David Kilcullen, in The Australian, 31 July 2021,. [and The Inquirer, 31 July ]where the title reads “Making sense of the Afghan fiasco, and how to fix it” … 2021 and with this byline : “there are four moves that could stabilise the situation long enough to get talks back on track.”
If a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth, US President Joe Biden committed one a few weeks ago, answering a question about Afghanistan, when he said “the mission hasn’t failed, yet”. That “yet” contains multitudes: a tangle of military and humanitarian factors refracted through political spin and a hyper-partisan US media.
Making sense of it all requires us to set politics aside and try to understand what is happening on the ground, what it means and what might be done about it.
In April I wrote that while “it would be a stretch to imagine Taliban troops capturing Kabul anytime soon, Kandahar and other capitals of Pashtun-majority provinces might fall”. Unfortunately, this prediction looks increasingly likely. Since May, when American aircraft stopped flying missions to support their former Afghan allies, the Taliban offensive has accelerated dramatically.
The clearest indication of crisis is that the US, despite itself, again was forced to launch limited air strikes last week, targeting Taliban operating at strength in the suburbs of Kandahar City. Kandahar is just one of about a dozen provincial capitals under siege, though arguably the most important because of its historical and cultural significance and its dominant role in the economic and transport ecosystem of southern Afghanistan. Taliban mobile forces are strangling Kandahar, capturing outlying districts in the past month, while guerrilla groups are pushing into the city from the south, west and northwest.
That the Taliban is leaving open the city’s eastern flank offers a clue to its strategy. Many districts that fell in recent weeks were already encircled, with rural areas controlled by guerrillas and government compounds – clusters of dusty buildings and shipping containers with a small police and army garrison, a lonely Afghan flag, rudimentary perimeter defences and a couple of guard towers – cut off from road access.
As the overstretched Afghan air force suddenly found itself without US help, these garrisons no longer could be resupplied by air, casualties could not be evacuated, food and ammunition began to run low, and calls for assistance went unanswered. Understandably, morale plummeted, especially since civilian officials, whom the soldiers and police are there to protect, have, with honourable exceptions, mostly fled.
Rather than fight pitched battles, risking losses and expending precious ammunition, Taliban commanders instead often leave open an exit route (as they are doing, on a grander scale, in Kandahar) to encourage the garrison to simply evacuate. They send local community leaders – usually well-known to those in the besieged compounds – to negotiate a surrender. Given guarantees of safe passage, with no prospect of victory and no source of support, many garrisons understandably choose to do a deal.Members of an internally displaced Afghan family who left their home during the ongoing conflict between Taliban and Afghan security forces arrive from Qala-i- Naw, in Enjil district of Herat, on July 8. Picture: AFP
Before leaving, they often hand over weapons, ammunition and vehicles, adding to the insurgents’ arsenal. The brave few who do decide to fight often lose, with the Taliban then meting out brutal punishments against survivors – beheading, mass shooting – that are amplified over social media as a message to others who might resist. Unsurprisingly, multiple districts have been abandoned without resistance.
Unlike the civil war of the 1990s, this year’s offensive is targeting traditional strongholds of the Northern Alliance in the centre, north and northwest of the country, while attacking ethnic minorities such as the Hazara who historically formed centres of resistance against the Taliban.
Guerrillas are attacking rural districts across the north, and Taliban mobile forces recently entered the northern provincial capitals of Maimana and Kunduz.
Some well-informed observers attribute this to a Taliban strategy of pre-emptively destabilising potential opposition base areas so its enemies cannot consolidate in the northern, largely non-Pashtun parts of the country, as happened during the civil war. This means that failure to hold the cities could leave the government with no fallback option. Aid workers with staff in the Panjshir valley, 150km north of Kabul, say the population there has decided to stand and fight as the Taliban approaches, pulling hidden weapons and old ammunition from caches, forming self-defence groups and tapping a younger generation that sees no future under the Taliban.
Likewise, communities in the Hazara-majority province of Bamiyan are mobilising to stand their ground. Self-defence militias are forming all over Afghanistan, filling the vacuum left by an overstretched army. While opposing the Taliban, the militias are far from supportive of a Kabul government many see as corrupt, distant and in the pocket of foreigners who have betrayed it.
The cascading collapse of government control in the countryside is contributing to a mood of barely suppressed panic in the cities. Amid a flood of displaced rural people fleeing into cities to avoid the Taliban, the government this week imposed a night-time curfew across 31 of the country’s 34 provinces.
Afghans who can afford to leave the country are doing so, but ordinary townspeople are trapped as district after rural district is overrun, while rocket attacks, car bombs and assassinations are increasing in cities including Kabul.
The Taliban also has captured international border crossing points in the south, southeast, east and northeast of the country, cutting Afghanistan off from regional trade and denying the government critical customs revenue.
Inside the Arg, his heavily fortified compound in Kabul that also houses intelligence, military and national security staff, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – with a small and, according to critics, insular coterie of advisers – is energetically trying to stem the Taliban tide. But Ghani, an intellectual known for his temper and tendency to micromanage, lacks military experience and, in any case, faces an extraordinarily dire situation that has blown up much more rapidly than he or his advisers seem to have foreseen. And his ability to visit threatened areas or talk to local commanders to get a feel for events is becoming constrained as Taliban advances turn Kabul into a bubble.
