President Ashraf Ghani requested in his recent interview with Der Speigel that the international media not propagate the doom and gloom narrative surrounding predictions about Afghanistan post foreign troop withdrawal. Media outlets such as Al Jazeera have already begun labeling the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as pro-government, questioning the Afghan republic’s legitimacy and prophesying a civil war. Considering the possible failure of the political reconciliation process and the imminent withdrawal of foreign troops, the seemingly popular notion that the Taliban would swiftly overrun the Afghan government has been gaining traction, yet it needs to be questioned.
Studying the Past
A relevant comparison regularly offered is that between President Najib’s communist regime – left to fight the Mujahideen by the Soviet Union after its withdrawal – and its likeness to the current Ghani regime which will be left to fight the Taliban if negotiations do not produce results in the coming three months. While President Najib’s regime had an army with decades of history and experience spanning from the initial formation of the Afghan state in 1709, the existing Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have existed for merely twenty years and can be regarded as inexperienced in contrast.
Differences also arise when examining the warring parties’ military capacities facing the Najib and Ghani regimes. The Najib regime was fighting the mujahideen, then a nationwide movement equipped with modern weaponry procured from the United States and its allies. The mujahideen also received an annual $700M in funding as part of the United States’ Operation Cyclone, which resulted in over $4.2B dollars over a span of six years. This amount was furthermore matched by the Saudis and the Arabs, culminating in a roughly annual budget of $1.4 billion for the mujahideen. This amount – without accounting for inflation which would make the amount worth more than double today – did not include drug trade income and taxes collected from within Afghanistan by the Mujahideen. Not only are the Taliban under-equipped and underfunded in comparison to the Mujahideen, but they have fought exclusively with guerrilla tactics for two decades, which would give the Afghan military an advantage in established battlefield lines warfare in a possible coming war. The recent Taliban failed offensives on the provinces of Helmand and Laghman illustrated how the tactical superiority and air support of the ANDSF can wreak havoc in terms of holding territory for the Taliban.
Conviction and Motivation
While numbers might be good indicators and predictors of what might unfold on the battlefields of Afghanistan post-withdrawal, there is the hidden ideational factor that requires consideration. During the Najib era, the national army and the mujahideen resistance both laid across different ideological lines. This led to a fight between a radical secular army who were resisting fundamentalist mujahideen groups. This us versus them battlefield mentality provided the necessary vigor and conviction to fight against members of their own nation and kin. Comparatively, today, the Taliban and the ANDSF share the same religious beliefs albeit the Talibs are fundamentalists. By virtue of being religious scholars, the Taliban dictate a narrative of fighting a foreign invasion of the west and translate that into arguing the current Afghan government is nothing but a puppet regime. This in turn bolsters their favorability in particular sects of Afghan society, often outside Kabul, and reinforces their causes’ religious legitimacy, creating an asymmetry of motivation in their favor. Additionally, the Taliban propagated narrative of having defeated the world’s hegemon and now ridding the country of its puppet regime could also tip the scales of conviction and motivation in the Taliban’s favor.
Conversely, though the years of corruption and unpopular politics conducted by the Afghan government might have harmed the cause of inculcating patriotism amongst the National Army’s ranks, the years of fighting and perhaps an intentional campaign by the Afghan state have produced enough conviction and grievance to reinforce the perception that the Taliban are agents to foreign forces. This can be seen in the National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib’s recent speeches, calling the Afghan war a Pakistani invasion and in a recent video of an ANDSF officer in Laghman speaking to his unit asking them to defend their soil against the Punjabi army.
Backers Backing Out?
Foreign actors have been vocal regarding their opposition to Afghanistan’s return to the Taliban-run Emirate. Three of the Taliban’s largest sponsors, namely Pakistan, Iran and Russia, have explicitly and implicitly declared their opposition to a complete take-over of the Afghan Government. Emirate return could only happen in the case of a total military victory. An increase of support for the government and ADNDSF from foreign actors would likely reduce the Taliban’s military capacity and their ability to maintain or escalate the current violence levels. Ambassador Khalilzad has stated the United States’ commitment to supporting Afghans as they defend their country. While the Afghan Army has been the only military force fighting the Taliban for the past few years in conjunction with air support and training provided by NATO and its allies, these measures are likely to continue post-withdrawal as well.
Mounting offensives in the short run to gain leverage on the negotiations table might make sense for the Taliban, but sustaining such a level would be close to impossible in the long run, especially with weakened foreign backing. In the absence of a political settlement in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, the side most probable to face a significant decline in foreign support would be the Taliban.
Consequently, the likeliest outcome seems to be an escalated stalemate between the warring factions with no clear winners. Despite claims that the Taliban would swiftly overrun the Afghan government within mere days of foreign withdrawal, such an outcome is highly improbable given empirical and existing data. Although the Taliban possess winning momentum and religious conviction, the ANDSF has significant advantages over the Taliban which would preclude an all-out overrun of the government. Increased military capabilities, tactical superiority in established lines combat, and stronger foreign support for the ASDF should be enough to balance out the playing field.
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