The spectacular collapse of the Afghan National Army brings to mind the words of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.”
How is it that a professional army with an authorized strength of 350,000, trained and armed by the US military over two decades, evaporated in a matter of weeks when faced with the rag tap group of 80,000 fighters associated with the Taliban?
It is the biggest mystery of the events unfolding in Afghanistan today. However, if one reviews the history of the US occupation of Afghanistan and how the US army interacted with the Afghan army, it is possible to discern the answer. It is a multifaceted answer.
First, the Afghan army’s strength was not 350,000. That number included paramilitary forces and the police. If one nets out the latter, the number of combat personnel was around 180,000 of which 96,000 constituted the fighting force. Even that number is an exaggeration. Many soldiers had deserted the army or been let go. One out of four quit within a year of joining. Some were never there and some were dead. According to some estimates, about half of the army’s headcount consisted of “ghost soldiers.” The army’s seven corps only existed on paper.
In 2016, a US report concluded ominously, “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist, how many are in fact available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.”
Second, the people who joined the army did not do so to serve and defend the people of Afghanistan. They joined simply because they could not get another job. Many were dropouts from society. Others were delinquents. They often did not get along well with each other because of ethnic rivalries. They were an undisciplined lot who could not fight any enemy in battle, least of all a determined and ferocious enemy such as the Taliban who were ready to die for their cause. Over the years, the Taliban had killed nearly 70,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers, creating a sense of fatalism among the Afghan troops.
Third, more than half of the soldiers could not read or write. It was impossible to convert them into a fighting force. Some were never paid. Some ended up selling their weapons to the Taliban. Some began to steal from the local population who they were supposed to defend. Out of habit and out of boredom, several turned into drug addicts. They would not show up on time for military exercises. Some were always sick or on leave.
US soldiers embedded within the Afghan military saw this first hand.
Some Afghan soldiers did not know how to wear their helmets. Others did not know how to carry their rifles, let alone shoot them accurately. When attacked, they would often start firing their weapons in the air.
Fourth, the US trainers did not speak the local language. The training manuals for the Humvee wheeled multi-purpose vehicles were in English, not in Pashto. While engaging with the Afghan soldiers, Americans used translators. Much is lost in translation. It is not even clear where the loyalty of the translators lay and whether they were accurately translating on interjecting their own views into the conversation. The US forces were unable to bond with the local people. Always dressed in brattle attire, they stood out like Roman Legions occupying a foreign land. The US soldiers had an even more difficult time training the Afghan police. They were trained for warfare, not policing.
Fifth, there was widespread corruption among the top brass of the army. In theory, the US spent $83 billion training the Afghans. That should have been enough to produce a highly effective army capable of defending the country against a Taliban takeover. Unfortunately, much of the money was pocketed by the thousand generals who commanded the army, a number seriously out of proportion to the size of the army. Corruption was as rampant among the generals as it was in the Afghan government.
Sixth, the Afghan army had become woefully dependent on US air power. When the Doha agreement was announced, signaling to the Afghans that the US was going to be pulling out and the Taliban would have a hand in governing the country, they knew the game was over. The Taliban began messaging them: “The unbelievers have been defeated. Your leaders are corrupt. Surrender now and we will protect you. Fight us and we will kill you.”
The Afghan National Army began to disintegrate as a fighting force and the soldiers began disappearing into the hills. The end was a foregone conclusion, even though no battle had been fought and no surrenders had taken place. They did what all defeated soldiers go. They went home.
Citing Napoleon’s maxim, “In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one,” Max Boot in a recent column concludes, “Quite simply, an Afghan military that over the past twenty years had learned to rely on U.S. support for airpower, intelligence, logistics, planning, and other vital enablers was fatally demoralized by the U.S. decision to abandon it.”
The collapse of the Afghan army leads to the inevitable question: Why did the US not see it coming? The warning signs had been there all along. As far back as 2014, the US had planned to turn over the job of defending the country to the Afghan National Army. The reason that failed to happen was that the US did not think they would be able to handle it. By 2017, the Taliban were taking back the villages in the hills and then the villages in the valleys.
The US had successfully trained armies in Germany and Japan after the Second World War and the South Korean Army after the Korean War, all countries with long military traditions. The US had failed to train the South Vietnamese Army, which did not have a long military tradition. The South Vietnamese and Afghan armies collapsed because they were not fighting a conventional army. They were fighting a counter-insurgency. Success required them to earn the trust of the population and to have the morale for fighting an invisible enemy. They failed in both respects.
It is no surprise that the Afghan army collapsed. The surprise is that the US did not see it coming. It was an event foretold.