ANDSF’s Failure was Structurally Inevitable

Someone among the Taliban military planners likes his Sun Tzu and has learnt from it, writes Ejaz Haider

ANDSF’s Failure was Structurally Inevitable

One assessment that almost everyone got wrong, including all top western military leaders as well as intelligence analysts, was regarding the performance of Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). Just a week before Kabul fell to the Taliban, US intelligence had estimated that it could take about 30 to 90 days for Kabul to fall. Thus, the speed and ease of the eventual collapse took everyone — even the Taliban — by surprise. The question is: why?

In analyzing how and why the ANDSF melted away, focus is still being put on a military assessment. How could a force of 216,000 with about 50,000 special forces just give in? The problem with this analysis is that it is looking for military explanations in relation to a contest that was primarily about political legitimacy. And while the Taliban are undoubtedly resolute, they are not a formidable military force in any conventional sense. Their ‘military’ successes are instead the result of several factors (of which military prowess ranks fairly low).

Nearly twenty years ago, the United States made a number of mistakes after toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At least three became central to the ultimate slow-burn: taking the overwhelming conventional military asymmetry in its favor as the template for later operations; locking the Taliban out of the provisional government it put together through the Bonn process; and creating a centralised politico-military system that favored non-Pashtun ethnic groups.

During the 2001-2 operations, Taliban had stood no chance before the overwhelming conventional might of the US and its allies given the ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) capabilities at their disposal (and given that the Taliban had no air force, no armor, no artillery and no air defence assets). In 2001-02, Taliban defeat was a chronicle foretold.

But with the war over, a different phase began. The Taliban had collapsed; Al Qaeda had melted away, finding sanctuaries in Pakistan and Iran. By April 2002, Al Qaeda was nowhere to be found in Kandahar and its adjoining areas. Taliban had ceased to exist, its members having retired to their homes. This created a fresh problem. To quote Anand Gopal’s brilliant book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, “How do you fight a war without an adversary?”

Gopal provides the answer to this question by telling us the story of Agha Gul Sherzai, a once and future governor of Kandahar.

“Enter Gul Agha Sherzai — and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans — without even realizing it — had put in place.”

The result of people like Sherzai was a conflation of his personal rivalries with America’s military goals. “Sherzai’s enemies became America’s enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as ‘counterterrorism,’ his business interests as Washington’s.”

This was neither peculiar nor unique to Kandahar. Tirin Kut, capital of Uruzgan, had its own Sherzai by the name of Jan Muhammad. Just like Sherzai, he would make a killing through contracts and by providing the Americans his tribesmen as an Afghan version of Blackwater. Mathieu Aikins’ breakthrough stories about Abdul Raziq, a smuggler who went on to become the police chief and ultimately a general (before the Taliban killed him), provide further insight into how things worked under the Americans. It was the same in the east and northeast, local strongmen and former warlords jumping on the US bandwagon not only to rake it in, but also to put down their local rivals. While stories differ in minor details, the ‘logic’ of counterterrorism remained more or less the same.

The political project, putting together a provisional government, was going no better. Since the Taliban had harbored Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration bracketed them with AQ and its ideology. Pakistan’s efforts to make the US understand that (a) there was no military solution to the problem and (b) the US should include former Taliban leaders in the political process were shunned. Francesc Vendrell, who was appointed in January 2000 as the UN Secretary General’s Personal Representative for Afghanistan, understood not only the importance of the political process but also the fact that “conquest of territory by military force was not an acceptable basis for a future distribution of power in Afghanistan,” a reference in particular to the erstwhile Northern Alliance forces which had emerged as the US’ primary allies in its war against the Taliban and AQ.

Vendrell was replaced with Lakhdar Brahimi, who was more amenable to pushing the American line on how the political project must unfold. By 2004, however, Brahimi had realised that keeping the Taliban out of the Bonn process was a mistake. In an interview in 2004, he described it as the ‘original sin’. Result: about 48 per cent Pashtun got some 15 percent of share in power (this excluded Taliban and their constituencies). Zahid Hussain’s book, No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow, details how the Bonn process was manipulated in favour of a particular template.

Additionally, the system put in place was a centralised one with little to no space for provincial or local participation, especially from the signing of the Bonn agreement to the presidential election in October 2004 and the parliamentary elections in September 2005. The idea that Provincial Reconstruction Teams could help with reconstruction and development and thus expand the central government’s authority beyond Kabul — in addition to providing a security dividend — seemed grounded in a sound premise but failed to grasp local dynamics.

The Taliban are in the same position now as the US. How well they perform in bringing stability to Afghanistan will be determined by their finesse in dealing with the same factors

It was the same with international NGOs and subsequently their Afghan partners. Assuming that they could fill the void, they forgot another problem which studies have recorded with reference to NGO work: unlike politics, which helps aggregate conflicting interests, NGOs work in silos and their work is fragmented in terms of projects and funding aims and concepts. While they are (and can be) useful within a functioning political system, to consider them a substitute for participatory politics is flawed.

Even after the parliamentary elections in 2005, the centralised nature of the system and Kabul holding the purse strings meant the political dynamics gravitated towards Kabul rather than grounding themselves organically in the communities that were supposedly being represented in parliament.

This concept of centralisation and lopsided ethnic representation also informed the formation of ANDSF. Ethnic minority groups had major representation both in the non- as well as commissioned cadres in the police and the army. But more importantly, the ANDSF, while remaining tribal in parochial ethnic terms, never acquired the tribalism of a national army. Police patrol vehicles in Kabul would display pictures of Dostum or Ahmed Shah Massoud, indicating to any observer the ethnicity of its occupants.

Because the force remained ethnically fragmented, no amount of training or equipment could induce the overall, organic tribalism that informs successful militaries. Add to that, other known factors like lack of discipline, poor chain of command, corruption in the officer cadre, especially in the higher ranks, and a civilian leadership with no experience of military operations and it should have been clear that while the ANDSF might win a tactical battle here or lose many there, it had no strategic guidance.

Taliban were operating in this political and military space. As early as 2008-09, they were showing efficient intelligence and propaganda skills. Equally, while their leadership ensured vertical hierarchy, their field commanders were largely autonomous. The combination allowed them both cohesion and flexibility. In the east and south, by most accounts and estimates, they had managed to isolate both the US-led coalition as well as local Afghan administrations. In some areas they had begun dispensing justice and collecting taxes through a parallel system.

But their major success — for which they laid the groundwork since 2009-10 — was sociopolitical ingress into non-Pashtun areas. The recent manner in which northeastern (Tajik) and northwestern (Uzbek) areas fell to them did not come about suddenly. By all reports, it was the result of a decade-long effort. Juxtapose this strategic planning and coordination with the ethnically fragmented, corrupt and inorganic government in Kabul and it should be clear why Ashraf Ghani’s government and its forces capitulated with such ease.

There was fighting in some areas, sure. But 98 per cent of the area fell to the Taliban without a fight. Reason: networks evolved through years of work, capitalising on peoples’ sense of alienation from an unresponsive government in Kabul, deft local deals and people’s desire for peace.

The ANDSF was defeated politically. It didn’t really come to a contest of arms. Someone among the Taliban military planners likes his Sun Tzu and has learnt from it.

But, and this is important, the Taliban are in the same position now as the US. How well they perform in bringing stability to Afghanistan will be determined by their finesse in dealing with the same factors. They have played it well so far. Let’s see if they stay the course. Legitimacy, international recognition (and funds) and the crucial internal political balance will hinge on what they do going forward.

The writer is a journalist interested in security and military affairs. He tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.