted.

“Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory,” the U.S. intelligence chiefs warned. “Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defense missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020.”

Meanwhile, an Afghan Study Group report issued by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) warns that “the risks of state failure and renewed conflict are extremely high.”

"A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors,” the Afghan Study Group concluded.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has responded with a brave face to Biden’s withdrawal announcement, tweeting that “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Biden insists Washington will continue to support counterterrorism efforts from a distance to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base for terrorist attacks on the United States or its interests.

He notes the Afghan government has more than 300,000 security troops in its ranks, including many trained by U.S. and NATO forces during the past two decades.

According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan forces include about 187,000 troops within the Defense Ministry and about 118,000 paramilitary police under the command of the Interior Ministry.

The United States has also for years been delivering military equipment to bolster the combat capabilities of Afghan government forces.

Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Shah Mahmoud Miakhil says the government by the end of 2020 had received from Washington at total of 1,383 Humvees, 55 Mobile Strike Force vehicles, 10 Black Hawk helicopters, and four fixed-wing A-29 light-attack planes for close air support.

“Preservation of the Afghan Security Forces is of vital importance to Afghanistan’s long-term stability and security,” says U.S. Lieutenant General John Deedrick, commander of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.

Looks Good On Paper…

But security analyst Ted Callahan, a former adviser to U.S. Special Forces in northern Afghanistan, says “what exists on paper and what exists in reality is often very different.”

“What matters is what is available to the frontline troops,” Callahan tells RFE/RL. “Whenever something gets written up by the Afghan security forces, it’s usually quite positive. Everything looks good. It’s working. It’s where it is supposed to be. But then, when you go and check, nothing is there. It’s missing. It’s broken. It’s been stripped of parts.”

He says the reality is that "all of that equipment may very well have arrived at some point, but where is it now? What is its current condition? Who knows how to operate it? Who has the keys to whatever garage it’s locked into? Who has been selling it to other parties -- possibly even the Taliban?”

Paramilitary police from the Afghan Interior Ministry at the scene of a bomb attack in Kabul in November 2014
Paramilitary police from the Afghan Interior Ministry at the scene of a bomb attack in Kabul in November 2014

Callahan says the combat power of Afghan forces suggests it should be able to hold off future Taliban assaults, “but experience shows they probably will not be able to.”

“By any metric,” Callahan says, the “combat capabilities” of Afghan forces are superior to the Taliban in terms of aircraft, small arms and light weapons, artillery, and manpower.

But he says "history has shown us that [government forces] lack the will, the commitment, and the discipline that the Taliban have. That intangible factor gives the Taliban the edge over the Afghan security forces.”

Attrition of forces has also been a thorny issue plaguing the Afghan government since the earliest efforts by NATO and the U.S.-led international coalition to build up an Afghan security force that is loyal to Kabul.

The latest SIGAR quarterly report shows attrition at a “normal level” for the Defense Ministry -- about 2 percent per month -- despite increased pay incentives.

Meanwhile, SIGAR says the Interior Ministry has seen a “slightly elevated” monthly attrition rate of about 4 percent.

The concern is that falling morale caused by the U.S. withdrawal, along with potential difficulties in paying Afghan troops, will lead to even higher attrition.

Torek Farhadi, a former adviser to the Afghan government, says Kabul is “entirely dependent upon U.S. financial support for the salaries and supplies” for its forces.

“The United States will continue [financially] supporting Afghan security forces, albeit at a lower level, but for some time to come,” Farhadi told RFE/RL. “The Afghan Air Force is more dependent on support from contractors for the maintenance of its aircraft. This support from the United States will also be necessary going forward.”

Farhadi says Washington's attempts to get the Afghan government to forge a peace deal with the Taliban would make the army more capable "to address foreign terrorist groups [in Afghanistan] such as Islamic State and others.”

But a deadlock in the peace talks held in Qatar since September 2020 between Kabul and the Taliban, as well as increased attacks by the militant group, have raised doubts about the prospects of any peace deal being reached.

Sustainability And Logistics

Callahan says the weakest link in the Afghan security forces is, arguably, its ability to sustain itself until a Taliban-Kabul peace agreement is reached.

