Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Unpaid Afghan troops defect with heavy weapons as Taliban surges north and government banks on private militias to survive.
Meanwhile, hundreds of US and NATO-trained Afghan troops continue to join the Taliban to avoid persecution as the militant group surges into government-controlled territory.
One contributing factor behind the defections is that many of these troops have not been paid for months, forcing them to offer convoys of armored vehicles and stockpiles of weaponry, including mortars and heavy machine guns, to the invading Taliban in exchange for safe passage and/or paid deployment, media reports indicate.
This has led Kabul, which has also been supported by the US for over two decades, to increase its reliance on private armed militias, bringing Afghanistan’s warlords to the front line of the emerging battlefield.
Kabul’s reliance on these forces underscores how quickly it is losing democratic legitimacy. By relying increasingly on armed militias, Kabul has compromised what is considered to be the hallmark of any sovereign state: the monopoly over the use of violence and force.
While the Taliban have always challenged this monopoly, Kabul’s decision to hand over its legitimate space to private armed militias means its fragile claim to statehood has dramatically weakened.
That, in turn, will allow the Taliban to stake their own claims to state power even more vehemently in what its leaders see as an imminent military victory over Kabul. They have recently declared the US troop withdrawal indicates America’s defeat in the two-decade war.
Kabul’s policies are increasingly reflecting the interests of Afghanistan’s major warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, Ata Muhammad and Ahmad Massoud, more than the interests of the people who are still overwhelmingly opposed to the Taliban’s return.
Afghanistan’s central authority is fast collapsing into warlord fiefdoms, with the Taliban being the most prominent among those racing to seize the state.
On June 27, the Taliban announced on their website recent “victories”, which it said point to an eventual Mujahidin victory and enduring “peace.”
In propaganda fashion, the group “assured” that the “Islamic Emirate is in complete control of the situation in the liberated areas. Life has returned to normalcy and the people are living their aspiration of peace, security and reassurance after many years.”
Targeting Kabul’s reliance on armed militias and calling it a revival of a failed experiment, the group said on June 30 that this was proof that the government has no legitimate foundation and that it was formed only to serve foreign interests.
“Similarly, the army that was formed through billions of dollars was not for the protection of the Afghan nation but served as an auxiliary force tasked to kill Afghan civilians and which is now crumbling with the withdrawal their foreign masters,” the Taliban said.
Kabul’s fast-eroding power, which is being accelerated by the untimely and hurried withdrawal of US-NATO forces, has allowed the Taliban to push out of their southern strongholds and attack northern Afghanistan.
Not only has the group captured more than 50 districts (the Taliban claim over 100 districts) but it has also established control over Afghanistan’s main border-crossing with Tajikistan.
By some estimates over half of rural Afghanistan is now under the Taliban’s control, with various cities which were previously considered as bulwarks of security forces and anti-Taliban sentiment falling to the radical Islamic group.
This represents the beginning of the end of Kabul as we know it today. According to a recent US intelligence assessment, Kabul could collapse within six months of the US withdrawal.
At the same time, the Taliban is advertising itself as more powerful, capable and legitimate than what they refer to as the “puppets occupying Kabul.”
Indeed, one crucial factor allowing the Taliban to quickly expand to the north is how it has evolved into a more ethnically diverse armed grouping.
Ever since 2016, the group has as a matter of policy allowed more and more of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups into its fold.
Indeed, the presence of fighters from the country’s ethnic minorities has fueled the Taliban’s rapid expansion beyond its traditional southern strongholds.
When the Taliban first seized the provincial capital of Kunduz for a short period, they launched a door-to-door campaign to get young recruits. In Badakhshan, too, ethnic Tajik youths have been lobbied to join the Taliban to wage jihad.
In April 2020, the Taliban appointed an ethnic Hazara Shiite, Mawlavi Mahdi, as the shadow district chief in an apparent bid to gain support from the minority community in northern Sar-e-Pul province.
Minority groups still make up a minority of the Taliban rank and file. But the inclusion of minorities speaks volumes about the Taliban’s strategy to forge national control and cause Kabul’s military and political collapse.
The fact that they have now developed a presence large enough to bring the city of Kunduz to its knees within just a few days speaks to the success of this strategy. Indeed, the group is seeking to project its diverse composition as a reason for its rising if not astounding military victories.
The Taliban’s statements, coupled with their military victories and the inaction of the departing US and NATO forces, show the group feels it is very much on the path to victory.
The Taliban’s arrival will likely be quite unlike the civil war in Syria, where government forces were eventually able to overcome rebels in Aleppo and elsewhere with help from Russia and Iran.
While the situation in Afghanistan could get as bloody as Syria, displacing millions and destroying infrastructure and property, the Taliban does not have external powerful friends on its side to win the war.
To be sure, Afghanistan’s major neighbors – Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran – have all been courting the Taliban for better ties in the future.
They have already conceded Afghanistan to the Taliban, although they would have wanted, and continue to prefer, a more politically diverse and less Taliban-dominated polity.
They, like many Afghans, rightly fear the threat an ideologically motivated force poses in terms of its association with other non-state actors professing similar jihadi ideologies beyond Afghanistan’s borders.