Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Stop Assuming the Taliban Will Win

With ethnic warlords reviving their militias, the Afghan war—even without the U.S. military—is more balanced than it seems.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Local Afghan militia and Afghan Army soldiers consult March 14, 2007 in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Local Afghan militia and Afghan Army soldiers consult March 14, 2007 in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan. John Moore/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Over the past several weeks, as the Taliban swept through half of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts, set up checkpoints at key highways, and seized border crossings, it has been easy to assume they are on the way to taking over the entire country. Indeed, the Taliban have themselves claimed as much. But there’s no reason to take such propaganda at face value.

That’s not to say that the Afghan government’s own propaganda about retaking lost territory deserves to be taken any more seriously. The reality is that the opposing forces in Afghanistan—which include at least half a dozen anti-Taliban independent militias—are currently far more balanced than most outside observers seem to believe. After the U.S. military withdraws, Afghanistan is most likely headed toward a protracted conflict and a political stalemate.

Gen. Sami Sadat is a 36-year old American-trained officer of the Afghan army and in charge of security in nearly 20 percent of Afghan territory. He spoke to Foreign Policy from an outpost in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Sadat was self-possessed and not in the slightest unnerved about the Taliban’s presence all around him. Instead, he boasted about the superior training of his men, access to advanced weaponry, and above all a sense of duty to save the country from “savages.”

Over the past several weeks, as the Taliban swept through half of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts, set up checkpoints at key highways, and seized border crossings, it has been easy to assume they are on the way to taking over the entire country. Indeed, the Taliban have themselves claimed as much. But there’s no reason to take such propaganda at face value.

That’s not to say that the Afghan government’s own propaganda about retaking lost territory deserves to be taken any more seriously. The reality is that the opposing forces in Afghanistan—which include at least half a dozen anti-Taliban independent militias—are currently far more balanced than most outside observers seem to believe. After the U.S. military withdraws, Afghanistan is most likely headed toward a protracted conflict and a political stalemate.

Gen. Sami Sadat is a 36-year old American-trained officer of the Afghan army and in charge of security in nearly 20 percent of Afghan territory. He spoke to Foreign Policy from an outpost in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Sadat was self-possessed and not in the slightest unnerved about the Taliban’s presence all around him. Instead, he boasted about the superior training of his men, access to advanced weaponry, and above all a sense of duty to save the country from “savages.”

“Hell no! There is no way the Taliban will take the city,” Sadat said. “We are in a much stronger position. On an average, we neutralize 60-70 Taliban every 24 hours, whilst they kill one of ours. The ratio is 1 to 60.” Sadat described the Taliban’s claims of holding 85 percent of territory as highly exaggerated and vowed to defeat them house by house, one district at a time. “They have had an advantage in rural areas because of Afghanistan’s treacherous terrain, but within the next few weeks, you will see us carrying out special missions to reclaim the districts and border openings.”

Sadat’s confidence might instill hope even among the most terrified Afghans dreading a Taliban takeover or reassure the United States that the billions of dollars spent on Afghan security services have not been entirely wasted. Sadat admitted, however, that U.S. air support could prove the difference in the conflict. “We believe we will continue to get American air support through the U.S.’s Over the Horizon program, but the details are sketchy,” Sadat added, referencing a passing remark by Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, that seemed to suggest continued support to Afghan forces. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, however, has said the U.S. military’s support would be on counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The Taliban, for their part, feel they are on a winning spree. In the last few weeks, the group secured crucial border crossings into Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Pakistan. It started by taking control of lucrative trade routes to generate income and facilitate the smuggling of contraband as well as the infiltration of fighters from neighboring countries. The group also captured several critical checkpoints on highways to impede the movement of Afghan government forces.

Rahmatullah Nabil, a presidential candidate in the last elections and former head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, said the Taliban’s strategy is to capture the cities slowly. “First, they went for income-generating districts and supply highways. Now, they will occupy smaller cities where it is easier to establish their rule. They will allow some girls to go to school and show Western journalists that they have changed,” Nabil said. “This PR exercise is also meant to seek legitimacy among urban Afghans, but that will be harder to come by, as Afghans have not forgotten the mayhem the Taliban unleashed.”

