You can judge the answer by the reality on the ground.
As of right now [mo: 11AUG21],the only areas remaining under the control of the puppet regime are basically some districts near Kabul, plus the Hazarajat. This is not at all surprising to anyone who has any basic knowledge of Afghanistan.
The entire North has now fallen to the Talibs, save for Mazar-i-Sharif [mo: and Maimana, last I checked]. It did so effectively overnight. Ashraf Ghani showed up in Mazar yesterday [mo: 11AUG21], coming to beg Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed Noor to defend the city, because his own so-called "army" manifestly cannot.
Until the glorious American attempt to graft a bourgeois democracy atop a primitive tribal society with a 43% literacy rate which has never had as much as a stable feudal monarchy in its entire recorded history, the Taliban were in essence a narrowly Pashtun peasant movement with zero popularity in the North.
The great achievement of the American occupation has been to turn the Taliban into a massively popular national movement incorporating numerous Tajiks, Uzbeks, Nuristanis, Turkmen, and just about everyone else save the Shiite Hazaras [mo: compare this map of ethnic distributions to the Long War Journal map above]. The entire nation, save the tiny percentage of city-dwellers who profited from the American occupation and the corrupt Kabul regime, overwhelmingly backs the Taliban. If they were not massively popular, they would not be taking provincial capitals left and right, overwhelming the on-paper ANA/ANP/etc, etc force of over 300,000 with some 28,000 effectives. [mo: 70% of Afghans are rural to begin with.]
These realities were self-evident from the beginning.
During the Soviet occupation, at least, the Parcham and Khalk factions of the communist party both had some kind of ideology. They both had men who were willing to fight for something more than pay. Following the Soviet withdrawal, as long as the Soviet Union was willing to provide them with arms and ammunition, they could at least hold the Ring Road and the major cities.
In contrast, the men who flocked to the American banner, from the first day of the occupation, were naught more than self-interested traitors to their own people and faith. The [mo: from the Afghan point of view] completely insane, outlandish, foreign ideas brought by the Americans were, and remain, so utterly unworkable in the Afghan context, that it could not be otherwise. The courts, army, police, all the sociopolitical structures of a Western nation state imposed by the American occupation, could not have ever worked. It was no more possible than it is possible to graft the internal organs of a crocodile into a horse. Everyone with eyes and a brain knew that [mo: especially in Afghanistan]. Only a lunatic could believe otherwise [mo: or an American, because they don't teach historical materialism in American schools, having somehow decided that Marx's unfortunate politics should negate his status as a major historian and one of the three founding fathers of sociology].
Those who joined these structures did so solely for personal gain.
Thus the "security forces" roughly a third of whose personnel exist only on paper so commanders can skim the pay [mo: sometimes more than that, depending on the brazenness of the commanders involved] and the rest of whom desert at the first shot fired [mo: ANDSF deserters make all kinds of excuses when asked their reasons, but somehow the Taliban keep fighting even on an empty stomach and even when their pay is latea b c]. Thus the cops and soldiers whose commanders rape little boys seized from random villages they are supposed to protect, along with their own female alleged colleagues and random civilians trying to report crimes. Thus the civil courts which demand bribes for all actions. Thus the national military hospital whose doctors and nurses neglect patients to death while selling food and drugs allotted for the care of said patients on the black market and whose director cares only about his next promotion and pay raise . Thus all of it.
Who would support such a government? Who would support it, moreover, in the face of a brutally honest, ideologically-fired national liberation movement whose commanders are renowned for selling their own land in order to pay their men out of pocket when the courier from Quetta is late with the money, whose field courts take no bribes, resolve disputes on the spot, rule strictly and impartially in accordance with a clear, comprehensible law perceived as ordained directly by God, the troops of whose shadow army are well known for strict discipline and possess a reputation as honorable men of their word, however brutal?
The outcome was foreordained from the moment the first American marine stepped out of the first helicopter in 2001.
I remember a Talib leaflet, from a few years back. It was just a single line of text: "Whom would you rather back," it said, "Dost Mohammed or Shujah Shah?" Nothing more needed to be said. Then, or now.