Having withdrawn actual assistance, US leaders now offer helpful statements of the obvious, such as last weekend’s suggestion by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin that “the first task for Afghan forces is to slow (the) Taliban’s momentum”. This idea probably already has occurred to Afghan commanders, one would think, given they have been trying to do exactly that for months.
Indeed, they would be doing better had the Pentagon not just abandoned its huge air base at Bagram while cutting air support. Biden, meeting Ghani a month ago, emphasised “enduring United States support for the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities”, a sentiment likely of little comfort to the families of more than 100 civilians dragged from their homes and shot or beheaded in the streets of Kandahar by the Taliban this week.
The UN noted more realistically that “civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 reached record levels, including a particularly sharp increase in killings and injuries since May when international military forces began their withdrawal and the fighting intensified following the Taliban’s offensive”.
What might be done about the impending catastrophe, beyond platitudes and hand-wringing? Staying out of the politics, and at the risk of following Austin into the land of the blindingly obvious, four military moves suggest themselves.
Air power is the key to the campaign, but without bases inside Afghanistan US warplanes based in Qatar have to fly eight hours each way to remain on station for as little as 40 minutes in some areas.
Reopening Bagram is probably no longer possible, but Kabul airport has a 3657m runway and an air base with seven helicopter pads. Deploying an expeditionary air wing, or perhaps an air force special operations detachment with specialised counterinsurgency aircraft, into Kabul is about the only thing that could restore meaningful, timely air support for ground forces being overrun.
Equally importantly, it would signal support that could stiffen the morale of those in the encircled outposts. (This would, of course, breach the 2019 US agreement with the Taliban, but since the Taliban already has breached it, this is irrelevant).
An Afghan boy asks a translator for more money as Capt. Nicholas Stout of Lake Orion, Michigan (R) holds the pay for participating in a jobs program sponsored by the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army in 2010.
Restoring maintenance for the Afghan air force would be a second move. In 2018 the US insisted the Afghans adopt the complex UH-60 Blackhawk (similar to the model flown by US and Australian forces) as their primary battlefield helicopter, replacing Russian-made Mi-17s they were used to and could maintain themselves. American contractors provided maintenance until May when, amid the coalition pullout, the civilians left too, citing insurance and liability issues. Options to restore support include deploying military maintainers, a legislative or financial fix for the contractors’ liability issue, or shipping Mi-17s (dozens of which are mothballed across Europe, in former Warsaw Pact countries that are now NATO members) to Afghanistan, giving Afghans a platform they can fly and maintain.
Third, Austin is right: the ground forces must consolidate to defend key cities and hold the north. The reason they are defending everywhere, at risk of being defeated in detail, is that the Taliban are attacking so many places at once. US and coalition countries have sophisticated national intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that could give early warning of attacks, helping the Afghans blunt them and regain the initiative. Consolidation is, in effect, an intelligence problem masquerading as a manoeuvre issue; any Afghan commander you talk to knows this already. We should treat it as such by focusing all available ISR on helping Afghans prioritise places they can still hold: the cities, the few remaining border crossing points and areas (mostly in the north) that are still government-aligned and defendable.
Finally, Afghan special operations forces need redirecting. At present, alongside certain elite police units, Afghan SOF are being used as a fire brigade, thrown into the most desperately threatened places to restore critical situations. Military planners call this a quick reaction force, and the task is stretching a force of only 11,000, imposing irreplaceable losses on Afghanistan’s best remaining troops. In one incident in mid-June Major Sohrab Azimi, son of an Afghan general and a highly decorated, US-trained special forces officer, was captured and executed by the Taliban with 21 other SOF troops after his unit was encircled and a relief column, lacking helicopters, failed to arrive.
Some SOF will need to keep doing quick reaction tasks, but stiffening ordinary Afghan units (through better training, extra firepower and leadership) and working as advisers with the rapidly forming local militias – both to improve their effectiveness and keep them loyal to Kabul – are better uses for a precious resource.
Let’s be clear: these measures might not work, they might already be too late, they would certainly be acts of desperation, and politicians in Washington or other coalition capitals would be reluctant to countenance most of them. And, of course, they would not defeat the Taliban on their own.
But they might stabilise the situation sufficiently for the government to catch its breath, consolidate and rally enough resistance to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, restarting intra-Afghan talks that are stalled since Taliban leaders believe they can win on the battlefield. Ironically, countries such as Pakistan that previously backed the Taliban are now pursuing a negotiated solution, while Iran and the Central Asian states along with Russia and China also favour a peace deal. But no agreement is likely unless the government first shows it can stand its ground.
Biden’s “the mission hasn’t failed, yet” is code for “but it will, and I’m planning to just let that happen”. However inadvertent, this is an appalling admission for the leader of any nation that claims to support a liberal, humanitarian world order. Things on the ground are indeed extremely dire, largely due to self-inflicted mistakes by US presidents (of both parties – this, for once, is not a partisan issue) and their partners. The Afghan government bears a large measure of responsibility too.
But the military situation is not irrecoverable, however much we may want to use it as an excuse for giving up. That would be a really bad idea – on humanitarian grounds, for geopolitical reasons, and for countries, such as Australia, that have been part of this effort from the beginning.
The war is not over yet – in some ways, despite our departure, it is only just beginning – and to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s worth remembering that “nations that go down fighting rise again; those that surrender tamely are finished”.