Several witnesses’ accounts suggest that while the Taliban have made gains, their claims of success might be inflated and their own casualties understated. Despite the deals the Taliban made in several districts, the group remains extremely unpopular in cities and among ethnic minorities. It has set up bases outside several provincial capitals with the intention to topple the Afghan government but has not yet won the battle for any.

The group is marching ahead aggressively, but the battles in cities are expected to be much harder, especially as the warlords of yesteryear, who fought the Soviet military in the 1980s, revive their militias. Afghanistan’s Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnic groups have a history of tensions with the Talibs and feel this is a battle for survival—the only chance to deter the Taliban from carrying out campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

Ata Mohammad Noor, a warlord and former governor of Balkh province, has called for independent mujahideen groups to remobilize and fight alongside Afghan forces. Ahmad Massoud—the 32-year-old son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al Qaeda on the eve of 9/11—is trying to revive the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban conglomeration of ethnic militias. Ismail Khan of Herat and Rashid Dostum, who holds sway among Uzbek Afghans, are already resisting the Taliban’s incursion in their provinces.

Together, the Afghan forces and the warlords can outnumber the Talibs. According to Nabil, the former intelligence chief, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have between 300,000 and 350,000 fighters and the militias a total of 120,000. The Taliban, he said, are seasonal fighters with additional support from Pakistan and other regional Islamist extremist groups and have between 100,000 and 120,000 active fighters.

But the Afghan strongmen face a crunch of resources, including a lack of modern weapons and cash to pay their fighters. They recognize that they need support from both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the United States but don’t see it coming. Their relationship with Ghani is riddled with mistrust, while the United States opposes warlordism in general and has defanged the strongmen over the years. “The prominent ethnic/political leaders are all asking, what is their share of power? Will they get a role in the presidential palace in the future, or why shall they support Ghani’s government?” Nabil added.

Murad Hamidi is leading about a dozen men, guarding his village and an airfield in Sheberghan, the capital of Uzbek-dominated Jawzjan province, bordering Turkmenistan. He said that although Afghan security forces and Dostum’s militias are officially working together, there is little coordination among the two, and most of the fighting is being done by the militias. Mistrust of the Ghani government is on the rise among local ethnic leaders. “The timing of strikes by the Afghan air force is often inaccurate. Afghan armed forces often leave battle positions without a fight or just surrender,” Hamidi said. “This could only mean that the Pashtun central government led by Ghani wants to change Uzbek dominance of the province [and] replace the warlords with the Taliban, who are also Pashtun.” To think that Ghani would abet the Taliban’s rise is outlandish, but Hamidi’s views encapsulate the rift between Kabul and the provinces.

Many Afghan experts said Ghani’s refusal to share equal power with the warlords, who for all practical purposes are leaders of their ethnic communities, and insistence on deputizing loyalists to powerful positions throughout the government, including on the regional level, is a major source of tension in the anti-Taliban front. Local strongmen have felt “sidelined” by the Afghan government, said the Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, even though they are the people most willing to fight “for their own communities.”

Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia and author of The Recruiter, about the CIA’s transformation after 9/11, said the Afghan government’s military model poorly adapted to Afghan society. “Apart from special operations units, Afghan forces are based on the American model: a centralized army that integrates soldiers from across the country and central command and control that depends on those of different communities working together. But that doesn’t work in Afghanistan,” London said. “Here, fighters are best when vetted by their local elders to whom they are obligated and fight for their communities. They have no loyalty to the Afghan army; they have loyalty to their clans. That is how the Taliban fights, and it pays off for them.”

London argued that Ghani must resist his technocratic instincts and instead empower regional actors, both militarily and financially. “He is a technocrat. The constitution is most important to him, but he is going to have to step back a bit. The U.S. needs Ghani to be more practical, acknowledge a centralized country is not in the cards, and show some willingness to look at a confederation of decentralized power,” he said.

Perhaps the only certainty in Afghanistan is that if an inclusive political agreement is not agreed on before America’s deadline to withdraw, the miseries of the Afghan public will compound. The Taliban won’t concede while Ghani is president, and Ghani won’t give in until the Taliban agree to hold elections and submit to the current constitution. Ethnic warlords, meanwhile, will look for support from wherever they can find it to fight the Taliban and protect their people. If neither side is ready to compromise, the fragmentation of the country seems imminent.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.