P.S. As I write this edit [mo: 12AUG21], Herat has fallen.
The Taliban now control 11 provincial capitals. Those who perceive the above as somehow "incendiary," "editorializing" or supportive of the Taliban, I invite to explain the reality before us.
How, in a country awash in arms, where 1000-man lashkars are routinely called out at a snap of a tribal leader's fingers to confront the neighbors over a handful of rustled sheep, is a movement whose field force does not number more than 28,000 by the most generous of estimates able to do what we see?
In the absence of popular support -- witness the situation in the Hazarajat. [mo: and elsewhere, for example Balkh. In general, this is all a story not of Taliban strength, but of Kabul regime weakness. Participation in the American-installed regime has discredited almost everyone once associated with it. As Professor Barfield points out in the Q&A period of the Afghan history video I link below, the leaders of the present regime never even planned to remain in Afghanistan. From the beginning, their plan was to stuff their pockets and run.]
The regime presently occupying Kabul was, objectively, installed at gunpoint by foreign invaders of alien faith. It objectively could not and did not take a single step without said invaders' permission. Given the facts, it is objectively, by definition, a corrupt foreign puppet, whose first president became president by virtue of his family owning a restaurant in Baltimorea b c. The abuses committed by it, which I referred to above, are well documented, even in the western press. They are but a google search away. Every single sentence can be backed by a link to a press report, some of which I have pasted above.
The actual reputation of the Taliban and their field courts on the ground in Afghanistan is likewise easily googled. Again, I have pasted links above.
Historical materialism, which demonstrates that the American effort in Afghanistan had zero chance of success from its very first day, is established, nineteenth-century social science. It is literally on Wikipedia – yet again, see above link. To deny it or act contrary to its precepts while attempting to do anything social science related is objectively lunacy, akin to trying to build an airplane while denying the laws of gravity and fluid dynamics.
The average Talib sincerely believes that he is fighting for freedom, and against tyranny. The average resident of Afghanistan manifestly agrees. And within the framework of the Afghan mind -- unlike within yours -- the statement that America brought tyranny to Afghanistan, while the Taliban embody freedom, is 100% true. When you begin to comprehend how this is possible, you will finally be on the way to deploying the tools of objective social science thought.
P.P.S. [mo: 15AUG21] I originally tried to intersperse caveats and explanations into the original post. But this makes the post all but unreadable. Trying to distill a lifetime of experience into a single post is – trust me – quite difficult.
First, ethnicity, nationality and Islamic faith in Afghanistan. These are, of course, social concepts. Only a vague genetic/historical basis exists behind any of them, if at all. Therefore, ahem, it gets complicated. Really. A lot. Here is a good primer, by a professional anthropologist. He only talks the big picture, but it’s good enough for out needs. Listen carefully.
Second, my assertion about Afghan history never experiencing as much as a stable feudal monarchy is also complicated. Everything in Afghanistan is complicated. If you want simplicity, go study the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the Balkans, or something. Those places ARE simple, comparatively speaking. Afghanistan is not.
The land that we know today as Afghanistan has known plenty of rulers, dynasties and empires. It is an ancient country at the crossroads of Central Asia, India and the Middle East.
The key words to remember are "stable" and "feudal." The feudalism at issue is Western feudalism, with its increasingly fixed legal codes, its increasingly well-defined hierarchies of lords and vassals, its ever-multiplying reeves and sheriffs, and its increasingly sharp distinction between civil and ecclesiastical law. The feudalism where the Church was already a separate thing from the State, and where Law – abstract Law, the CONCEPT of law as a separate entity, independent of men and institutions, born of the Hebrew Bible’s interaction with Greek philosophy and the Mos Maiorum or Ancient Rome – already existed, and increasingly mattered more, as time progressed, than personality.
That Western feudalism was the first discernible precursor, unique in global history, to the modern Western nation-state we all know and love.
It never happened in Afghanistan. Ever. Nor was there, ever, any similar system, e.g. like the ones that grew up indigenously in China and Japan and ultimately made it possible for these societies to adopt modified Western nation-state social models.
