How Long Can the Afghan Armed Forces Protect Kabul Government?

After capturing districts after districts, the Taliban are now taking over Afghan provincial capitals. Their territorial control efforts gained ascendance after the United States (US) started to withdraw from the country on May 1, 2021. The number of areas under their control is changing at a fast pace. Taliban have taken over nine provincial capitals in just one week. Now, the Taliban are controlling major border crossings and collecting customs duties on important trade routes.

This blitzkrieg war by the Taliban has uncovered major deficiencies in the Afghan National Army (ANA). Not only the ANA has failed to counter the Taliban’s advances, but they also took refuge in neighbouring countries to protect themselves. The situation has forced the Ghani government to replace its army chief.

ANA and AAF: Good Enough 

The current Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) were raised after the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2002. The newly installed government of Hamid Karzai established them with the financial support, design, and training from the US and its allies. The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Airforce (AAF) are two main armed components of the Afghan military and the other being the Afghan National Police (ANP).

The US and its allies have invested a lot of money, training, and provided necessary equipment to ANDSF to make it a fully capable and professional force. The US has spent more than $88.32 billion in security sector assistance to design, train, advise, assist, and equip the ANDSF since 2002. It has generally provided ANDSF with around 75% of its estimated budget of $5 billion to $6 billion a year since 2014. For 2021, the US provided $3 billion, which is the lowest figure since 2008. Biden Administration has increased it to $3.3 billion for 2022. The international community has pledged to support 352,000 ANA and ANP personnel, including the Afghan Air Force and Afghan Special Security Forces. The Taliban, on the other hand, is estimated to have the strength of 60,000 individuals.

These were meant to take the role of providing security to Afghan people and disband private militias and anti-government forces, including the Taliban. But how far have they succeeded in achieving these objectives is a big question on their credibility and performance.

Good on Paper Only?

Many developments are a clear indication of ANA and AAF’s failures as a professional military force. First, the rapid gain of areas by the Taliban has an adverse impact on the credibility of Afghan security forces. Afghan security forces have failed to stop the growing fighting capability of the Taliban as the strength of the group has grown in recent years. The objective behind the creation of Afghan security forces was to make them able to protect the country from all internal and external threats and deny terrorists any safehavens. Secondly, the new strategy announced by President Ashraf Ghani to counter the Taliban by engaging private militias and warlords also establishes the fact that he has lost trust in the ability of Afghan security forces to hold together for a longer period. The presence of private militias and other terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) is the third indication of the failures of Afghan security forces. The reduction of the ISKP threat from Afghanistan is largely a result of US operations against the group in 2019. The Afghan security forces also took part in those operations. However, the group still proves to be resilient.

Issues of Afghan National Army  

Despite being provided training and equipment, the ANA has faced critical issues that have hindered its operational capabilities. Logistics, external interference in its chain of command, illiteracy, and corruption are the biggest issues of the ANA. It has suffered from high desertion and attrition rates. Nepotism, political factionalism, and external interference in its chain of command continue to undermine its fighting capability.

The Situation is Bad

The situation is favourable for the Taliban in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. They are no longer facing professional and experienced US forces. The Taliban have managed to fight the US and NATO forces for two decades. Now their opponent is only the ANA and other militias. On the other hand, the situation for ANA and AAF is not favourable. ANA and AAF have operated along with and with support and cover from the US and NATO forces. Now when foreign troops have withdrawn, the Afghan forces are left on their own. This is the reason that the Taliban are pushing them back in more important areas. Now after the fall of Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad are left as the only two key cities that have not fallen to the Taliban yet. The collapse of one or all these cities will mark the final stages of the Taliban campaign against the Kabul government.

How Long Can They Hold?

And looking at the trends, it may not look too far in the future. The news from Afghanistan is presenting a grim picture of security in the country and the fears of a civil war are exacerbating. A US intelligence report has warned that the Taliban could take over Kabul in 90 days as compared to earlier estimates of six to twelve months. The US is reportedly discussing plans to evacuate its embassy from Kabul given the gravity of the security situation in Afghanistan. Earlier, the Kabul government was delaying the peace talks but  now it has proposed the Taliban to end the fighting in return for power-sharing in the Afghan government. The Taliban are likely to reject the offer as they have made significant territorial gains and are confident of taking the remaining areas by force. The Ghani government may have already lost it.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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