Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces, meant to be the bulwark against advancing Taliban insurgents, are rife with corruption, demoralized and struggling to keep territory. The government says the army can hold its own, but military experts warn of a tough fight ahead for poorly trained, ill-equipped troops whose loyalties waver between their country and local warlords.
By Sept. 11 at the latest, the remaining 2,300-3,500 U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces will have left Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. Also leaving is the American air support that the Afghan military has relied on to stave off potentially game-changing Taliban assaults, ever since it took command of the war from the U.S. and NATO in 2014.
“Without U.S. military support, it is a matter of time before the Taliban consolidates its gains, particularly in the south, east and west,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the American Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, which tracks militant movements.
At least half the country is believed to be contested ground, often with the government holding only the main towns and cities in local districts and the Taliban dominating the countryside.
In the last two weeks, the Taliban seized control of four district centers, including a strategic town southwest of Kabul, on the main highway linking Afghanistan’s north and south.
This week, the Taliban briefly entered Mehtar Lam, the capital of Laghman province, after police and army abandoned several outposts protecting the city, government officials said. The Taliban were driven out but later showed off weapons and equipment allegedly left behind at the outposts. More than 100 military personnel were brought to Kabul to be reprimanded for abandoning their positions.
“Once U.S. military support is gone, the Taliban should be able to take and hold several provincial capitals and hold them indefinitely,” said Roggio.
Within the Afghan army, soldiers complain of substandard equipment, even shoddy basic items like army boots that fall apart within weeks because corrupt contractors used inferior material. The Associated Press witnessed boots with gaping holes being worn, insufficient helmets available and weapons that often jammed.
At a police outpost seen by the AP earlier this month, eight men lived in a partially built bunker that looked big enough for only half that number. They had only a few rifles as they watched sentry from two turret-style posts on the outpost’s high brick walls. They overlook a busy road where the Taliban frequently attack security convoys.
The commander, who wore sandals, said the outpost is occasionally hit by rocket or gunfire and would have a hard time fending off a full-fledged attack.
“There’s no other option but peace,” he said, asking not to be identified because he did not have permission to allow media into his compound.
The Afghan government long ago stopped releasing casualty figures among its security forces. But a former senior security official deeply familiar with the cost of war over the past two years told the AP that about 100-110 security personnel are killed or wounded every day. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about casualties.
Mohammadi, the wounded veteran, said he was injured six years ago in Zhari district in southern Kandahar province, once the spiritual heartland of the Taliban until their ouster in 2001 by U.S.-led coalition forces.
He led a company of 18 men airlifted into battle in a grape field, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from their nearest base. The fight went on all day and night until eventually the Taliban surrounded them.
“I was the commander. I had to do something. I stood up and aimed my RPG (rocket propelled grenade launcher).” That was the last Mohammadi remembered. He stepped on a land mine. The Taliban had littered the fields with mines, and higher-ups had not warned him or his men.
For a year he recovered in hospital. He received two wooden legs and an artificial plastic hand. The legs are painful to wear and he can manage them only for 15 minutes at a time. It takes two people to help him get them on, and he sometimes pays a neighbor to help.
“I am proud of what I have sacrificed for this country. What I gave for my country I gave with pride,” he said.
But Mohammadi is fuming at the government. For years, his veteran’s pension, around 16,000 Afghanis ($200) a month, has been erratic, and for the past 11 months he hasn’t received it at all. “They tell me to wait,” he said.
Mohammadi says has had to borrow from family and friends. It wounds his pride, but it’ better than begging, he said.
“I am angry. I feel like my dignity has been insulted. My life is a struggle,” he said, wrapping his lower body in a wool blanket. The cold and damp cause him pain in his missing limbs.
The Defense Ministry’s deputy spokesman, Fawad Aman, promised to look into the complaint. He said that corruption, while it exists, is not widespread and efforts are being made to tackle it and that the spirit of the fighting force was high.
“With the withdrawal of United States forces there will be no security vacuum or gap in Afghanistan because our forces can defend Afghanistan independently,” he said.
Washington’s chief watchdog overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan, John Sopko, told a Congressional hearing in March that Afghanistan’s security forces were demoralized. He said the figure of 300,000 troops in the security forces was a guesstimate because of the many so-called ghost soldiers, where commanders list non-existent personnel to collect their paychecks.
“I think corruption is the threat,” he said. Not only does it mean money is lost, he said, “it also is fueling the insurgency” since the Taliban can build public support by pointing to the corruption and the impunity officials enjoy.
The U.S is committed to pay $4 billion annually until 2024 to finance Afghanistan’s security forces. As of Dec. 31, 2020, Sopko said the U.S. has spent $88.3 billion to help the Afghan government provide security in Afghanistan — roughly 62% of all U.S. reconstruction funding.
Yet, according to Attiqullah Amarkhiel, the Afghan army of today is half as good as the army left by the former Soviet Union when it withdrew in 1989, ending it 10-year occupation of Afghanistan.
Amarkhiel was major general in the 1989 Moscow-allied Afghan army and served in the post-Taliban government of President Hamid Karzai. He helped build the security forces following the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
The army of 1989 were professional soldiers who had graduated from high school and later a military academy, he said. That army numbered around 150,000 troops, compared to the 300,000 today. “But then we had quality. Today we have quantity.”
In contrast, recruits to the post-Taliban security forces were mostly uneducated, often allied with warlords, he said. Training lasted barely six to eight weeks, he said. The intention was to build up the numbers and get them onto the battlefield, Amarkhiel told the AP.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the Moscow-allied president, Najibullah, held on to power for three years. His eventual collapse, Amarkhiel said, came because of divisions within his own government, which led several of his generals to abandon him.
“The same is true now. The collapse, if it comes, will come from within,” he said.
Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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