The Taliban’s territorial gains have raised doubts about the strength of the Afghan army with nearly extinct foreign troops – a showdown between two very different forces in which experts say morale could be as crucial as equipment and personnel .
This is not a conventional military engagement, but an engagement that pits a large army – raised and equipped by a superpower – against a smaller but well-supplied jihadist group backed by narco-dollars.
The United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in the Afghan Defense Force, providing modern weapons and high-tech equipment, including night vision goggles, attack helicopters, armored vehicles and drones. surveillance.
With more than 300,000 men – police included – it is bigger and more advanced than the Taliban, which are mainly guerrilla infantry without an air force.
UN observers estimated last year that the insurgents had between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters.
But the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
– ‘Supported on a stick’ –
The Taliban primarily use weapons easily found in war-torn Afghanistan or purchased on the black market, such as variants of the AK-47 assault rifle and other Soviet-designed weapons.
They also captured Western-made weapons and equipment from the Afghan army and reportedly received material and advisory support from regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan.
“The style of combat they employ is much less logistically intensive,” said Jonathan Schroden, counterterrorism expert at military think tank CNA.
The insurgents also appear to have greater financial autonomy. UN observers said last year that the Taliban had annual revenues of between $ 300 billion and $ 1.5 billion, from Afghanistan’s massive drug industry, criminal activity and taxation in the provinces. areas they control.
The Afghan army, on the other hand, needs $ 5-6 billion a year. This comes almost entirely from external sources, mainly from the United States.
Its air force gives it an unmatched weapon against the Taliban, but Afghanistan does not have enough personnel for maintenance – a task mostly carried out by American contractors who are also leaving.
This could potentially bring Afghan planes and helicopters to a standstill within months, according to a US military assessment in January.
The general in charge of the remaining US troops said the Afghan planes could be taken to a third country for maintenance and then repatriated.
An unsustainable army, regardless of its size or equipment, could prove to be a disadvantage if foreign aid dries up.
Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, compared it to armor on display.
“If you look at it, it’s steel armor, helmet, gloves, breastplate, everything. But of course they are hollow. They are wedged on a stick, ”he told AFP.
“And if you were to give them a quick kick, it just falls apart.” “
– “Defensive advantage” –
But some analysts said it would be reckless to assume that the Afghan army would collapse right away.
Many areas recently lost to the Taliban were not under effective government control initially, they said, and the Afghan army’s retreat could help it consolidate in urban areas where it has an advantage. defensive.
The Taliban might find it much more difficult to break down such defenses with tactics and equipment that have worked in rural areas.
Schroden of the NAC told AFP there could be a different dynamic in 2022 if “the government can repel Taliban attacks on provincial capitals for the remainder of this fighting season.”
This could prove to be a difficult task without American air support.
The Pentagon has said it will maintain a “on the horizon” capability to target US security threats, but it is still unclear whether that includes regular airstrikes.
– “Deep feeling of abandonment” –
Morale can be a deciding factor.
While analysts say the Taliban have shown strong cohesion, the Afghan military has been plagued for years by poor leadership, heavy casualties, corruption and low motivation.
And the latest Taliban offensives have caused further psychological damage.
“Even if the government had intended to let down some districts (…) the damage done to the morale of the security forces and the nation by seeing districts crumble like dominoes cannot be underestimated”, he said. writes Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a final assessment. month.
The “deep sense of abandonment” caused by the departure of US forces could lead demoralized Afghan soldiers to consider their own survival, RAND’s Jenkins said.
“And they’re making these individual decisions not on the basis of a national interest or a national strategy… (but)” Where do I go in all of this? And am I better served by being the last man standing here between the Taliban and the Kabul National Palace? ‘ “
© 2021 AFP