With the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan twenty years after the invasion in the wake of 9/11 there has been the inevitable comparisons to the Soviet retreat from the country in 1989, which have been occurring periodically in the media over the years anyway.
The anticipated massive Taliban offensive against the Afghan government has begun with humiliating set-backs for the Afghan government with a 1,000 strong detachment of its armed forces being forced to retreat into Tajikistan because they were unable to fight the Taliban forces or rather felt unable to do so. This caused Tajikistan to immediately send troops to the border to protect its territory from potential incursions by Taliban forces.
The bulk of Afghanistan is already under Taliban control and there are also unconfirmed reports of multiple Afghan army units surrendering to the Taliban such as in Spin Boldak and Ghazni. Even though the US has left the Afghan army significant amounts of provisions, small arms and ammunition in addition to thousands of civilian vehicles and hundreds of armoured vehicles.
This is despite the claims from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that ‘the country's security forces are fully capable of handling the conflict’, which are looking increasingly hollow as the bulk of the resistance is not coming from the regular Afghan army but rather the Afghan commando units, which are the country’s special forces. Since the regular Afghan army is suffering widespread ‘surrenders, desertions and mass retreats’ and not exactly holding their own against what is essentially a tribal militia.
Those who closely followed the Iraqi fight against Islamic State might remember that the country’s ‘Special Forces’ and ‘Special Police Commandos’ were to all intents and purposes the only regular units that really fought Islamic State with the rest being militia often advised and bolstered by Iranian military personnel and a similar situation – but without the Iranians and their ‘popular militias’ – is likely to prevail in Afghanistan.
The real test of the Afghan government will be in its ability to hang on to the cities where it has its powerbase since as Tamim Asey – a former Afghan Deputy Defence Minister - points out:
‘"A lot of the districts the Taliban have taken are irrelevant in strategic terms, but important for propaganda purposes," assesses Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defence minister who now heads the Institute for War and Peace Studies in Kabul. "The next fighting season will be the battle for cities."’
This is true but what Asey doesn’t say is the inability of the Afghan government to project military power, retake and reinforce its control over these areas that are ‘irrelevant in strategic terms’ signals a very real weakness since the Taliban is able to operate freely and function as an alternative government in these areas reproducing a not dissimilar situation to that the US found in country in 2001 between the Taliban and the ‘good guys’ who were in reality just ‘not the Taliban’ (aka the Northern Alliance).
In essence, the Taliban is in a decent position where-as the Afghan government is in a bad position considering their relative military strengths. If the Taliban start taking provincial capitals – which seems very likely – then the Afghan government’s days are likely numbered. The problem the Taliban have got is that if foreign powers support the Afghan government, then it would be nigh on impossible for the Taliban to win a strategic victory and would instead relegate them to a government of the countryside much like Al-Shabaab in Somalia did for years in the 2000s.
To this end the Taliban diplomats have begun vising major powers – such as Russia – to try and ensure that this kind of external foreign support for the Afghan government does not materialize precisely because the Taliban cannot stand and fight against a modern military made up of professional competent soldiers.
The Afghan government’s problem is that they simply do not have such a military.