Explaining the Taliban’s lightning victory - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 16 August 2021

Explaining the Taliban’s lightning victory

The Afghan style of war involves negotiations and pay-offs, not bloody last stands


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 17th Aug 21


The Taliban’s lightning victory has seen its troops sweep through Afghanistan and capture Kabul in barely a fortnight after US intelligence forecast that the Afghan National Army (ANA) could hold them off for several months.


Analysts are questioning the combat capability of the ANA and waxing lyrical about the warriorship of the hardy Taliban fighters. This analysis of the ANA’s rapid capitulation all across the country only illustrates the hazards of crystal gazing in an unfamiliar context.


Few have pointed out that audio and video coverage of the battlegrounds of Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad and finally Kabul, show no signs of desperate last stands by the ANA; in fact, one has to strain to hear any firing at all. The reason is simple: The Afghan tradition of gaining control of areas does not necessarily involve combat. Most engagements are settled through negotiations and pay-offs before battle is joined. This style of fighting is peculiar to Afghanistan and must be viewed within this framework.


Principle One of warfare in Afghanistan is survival. Battlefield commanders understand well that there is no glory in fighting to the last man, or even to the point of dissipating one’s strength to the point where the next engagement is jeopardised. Centuries of hard experience has proved in Afghanistan that a defeated commander, or one whose army has suffered heavy losses, badly loses credibility. On the other hand, commanders who avoid grave attrition by withdrawing, negotiating with the enemy, or even defecting along with their troops, live to fight another day and avoid damage to their reputation. 


The reason for this is realism, not cowardice, in a country where fighting has been almost continuous for almost half a century; and in which some two million Afghans have lost their lives. Conflict has been a reality of life and soldiering, whether part-time or full-time, has been a survival tradition for rural men. In this context, there is no glory in large numbers of fighters laying down their lives in glorious last stands. 


Harsh circumstance has already reduced the life expectancy of Afghan men; there is no appetite for making life even shorter. Troops, therefore, expect their commanders to ensure that battlefield aims are achieved with as few casualties as possible. The preferable way to decide the outcome of a battle is to pay off the opposing forces beforehand, to withdraw before the first shot is fired. Naturally, this decides outcomes quickly and bloodlessly. If the ANA is not fighting hard against the Taliban, there are two simple reasons: They realise that the wind has shifted, and the eventual outcome of battle would be to their detriment. The second reason is that money has changed hands.


In November 2001, two days before the Northern Alliance attacked the Taliban and evicted them from Kabul, this reporter attended a negotiation between a Northern Alliance commander and the Taliban commander who held the picquets opposite him. It was calmly decided that, in exchange for a sizeable amount, the Taliban commander would withdraw with his men a few hours before the Northern Alliance attack began. That played out exactly as decided. The Taliban withdrew on schedule and the Northern Alliance advanced towards Kabul without much fighting. Those Taliban fighters might well be the same pragmatic militiamen who are retaking Kabul now.


Afghans perceive their history, not without reason, as a long saga of resisting foreigners, who have meddled in the country, and then abandoned it, often without achieving the purpose for which they had come. In popular folklore, Afghans are a brave and proud people, while foreigners are treacherous meddlers, not to be trusted on any account. 


This distrust extends to almost every nationality ¾ Americans, Russians, British, Iranians, and the Pakistanis above all ¾ with Indians one of the few people for which there is palpable goodwill. Within this Afghan worldview, negotiating a defection with another Afghan faction is usually permissible, but capitulating to a foreigner bears the stigma of disgrace. Several feared Afghan generals, such as Rashid Dostum, have defected more than once between various Afghan factions, without loss of reputation.


When Afghan fighters smell victory, all bets are off. On Sunday, when the Taliban had encircled Kabul, analysts and anchors were setting store by the Taliban’s reported promise not to enter the city, “in order to ensure an orderly transfer of power”. But that restraint was short-lived. Enter they did, at the point of their guns, ostensibly to “prevent looting and anarchy.” Interestingly, this was precisely the same reason that the Northern Alliance cited in November 2001 for going back on their promise not to enter Kabul until cleared by the US.


If anyone believed that the Taliban would halt at the gates of Kabul, they displayed a considerable ignorance of Afghan realpolitik. The Taliban would have had little compunction in going back on such a promise, knowing that the capture of Afghanistan’s seat of power would be far more useful than a reputation for sticking to promises.


That said, a negotiated deal in which one side had undertaken not to fight or resist, is taken extremely seriously. A route of withdrawal is always left open for the withdrawal and it is the withdrawing commander’s responsibility to ensure that route is taken. Sometimes, it involves killing one’s own men who are inclined to fight to the finish. In 2001, after the Taliban surrender in the city of Qonduz, the victorious Northern Alliance fighters found the bodies of sixty Chechen fighters who had been shot with their hands tied behind their backs.


What then might have happened to the hardened ANA? Many of them would have calculated that resisting the Taliban would only delay their victory, without changing the outcome of the fighting. These soldiers would have changed out of uniform and headed back to their home villages. Others might have preferred to grow their beards and join the Taliban. Only a handful would have chosen to resist; and they would have been accounted for by the few shots that were heard on international broadcasts.


  1. A good analysis. discretion is the better part of valour

  2. Not only in Afghanistan, even the famous Battle of Plassey in 1857 was decided in similar way.

  3. Very interesting analysis from a veteran.

  4. Quite the opposite strategy -of "Fighting till the end"-the credo of the Paki Army----manoj

  5. The lives saved are more valuable than territories lost. it's just the Afghans' way of life. Very good insight from the author.


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