The Afghan Army should have won – why didn’t it?

After quickly swarming rural districts and more significant urban hubs, Taliban forces entered the Afghan capital Kabul and seized power in an effort noted for scale and speed. The Afghan government should have, in theory, held the upper hand with a more significant force at its disposal.

The Afghan security forces are estimated to have numbered more than 300,000 on paper. The armed strength of the Taliban is even harder to measure, however, with some estimates suggesting a core strength of 60,000 with the addition of other militia groups and supporters, potentially bringing that up to 200,000.

The significant difference between the two forces was, very obviously, one had the backing of NATO, and the other did not. The other still won, however.

Throughout the conflict, the permeation of the concept of a Western “exit strategy” in strategic thinking meant Western politicians always focused on whether it was time to leave. Indeed, for 20 years, Western efforts signalled a lukewarm strategic commitment to the country. So all the Taliban had to do was wait. They knew Western forces would be leaving, just not when.

Waning Western commitment steadily lessened, and many of the underlying conditions for the Afghan military’s collapse began to blossom. US President Joe Biden argued, very publicly, that Afghan forces seemed to lack the will to fight. Others either blame issues with training, the overuse of private contractors or even just incompetency. I do not believe that the leading cause of what happened to the Afghan military is specifically any of those, nor do I think it a failure of character.

Instead, I believe that Afghan soldiers encountered what some have termed a “commitment problem” due to witnessing what to them must have been a significant shift in the strategic environment. This shift appeared to change their minds that winning was possible to the realisation that losing was probably inevitable – and dangerous for their families.

As Western forces began to withdraw their personnel and their equipment, the Taliban started gaining territory. There’s no separating one from the other; this happened because Western troops began to leave and, in some cases, took their support with them.

What’s notable is that while the Taliban advanced, they increased efforts to negotiate with Afghan forces at rural outposts and towns, convincing many of them to surrender and go home. Once that happened and those troops went home and spread the news that they surrendered, I believe a Taliban victory was from that point on inevitable. I think this is proven by the fact that as the Taliban advanced further, they didn’t really encounter any significant resistance and instead were met with increasing numbers of surrendering Afghan troops.

Towards the end of the Taliban march, as any of us would do, ordinary Afghan people that comprised their armed forces chose safety in numbers, and thousands of them surrendered together.

The rapid advance of the Taliban took the general public and even the defence community by surprise, even President Biden acknowledged that the US Government and the mighty US military had been caught off guard by the rapid dissolution of the Afghan military.

Despite the incredible advantages the superpower-backed Afghan army had on paper… the Taliban took over Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. So quick was this takeover; the withdrawal of foreign troops and citizens from Afghanistan hadn’t been completed. Many of you will even remember seeing imagery of Afghan citizens chasing western cargo aircraft down the runway at Kabul airport in the desperate hope of getting a flight to safety. For that to happen is proof that everyone involved appears to have been caught off-guard by how quickly Afghan forces folded.

So, again, why did Afghan forces dissolve so quickly in the face of the Taliban advance? What accelerated their “commitment problem”?

Rich Outzen, a retired US colonel speaking publicly in an interview with Turkish news outlet Anadolu Agency, attributed the surrender to a lack of support in the form of everything from combat air support, logistics, transportation and communications once the US and other Western forces and contractors finally withdrew from the country in the months leading up to the Taliban advance.

It is important to note that in a mountainous country like Afghanistan, ground forces would always be very heavily dependent on air support, and unfortunately, this support provided by the United States and private contractors was effectively taken away overnight.

This meant that people would be more inclined to surrender and go home as they could not feel the support of the central Afghan government or indeed US or western forces.

Soldiers, like any other people, seek safety in numbers. When they fight in battle, they can only win if they work together as one cohesive force. However, individual decisions to fight or flee typically depend on mutual expectations.

If a soldier believes that most of his comrades are going to fight alongside them, they can be confident of safety and strength as a team. Victory is possible. However, if a soldier expects that most of their comrades will surrender, surrender seems more reasonable. Defeat is inevitable. Once a soldier learns that hundreds, or even thousands, of their comrades have already surrendered or abandoned them, then there can be no turning back. The morale and even willpower to fight back is gone. Why bother? A trickle of desertions leads to a flood of surrenders and eventually the collapse of an entire fighting force.

I believe that this is what happened to the Afghan military.