Afghan history is different. Again, I am indebted to Professor Barfield, who is much more engaging than I am, and much more American. Listen carefully, pay attention to the caveats. The Swiss cheese analogy is great.
Third, my assertion about the size of the Talib field force. Again, there are caveats here.
Numbers for "the size of the Taliban" vary wildly depending on how the counting is done. For example, the Pentagon gave 20,000 at congressional hearings in 2018, then immediately revised that to 60,000, days later. The Long War Journal estimates, again made in 2018, came up with as many as 120,000, reasoning based on the situation on the ground, plus casualty reports. And here is a fairly blinkered article from West Point, published quite recently, which features an estimate of over 200,000 Taliban.
The reason for all this is that the Taliban force is not a modern army. Modern armies cannot exist or function in Afghanistan. Trying to build such (e.g. ANA, ANP) is futile madness. Such an organization is impossible at Afghanistan's level of social development.
Taliban forces are akin to the Celtic armies raised to confront Caesar, or the Saxon army that marched to Hastings in 1066.
Virtually all organizational relationships in Afghanistan must be based upon blood, kinship and/or longstanding personal ties. Formal organization outside such ties is always rudimentary, easily supplanted by personal relationships and kinship loyalties. Chief motivations for Afghan men at war are religion, machismo and the prospect of personal gain.
Afghan men cannot be bought. They can only be rented. Whatever titles might exist in theory, whatever organizational charts drawn by ill-informed Western analysts might say, an Afghani is loyal to himself first, to his blood kin second, to everyone else – not at all. He will stab his alleged best friend in the back instantly, with nary a shred of remorse, if there is gain to be had. Quite often, he will stab his brother. Almost always, he will stab his cousin.
Given what Afghanistan is like, the Talib force snowballs rapidly with victory, and melts away just as rapidly with defeat. This is typical of such military organizations, and of such low-trust, tribal societies.
At the core of the Talib fighting force are the Red Units (Sara Quitta). These are handfuls of squad- and platoon-sized elements whose men are relatively well armed, relatively well trained, generally well disciplined. They are, more or less, with some logistical and linguistic caveats, mobile nationwide.
Think of these men as the Afghan equivalent of the Saxon huscarls, elite warbands of full-time fighters loyal to specific men appointed by the Quetta shura. When we speak of the Taliban field force, it is these men that we normally count.
Red Unit leaders, individually, are perfectly capable of organizing a well-planned, well-executed platoon-sized operation. They can get together on an ad-hoc basis to coordinate a company-sized assault, although often with some difficulty. But they have no capacity for organized, complex, large unit operations. A Talib Red Unit of, say, a thousand men, is not and cannot be the equivalent of a Western light infantry regiment. Even were it given all the same gear, even were its men trained to operate all the same gear as perfectly as the Western men they stand in for – it cannot.
This is not a question of courage or intelligence. The Afghanis are smart. Often, they are smarter than our men. They are brave. Sometimes suicidally brave. There is zero doubt about their courage. They are FULL of testosterone. Their ready machismo puts hardcore Latins to shame.
I have all the respect in the world for the Afghanis. They are a tough, dangerous enemy. They can be very, very, VERY dangerous. When briefing troops, I could not emphasize this enough.
The Afghanis’ problem when organizing big operations, is sociological. Too many men must be brought together in a council and made to agree. It's too complex. They don't all know or trust one another. When you take a big group, the power brokers are not all that closely related by blood and/or marriage. They all have prior disputes, prior grievances, remembered slights. Relevant expertise is lacking. It will not work. The best they can do is to agree to go in some general direction, more-or-less together, and/or meet up in a predetermined location more-or-less at the same time, to confront whatever enemy might be found there.
Sitting above the Red Unit commanders, instead of a modern army's hierarchical chain of command, are simply a couple-three officials with a handful of deputies each. A district shadow governor, a provincial shadow governor, perhaps some kind of wali appointed on an ad-hoc basis to coordinate a larger operation which has spilled across provincial borders. The tactical coordination they can provide is rudimentary at best. Instead, they execute strategic and operational functions, primarily related to force generation and public relations.
