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Afghanistan descends into chaos after Western forces withdraw

10th August 2021 - 01:49 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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The Afghan Air Force currently has 23 operational A-29 Super Tucanos. (US DoD)

The Taliban is securing enormous swathes of territory in Afghanistan, as the West pulls out and says enough is enough.

Afghanistan is plunging into turbulence as Taliban units sweep across whole districts, capturing key towns across the country. This Taliban resurgence leaves the country teetering on the edge of anarchy.

The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) have been overwhelmed since the Taliban launched its offensive in May. The campaign started gradually, picking up momentum from June onwards.

The spectre of Afghanistan returning to pre-2001 days, when the Taliban ruled with an iron fist, is now not inconceivable.

The Taliban’s success was precipitated by President Joe Biden’s announcement on 14 April that he was withdrawing 8,600 remaining US troops. The US Central Command (CENTCOM) kicked off the drawdown on 1 May, including its sudden night-time abandonment of Bagram Air Base in early July.

The US plans to have completed its troop withdrawal by the end of this month in what it describes as ‘a safe and orderly way’. The only US troops remaining in Afghanistan will be 650 guarding the US Embassy in Kabul.

NATO’s Operation Resolute Support has been withdrawing in concert with the US. Germany and Italy left Afghanistan in late June, the UK pulled out on 8 July, and Australia on 11 July. At least 16 smaller national contingents withdrew in either May or June.

Consequently, the Taliban has enjoyed swift military success. 

On 23 June, Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman Gen Austin Milley said the Taliban controlled 81 district centres. By 21 July, this had snowballed to more than 210 of 419 districts in the country. 

In its lightning advance, the Taliban captured five of 34 provincial capitals in just three days in August, including Kunduz.

The Taliban has avoided directly attacking international troops, targeting the ANSDF instead. In some cases, Afghan forces put up resistance and conducted tactical retreats, but in others, they fled in disarray. Some 1,600 troops fled across the Tajikistan border for refuge in July, for example.

As of the end of April, the ANDSF had 300,699 personnel (of which 182,071 were defence and the rest internal security) enrolled. With the demise of government control, there are fears that warlords will once again arise across Afghanistan.

Soldiers of the Afghan National Army train in counter-IED techniques. (ISAF)

A US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report issued on 30 July warned: ‘Particularly concerning was the speed and ease with which the Taliban seemingly wrested control of districts in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, once a bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment. The deteriorating situation caused the commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission, General Miller, to tell reporters on June 29 that “a civil warpath is visualisable”. Miller added in a later interview, “We should be concerned. The loss of terrain and the rapidity of that loss of terrain has to be concerning.”’

The security situation is grim for the populace. In the first half of 2021, 1,378 civilians were killed in attacks, and another 2,806 wounded. From March-May this year, insurgents initiated 10,383 attacks, of which 3,268 were ‘effective’. Attacks increased significantly after the Taliban and US signed an agreement in February 2020.

On 29 June, the Afghan government claimed it had killed over 6,000 Taliban fighters and wounded another 3,485 in the preceding month. Whether these figures are accurate or not, they have apparently done little to slow it down.

Many disagree with this policy of the US and its allies.

Sir Richard Barron, a retired British general who served in Afghanistan, said the pull-out was a strategic mistake. 

‘I don’t believe it’s in our own interest – in making that decision to leave, we’ve not only, I think, sold the future of Afghanistan into a very difficult place, we’ve also sent a really unfortunate message to the West’s allies in the Gulf and Africa and Asia,' Barron said.

‘We will run the risk of terrorist entities re-establishing in Afghanistan to bring harm in Europe and elsewhere. So I think this is a very poor strategic outcome.’

By 5 July, CENTCOM estimated that it had withdrawn 90% of equipment from Afghanistan. This included 984 C-17 flights and thousands of vehicles. The remaining equipment is being turned over to the ANDSF.

The US and others have invested billions of dollars in training the ANDSF, but it has proved ill-prepared to take on the Taliban. 

Whether aircraft, small arms or vehicles, the US has provided enormous amounts of equipment too. The ANDSF has 25,000 HMMWVs alone, for example, although the US never supplied it with sufficient MRAPs to resist ever-present improvised explosive devices.

As of 30 June, the US Congress had appropriated nearly $88.61 billion to help the Afghan government provide security since 2002.

The AAF operates UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters given by the US military. (US DoD)

The Oryx blogsite analysed Afghan equipment losses for June. In a piece published on 23 June, Oryx reported the loss of stunning amounts of military equipment captured or destroyed: eight tanks, 37 M1117 armoured cars, three M113 APCs, 21 mortars, 35 towed howitzers, eight antiaircraft guns, nine helicopters (including five Mi-17s, three UH-60A Black Hawks and one MD 530F), 1,682 vehicles (including 323 M1151 and 331 M1152 HMMWVs, and five M1224 MaxxPros).

Given that Oryx based its numbers only on photographic and video evidence, the numbers are assuredly much higher than this. With the Taliban having made rapid gains across Afghanistan, these numbers will have multiplied considerably since they were compiled in late June.

The US military’s mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces has transitioned to providing ‘over-the-horizon security assistance’ under the Defense Security Cooperation Management Office - Afghanistan.

However, training and advising troops and maintaining equipment is not something easily done via e-mail and video-conferences.

Take the Afghan Air Force (AAF), for example. It has been badly overtaxed since the US is no longer providing close air support, resupply or ISR. 

The SIGAR report noted that AAF airframes have been flying ‘at least 25% over their recommended scheduled maintenance intervals’. This high operational tempo is ‘exacerbating supply chain issues and delaying scheduled maintenance and battle damage repair’.

Afghan commandos wait to be picked up by Mi-17 helicopters of the AAF. (US DoD)

Furthermore, aircrews are ‘overtasked due to the security situation in Afghanistan’. With Western forces having pulled out, the situation will be worsened by a lack of maintenance contractors. As of early June, there were 7,795 US DoD contractor personnel supporting operations in Afghanistan. These numbers will have dwindled rapidly since then.

Indeed, it is possible that the AAF’s aircraft fleet could be inoperable within weeks, three months at the outside, with knock-on effects for embattled ground troops surrounded by the Taliban.

The US has already transferred some aircraft maintenance, such as the MD 530F fleet, from Afghanistan to Al Ain, Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

As of mid-2021, the AAF had the following usable aircraft in its inventory: 23 A-29 Super Tucano, ten AC-208, 23 C-208, three C-130, 32 Mi-17, 43 MD 530F and 33 UH-60. This amounted to 167 serviceable aircraft out of a total inventory of 211. Another 37 UH-60s are held in strategic reserve in the US.

However, the aircrew situation is alarming, with only 15 crews available out of 42 authorised to fly this fleet.

Turkey has been running Kabul International Airport since 2015, and Ankara has tentatively agreed to continue running it. However, the Taliban has vowed to attack any foreigners securing the airport. Without this hub, diplomatic missions and non-government organisations would quickly depart Afghanistan.

Whatever people’s opinions are, it is obvious that the 20-year US and allies’ efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan have proved a signal failure. This is not an isolated incident for the US – the same happened in Iraq in 2011 and in South Vietnam in 1975.

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