“There are very few aircraft in the Afghan inventory, and their ability to maintain those is pretty much nil -- especially with the U.S. providing Black Hawk helicopters to replace their [Soviet-built] Mi-17s,” he says.

“Basically, they would have about a one-year period in which all their aircraft would stop flying if the U.S. were to suspend assistance in terms of maintenance, training, and everything else that is required to fly a helicopter in Afghanistan,” Callahan says. “They obviously have huge problems there.”

Afghan special forces on a foot patrol in April 2017
Afghan special forces on a foot patrol in April 2017

He adds that poor logistics and corruption keep vital supplies from getting to "where they’re supposed to be."

Because of those weaknesses, Callahan predicts the Taliban’s 2021 spring offensive will see the militants “push pretty hard on some of the provincial capitals that they’ve already surrounded -- places like Tarin Kowt [in Uruzgan Province], possibly down in Helmand. Kunduz is a perennial favorite up in the northeast," he says. "We’ve already seen fighting in Badakhshan that suggests they may be shaping operations in advance of an assault on Kunduz.”

Callahan adds that “The combat weaknesses will be exposed first. But what is going to be the real problem for the Afghan forces is going to be moving things around – getting ammunition there, getting men there.”

Lack Of Coordination

Tactical coordination between Afghan security force units is also an issue.

Within the ranks of the Interior Ministry, the paramilitary police force has grown to some 118,000 officers within the past year under a program that dissolved local Afghan police units and brought them under the ministry’s command.

Defense Ministry forces include the Afghan Special Security Forces, the Afghan National Army Territorial Force, and the Afghan Air Force.

The Afghan Air Force currently relies on U.S. airborne communication platforms and U.S. air-strike controllers to coordinate close air support for Afghan ground troops engaged in combat against the Taliban.

That has raised concerns about future ground-and-air coordination after the departure of the last U.S. and NATO troops.

Specific troop levels for individual units of the Afghan forces is classified by the Kabul government.

But Afghanistan’s elite special forces are thought to be comprised of about 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers -- grouped within a Special Mission Wing, the Special Operations Corps, General Command Police Special Units, and other elements.

“There are a number of special operation forces and they have different command-and-control structures,” Callahan explains. “Not all of them are going to be housed in the [Defense] Ministry. Some are under the [Interior] Ministry.”

"The largest is the commandos," he says. "That unit is not only the most capable but also the unit that’s going to be called on the most in terms of retaking areas that are captured by [the] Taliban, whether urban or rural.... They get overused.”

Regular troops, known as the “Territorial Forces” of the Afghan National Army, in Nangarhar Province in November 2019
Regular troops, known as the “Territorial Forces” of the Afghan National Army, in Nangarhar Province in November 2019

Callahan says the commandos are not supposed to be “a holding force or a light infantry force…. They are not supposed to sit in the field for weeks on end or guard checkpoints. But that’s often how they are utilized.”

In fact, SIGAR notes, for more than a year Afghan special forces have been restricted mostly to defensive postures in order to hold the Taliban back from Kabul and provincial capitals.

In the meantime, Taliban fighters have expanded the territory they control by seizing isolated rural checkpoints -- in some cases allowing the Taliban to surround provincial capitals.

The Afghan Territorial Force is larger than the Special Security Forces. The Territorial Force has been trained to provide security in less violent security zones and to carry out general-purpose troop responsibilities.

“The problem is that the conventional Afghan National Army, by and large, tends to cluster in large garrisons,” Callahan says. “It has a very defensive posture and, thus, a defensive mindset. And it tends not to do many offensive operations against the Taliban.”

“But when commandos go into a city like Kunduz and clear the Taliban out, they need somebody to come in and replace them so they can rest, refit, rearm, and then go out on another mission,” he says.

“What tends to happen is they get stuck sitting in a recaptured city like Kunduz for weeks on end -- holding checkpoints and conducting minor operations on the outskirts trying to degrade the Taliban so they don’t come back in and take it…. It really creates this dysfunctional dynamic that we’ve seen for almost 10 years now where one unit of the security forces has to do almost everything.”

"It creates a lot of wear and tear and it just degrades their abilities as well," Callahan says.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar.