In the face of a re-energised Taliban assault Afghan government forces are abandoning their posts, but the fight is far from over as the Taliban is also rumoured to be taking heavy losses.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers are either surrendering or running away from the continuing intensified Taliban assault, which has allowed the group to gain a dozen districts across northern Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s recent campaign, which has evoked memories of its 1996 takeover of Kabul, the Afghan capital, is happening amid the US-led NATO withdrawal from the war-torn country.
Obaidullah Baheer, an Afghan political analyst and a lecturer of Transitional Justice at the American University in Kabul, sees multiple reasons for why central government forces are abandoning their posts in the tenacity of Taliban’s attacks. The Afghan government denies reports that its soldiers have left their posts to escape from Taliban attacks.
Instead of executing and imprisoning Afghan soldiers, the Taliban is using two main tactics to persuade troops that a willing surrender is “a safe option” for them. Firstly, by establishing direct contacts with Afghan forces, the Taliban pledges to troops that if they surrendered they would be left alive and even given allowances to return to their homelands.
“They [soldiers] are given some allowances and change of clothes and they are let go,” Baheer explains. The Taliban is using social media very efficiently and recording those incidents where troops surrendered to the armed group, adds the analyst.
“On the other hand, we have seen specific councils formed within districts by the Taliban that facilitate the surrender of troops,” Baheer tells TRT World. The Taliban is using these district councils composed of elders to negotiate the surrender of Afghan troops, who pledge that they will not fight against the Taliban in the future, the analyst says.
Working with tribal elders
Enayat Najafizada, the founder and CEO of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think-tank, confirms the Taliban’s tactics persuading Afghan troops to surrender. “The Taliban has used these tactics in some provinces in the north. That worked in some places and that did not work in other places,” Najafizada tells TRT World.
In those areas, where the Taliban appears to be successful in persuading Afghan soldiers to abandon their posts, the armed group is working with community elders, who are mainly from Hezb-i Islami, an Afghan political party with a military wing, according to Najafizada. Hezb-i Islami was involved in the Afghan civil war back in the 1990s.
“According to reports, these elders went to some of the checkpoints of Afghan security forces, asking them not to fight,” the analyst says. They were challenging Afghan security forces with questions like “why are you fighting?” and “who are you defending actually?” according to Najafizada.
The elders were challenging the soldiers saying that if they were defending the Afghan government, they should have known that “the Kabul government cannot represent Afghan people,” Najafizada says.
But in some places like Dawlat Abad, the Taliban still “massacred” soldiers despite their surrender, the analyst notes. He also thinks that Afghan forces are not surrendering to the Taliban anymore, but “they are fighting the Taliban”, which overran at least 120 districts in the past two months.
He also doubts the number of fleeing troops, which has been reported as being more than 1,000 according to Tajik official sources. “I could not confirm. Neither the Afghan officials have confirmed yet such a big number,” he says. Most recently, an Afghan government security adviser said that soldiers who fled to Tajikistan were brought back to fight.
Najafizada sees three main reasons why Afghan forces are abandoning their stations: the demoralisation of US withdrawal, bad security leadership both in Kabul and at the local level and poor political governance which “has created an increasing gap between Afghan people and their government.”
“The longer the Afghan government is losing its legitimacy at the local level, the more people distrust the Afghan government,” Najafizada says.
Other experts think similarly. “They [Afghan soldiers] feel that political leaders let them down. There is a big disconnect at the top of the Afghan leadership and majority of security forces,” says Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“At the same time, if everyone is going to run away from the country, there is no point for the army to fight. The Taliban is so strong. They rather not risk their lives and maybe wait and fight another day,” Alam tells TRT World. “Either this is a tactical withdrawal or they are just too scared,” he adds.
“This is the fight. This is the battle. Both sides are fighting to gain ground. It happens on the ground. You retreat and you attack. There are also counterattacks,” Najafizada says. “This fight is not over,” he adds.
While the Taliban runs its current campaign with both tenacity and smart war tactics, the Afghan government claims that recent Taliban gains are not the result of the armed group’s prowess or increasing political influence across the country.
“The government is claiming that this is a tactical retreat, which does make sense if you are fighting a guerilla force that enjoys its mobility and hit-and-run tactics. When you force them to come out and hold territory, then, they lose that advantage of mobility and you can hit them hard,” Baheer says.
In the past and also current fighting, some districts have changed various times, giving some credibility to the government account of recent troops’ surrender. But if a wide-range surrender of troops through either direct Taliban contacts or through elders councils were true, then, it would be difficult to portray the abandoning of Afghan soldiers of their posts as “tactical retreats”.
But Baheer thinks that it’s currently not a widespread practice all over Afghanistan. However, this tactic also comes with “a specific cost” that is the lost momentum and also “the lost spirit and conviction” among government forces, he says. Afghan soldiers realise that they are willingly giving up territory, “feeling defeated and there is a sense of gloom within the fighting force,” the analyst adds.
Despite the very public retreat of government forces, in some areas, Afghan forces have been able “to resist” the Taliban march successfully, Baheer claims.
Najafizada also thinks that Afghan forces are fighting back. In areas where Afghan security forces have fought the Taliban, “there has been no victory for the Taliban,” he says. He believes that the Taliban is losing a lot of its fighters in the recent fighting.
The new Afghan defense minister’s coming to power could also change the current equation because he is a well-decorated soldier with extensive experience going back to the 1990s, according to Najafizada. “He has boosted the morale of Afghan forces” as air bombardments continue alongside special forces’ involvement against the Taliban.
With the help of local uprisings against the Taliban, the Afghan government will be able to contain the Taliban campaign in the next couple of weeks or months, according to Najafizada.
Badly-designed US withdrawal
Many experts also fault Washington’s decision-making process for the Taliban’s recent gains across Afghanistan. Under the former Trump administration, the US began direct negotiations with the Taliban to facilitate a quick withdrawal from the country, which was invaded by Washington two decades ago.
But negotiations left certain areas — like how intra-Afghan talks will be held and if those talks failed what the consequences for the Taliban would be — blank leaving Kabul to deal with the Taliban on its own.
Many analysts thought that the American withdrawal would happen “more orderly” on September 11, marking the Al Qaeda attacks on the US, Alam says. But prior to September, the fact that everyone was “pulled out so quickly and quite a few embassies were closed.”
“Everyone is in panic mode now,” he says, referring to the disorganised state of the Afghan government in the face of the Taliban military campaign.
“The withdrawal of US-led NATO forces have obviously affected the morale of Afghan national and defense security forces,” says Najafizada, the Kabul-based political analyst.
All these troubles have emerged partly “because the United States chose to behave like a defeated super power,” says Baheer, referring to the US pullout from Afghanistan. “The withdrawal could be done much better. The unconditional withdrawal put a lot of pressure on the Afghan government and its defense forces.”
Baheer thinks that the US withdrawal has gone wrong for a number of reasons. “First of all, it’s a rushed operation,” he says, referring to the former President Donald Trump’s approach to gain a political win from it in terms of US domestic politics.
He also thinks that under Zalmay Khalilzad, the US chief mediator, an Afghan-American, the negotiation process was flawed, not laying out a proper political settlement plan between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
In terms of intra-Afghan talks and a possible settlement plan, it was “whether they [Americans] had a plan that was not executed properly or there was a complete absence of a plan,” Baheer says. “We basically see very little hope for any political settlement for Afghanistan.”
The lack of clarity surrounding the intra-Afghan talks had a significant effect on the course of the ongoing fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, says Alam. “Because of this, many people are simply just going to wait for the right time and then potentially put up a fight. At the moment, there is no need for what the general consensus is,” he says, referring to the possible results of the intra-Afghan talks.
That spells dangers not only for Afghanistan but also for the region as a whole if the Taliban comes to power with its absolute authority like it did in the 1990s, according to the analysts.
Baheer also criticises not only the withdrawal process but also US political messaging, giving the example of the recent American intelligence prediction that the Afghan government would collapse six months after Washington’s withdrawal.
He thinks that kind of assessment is something “which is a dangerous thing to say because when you are the superpower, the hegemon of the world, you say something, then, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
When asked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Sunday during a press conference, US President Joe Biden appeared as blunt as Trump, his predecessor. “I want to talk about happy things, man,” he replied, referring to July 4 Independence Day celebrations.
While Biden declines to discuss Afghanistan, a lot of Afghans live on edge for another comeback of the Taliban. “No one can guarantee” that it will not happen again, says Najafizada. “That’s a possibility. We fear that 1996 will be repeated and history will repeat itself.”