Snowballing around the Red Units, joining them on the advance, are units of the Mahaz (fronts). These are warbands of locally-based Taliban raised by local leaders, spurred to action by the district and provincial shadow governors, often supplied with funds on the spot by a shadow official's courier so that they might be able to buy e.g. the additional fuel and/or munitions they will need for the operation.
These part-time fighters are significantly less well trained and well armed than the Red Units. They operate, again, primarily in platoon-sized groups. Some Mahaz groupings might snowball to the size of a company, but that's uncommon and often detrimental to unit operation.
The quality and discipline of Mahaz outfits varies wildly. Most cannot be sustained in the field for long, but some can. It depends on who commands them and how astute, well-resourced, respected, experienced and organized he is.
You can think of these men as the household troops of local Saxon Thegns. Again, their leaders cannot truly organize operations above company level. They can only agree to go somewhere together and confront the enemy. But once we start counting these men, once they are out in arms, the Talib force can double, even triple, overnight.
However, there is a caveat. The Mahaz units are local. Their concerns and allegiances are local. Their loyalties are local. The farther away they are from their home turf, the worse they treat the people they encounter, the lower their morale, the less willing they are to keep going. The longer they stay in the field, the faster they get homesick. A Talib commander cannot, under most circumstances, take these men far from their home district or province.
Once the advance gets going in earnest, it is joined by tribal lashkars. These are the Afghan equivalents of the Saxon Fyrd, or even of the early Saxon warbands that existed before Alfred the Great's military reforms of the late ninth century.
Lashkars are formless mobs of armed men, villagers in arms. Their organizational structure, such as it is, is based around family units, personal friendships, neighbor relations. They can fight quite bravely on the initial assault. No informed analyst would call them cowards. But if things start going badly, they will quickly take to their heels. These are not soldiers. They did not sign up to die.
Lashkar discipline is atrocious. Lashkar tactical skill is nonexistent. There is no such thing as lashkar operational or strategic military art. Even outside harvest and planting season, a lashkar cannot be kept in the field for more than a handful of weeks, at the most. Unless the prospect of easy loot and rapine beckons, a lashkar will not and cannot fight anywhere more than a few days’ travel from its homes. But once the lashkars are out, once the tribal leaders and village elders who raise and command them have joined the Talib operation thanks to the shadow officials' exhortations, gifts and, occasionally, veiled threats, the Talib force becomes massive. It is then that we can speak of hundreds of thousands.
Key takeaways from the above are these:
Large Talib forces cannot stay in the field for long. Once the men have eaten the food they’ve brought with them from home and shot the ammo they had with them at the outset, they must either requisition all they need from the locals, or else take it from the enemy. This applies even to Red Units and Mahaz outfits. A Taliban shadow official might arrange for a courier to deliver, say, rockets, to supply a one-off platoon operation. He cannot provide even ammunition, never mind food, to supply hundreds and thousands of men for weeks at a time. Even if the locals are supportive, once the local area's resources are exhausted, the Talib force must either disperse – or starve.
Once Talib field forces are present in an area, unless the locals are supportive, things will rapidly end with a lashkar chasing them out of town. If a large Talib force shows up, demanding food and supplies, resentment will build rapidly, especially if said force’s commander is inconsiderate of the locals. When you hear, for example, of Taliban ordering local households to supply one teenage daughter each for marriage, or one teenage son each for battle, then either the locals support this policy or the Talibs are about to get their rears kicked.
If the field force Talibs have a big lashkar with them coming into the area, things will get mucho muy out of hand all but immediately, unless some kind of deal has been made with the local power brokers. In said case, either a local lashkar is joining the Talibs for the operation, or else very serious threats have been made in order to get the Talibs' pet lashkar to kind-of behave, while the shadow official and his couriers spread money around to comp the locals for the inconvenience of hosting and feeding all these "guests." Neither arrangement can last for long. I guarantee you that any two random lashkars raised from neighboring Afghan areas at minimum dislike each other and at worst hate each other's guts. The latter arrangement is especially fragile, thus rare.
