How Taliban Stormed Across Afghanistan, Smashing NATO-Trained Army in Ten Days
05:00 GMT 15.08.2022 (Updated: 10:24 GMT 31.08.2022)
Monday marks the one year anniversary of the fall of Kabul and the collapse of the US and NATO-backed Afghan government. Afghanistan’s capital fell to the Taliban* just ten days after the insurgent group captured its first major city and generated a domino effect compared in importance to the 1975 fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.
The August 15, 2021 fall of Kabul shocked the world, signaling the collapse of the West’s 20-year-long, multi-trillion-dollar nation-building experiment in Afghanistan in a single day.
Less than two weeks before the cataclysm, US and Afghan officials issued statement after statement expressing confidence in the Afghan military’s ability to fight on without American support on the ground.
“[The Afghan Army has] got greater numbers, they’ve got an air force, and, oh by the way, their air force is also flying…This is not an incompetent air force – they know how to fight from the air and they are. They have modern weaponry. They have military organizational ability as well as 20 years of training in the field by – not just the United States but our NATO and Allied partners. So they have a lot of advantages. It’s really just now about using those advantages,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters
in Washington on August 11, less than 100 hours before Kabul’s collapse.
In the chaotic few days that followed, Afghan Air Force personnel wound up flying nearly 50 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft out of the country to neighboring Uzbekistan.
What happened? How did the US and NATO’s orderly withdrawal – which began in May 2021 amid fears that the Taliban would attack Western forces if they didn’t stick to the terms of the 2020 Trump-Taliban Doha peace deal, turn into such a humiliating and disorganized rout?
Paper Tiger vs Shoeless Army
On paper, the Afghan government and army seemed prepared for a years-long slog, similar to the one put up by the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which managed to hold out against the Mujahedeen independently between 1989 and early 1992
, even as the jihadists received billions in arms and cash from the CIA, Saudi and Egyptian intelligence, Pakistan and China. By comparison, the NATO-backed Afghan Army had serious problems with foreign support for the Taliban, with the insurgent group’s only major foreign backer consisting
of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
The Afghan military boasted a total size of some 300,000 personnel – the 16th largest army in the world, along with an impressive array of $85 billion in US-gifted weaponry, including tens of millions of guns, grenades and rocket launchers, 8,500 Humvees, hundreds of armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, and thousands of heavy and light trucks.
The Air Force’s inventory included more than two hundred Russian and US-made attack and utility helicopters, dozens of transport planes, and close to 30 Cessna 208 and A-29 Super Tucano ground attack and COIN jets.
Facing off against them were the Taliban: a rag-tag group of militants whose core fighting force was estimated to consist of about 60,000 fighters, some of them shoeless, no air force, and limited mobility due to their adversary’s total air superiority and control of fuel.
Behind the scenes, a sprinkling of media reports
from Afghan soldiers and officials told a sobering story previewing the coming disaster, discussing the widespread disillusionment, demoralization and corruption centered around military and police structures based more on patronage, personal power and enrichment than competence and aptitude.
“There is no motivation for the army to fight for the corrupt government and corrupt politicians here,” Ahmad Wali Massoud, Afghanistan’s former envoy to the UK, told
the Wall Street Journal on August 10, a few days before Kabul’s collapse.
“They are not fighting for [then-Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani. They haven’t even been fed properly. Why should they fight? For what? They are better off with the Taliban, which is why they are switching sides like that,” Massoud explained.
Ghani himself would end up fleeing the country as Kabul fell, with his entourage reportedly carrying so much money in suitcases from the state coffers that he had to leave some of it behind. Ghani has categorically dismissed
these reports and denied allegations besmirching his good name.
John Sopko, the US inspector general for Afghanistan, warned Congress in March 2021
about the state of the Afghan’s military’s demoralization, admitting that “endemic corruption” was a threat, and that it was “fueling” the insurgency and giving the Taliban the means to gain public support.
Another problem, according to a May 2021 report by the Associated Press, was lack of professionalism. Attiqullah Amarkhiel, a former Afghan Army major general, told the news agency that the Moscow-allied Afghan Army of 1989 consisted of about 150,000 high school educated troops. By contrast, he said, the NATO-trained crack troops of the Western-backed Afghan government had just six-to-eight weeks of basic training, with most recruits uneducated and/or allied to warlords.
“Then we had quality. Today we have quantity,” Amarkhiel said.
This demoralization and corruption, combined with what The Intelligencer characterized as
an institutionally built-in deep overdependence on US coalition support, culminated in the events of early-mid-August 2021.
By mid-July of that year, the Taliban was able to take advantage of coalition forces’ withdrawal by establishing control over large swathes of the Afghan countryside. However, no major cities and none of the country’s 34 provincial capitals were under the group’s control at the time. Throughout its two-decade insurgency campaign, the Taliban only launched one major strategic offensive against a government-controlled city – striking Kandahar in May 2011 before retreating back into the countryside.
Fast forward a decade, and the militant group would finally cast off their inhibitions about offensives into cities.
On August 6, the militants captured Zaranj, capital of the southern province of Nimruz near the border with Iran, in a lightning attack, with government forces putting up light resistance and local bureaucrats fleeing the city.
A day later, the militants captured Sheberghan, capital of Jawzjan province, after heavy fighting. On August 8, Sar-e-Pul, Kunduz and Taluqan, three provincial capitals in the north of the country, fell, followed by Aybak in the northern Samangan province on August 9.
August 10 witnessed the collapse of Farah in the west and Pul-e-Khumri in Afghanistan’s center. A day later, Faizabad, capital of the northeastern province of Badakhshan also fell.
August 12-13 would become the darkest days for the Afghan army and government up to that point, with the cities of Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Qala-e-Naw, Feruz Koh, Pul-e-Alam, Terenkot and Qalat falling to the Taliban in the space of 48 hours. On August 14, the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif fell.
Finally, on August 15, 2021, Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad collapsed – falling, awkwardly, while tens of thousands of coalition troops, contractors, diplomats, Afghan puppet administration assistance and Western intelligence agents were still in the country.
In a post-op analysis of the events, General Yasin Zia, the former chief of staff of the Afghan army, estimated that some 4,000 security forces troops were killed, and 1,000 more gone missing, in the deadly weeks between July 1 and August 15, 2021 – with that figure representing about one half of the average of 8,000 Afghan security personnel killed each year over the previous five years.
Zia estimated that in total, some 92,000 members of the Afghan security forces died in the line of duty since 2001. Up to 100,000 Afghan civilians, tens of thousands of Taliban fighters, over 3,500 US and coalition troops, and 4,000+ Western mercenaries also perished.
* An organization under UN sanctions for terrorist activities.