In Afghanistan, perception of power is power. Everything depends on public perception and popular support. Nothing succeeds like success. The more the Talibs look like winners, the bigger their forces get. If they can get their forces to snowball big enough, fast enough, the whole country will make deals with them, the puppet regime forces will melt away, and they win. When this happens, they will march into Kabul in triumph, all but overnight.
Here is a key takeaway. If you take nothing from my now over-lengthy and difficult post but this single point, take this: Yes, there are a million differences. But, as a rule of thumb, if you cannot find the equivalent of an organizational structure in ninth-century Saxon England, it will not function natively in Afghanistan. If you cannot find the equivalent of an organizational structure in eleventh-century Norman England, it cannot be imposed productively by an external force in Afghanistan.
CANNOT. Because it is impossible. Period, end of story. Any attempt to do so is lunacy. Full stop. Carve it in your forehead. If you find yourself ever thinking otherwise – smack yourself until the lunatic impulse goes away. Go read at copy of the Venerable Bede, or something. Concentrate on your bible, recite the Psalms. I don’t care.
And, if you do wish to impose any eleventh-century European organizational or governmental structure on Afghanistan, you had better be prepared to settle your troops down as permanent residents, learn Dari and Pashto while the locals learn English until all the three mix, have everyone intermarry with the natives, taking locals’ daughters as wives freely and rewarding their menfolk with subordinate second- and third-tier positions but never giving a daughter of their own to a local, until you are all one people, and stay in Afghanistan forever, as a hereditary aristocracy. In the process, you will probably create a new language and culture.
If you rotate the men involved in and out of the country on deployments, your plan to reform Afghanistan will not work. Unless you borrow a page from the East India Company, that is.
Turn said rotations into postings of twenty- and thirty-year duration. Have your men pro-forma convert to Islam, marry the daughters of local power brokers, start local families which will stay in the country after they leave, amass huge wealth by exploiting the native resources. Give the locally-born half-native sons of your initial officials positions in your new colonial power structure that oversees your eleventh-century imposition upon the time-honored ninth-century ways the locals know and love. Have them inherit a goodly portion of daddy's money, after daddy returns back home, along with daddy's set-up rackets and patronage networks. Have them go to university back in your homeland, even. Have them strive to prove their loyalty to daddy and your nation by becoming more hurrah-patriotic, more loyal to your empire than even you are.
Slowly develop things, change the society by virtue of your very presence. Have the locals want to become you, live like you. Have them come to see their own language and culture as inferior, hopelessly backward, until they are ashamed of their own heritage. Run the show in grand imperial style.
That might work. Maybe. Or not. After a few centuries, something might come of it, at any rate. The record of what, is mixed. India worked out. Africa didn’t. The Middle East went sideways. There are no guarantees. But at least you'll make good money, for a while.
If you plan to do anything short of the two options above in your grand effort to reform Afghanistan, then your plan is complete and utter lunacy, doomed to failure from the start.
Your only available realistic third alternative is to leave Afghanistan the heck alone and let it develop – or not – naturally, on its own.
Your fourth alternative is to demonstratively bomb Afghanistan into a self-lighting glass parking lot, uninhabitable by Man. Then thump your chest and loudly proclaim your willingness to do the like again and again, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. If the George W. Bush administration were willing to do that, back in 2001, the act would have instantly and completely discredited the entire Islamist cause virtually overnight by decisively invoking the Strong Horse Principle via the forceful reiteration of the Lesson of Omdurman. But, alas, we now get into the limitations of the Western mind, its psychology and its sociology.
The bottom line to remember is this: Wars are not fought in the physical world. The physical world is just a sideshow. Wars are fought between the collective ears of the participants. America’s great lunacy, repeated again and again from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, is to assume that weapons, bombers, money and other such material things, win wars in themselves. They do not. In contravention of anthropology, sociology and psychology, they cannot. Unless genocide is involved. Period. Until America learns otherwise, America will continue to lose its wars in the Third World. The end.