What caused the implosion of Afghan army?

As long as the foreign forces remained in the country, there was hope that management would improve

Rustam Shah Mohmand August 21, 2021
The writer is a former chief secretary K-P and former ambassador

If only training, equipment and resources could cause an army to develop into a formidable force ready to defend a country in the face of heavy odds, the Afghan National Army would have overwhelmed the rag-tag Taliban volunteers in no time. But the American trainers forgot the lesson of history. Soldiers need motivation to fight. They need a leadership that they trust. They need an environment in which defending and fighting for a cause or a territory is a national obligation. Sadly, these critical ingredients for building an army were overlooked. The emphasis was more on physical training, use of weapons, etc.

Till about a few months ago, it was inconceivable that the huge military machine so assiduously built by the US commanders over a period of two decades would begin to crumble in the face of volunteers that neither had adequate training nor any sophisticated weapons. Poor management was a huge reason for the lack of resolve, and this goes hand in hand with poor leadership. Widespread corruption visible in the different layers of administration also affected the morale of the soldiers in their day to day lives. The officers believed that with external inflows continuing, the time was to gain wealth and resources. This led to a decline in the loyalty of the foot soldiers to their high command. No study was carried out to determine the level of commitment of those who would one day fight to defend the system. Defending the system was an anomaly. Which system were the soldiers required to defend? A system of corruption, of maltreatment of prisoners, of deceit, of warlords getting contracts, of occupation?

There was the belief that the government was a product of a system which was premised either on the occupation of their country or on the presence of foreign forces. This nagging feeling would influence the conduct and behaviour of the soldiers. Then there was a feeling that the rulers have little sympathy for the rank and file citizens. Indeed, the people including members of the security forces realised the fragility of the system and the government that was so awfully dependent on unending foreign assistance. In such a climate, can the soldiers be motivated to fight and defend a system they know is based on deception? Furthermore, the soldiers were not paid their salaries for months on end. In a country where more than 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, how can a delay in the release of meager salaries be tolerated by the members of the security forces? Were they expected to resort to other means to sustain themselves and their families financially? This had gone on for years.

As long as the foreign forces remained in the country, there was hope that management would improve. But when their departure was announced, there was visible discomfort and uncertainty in the rank and file soldiers. The alarm bells were ringing. It was clear to the leaders that their days were now numbered. Sooner or later the Taliban would begin to overrun district after district. With this realisation, defections became the order of the day. In a tribal society, people seek refuge with those who are strong enough. Then of course there was this feeling that from now on the soldiers would have to be called upon to fight and protect those who are allies of the West or those who have become rich at the expense of the public. The idea of protecting a system based on the exploitation of the poor did not carry any conviction with the soldiers. In a climate where there was lack of motivation and low morale, the soldiers did what they were supposed to do. They began to surrender. They began to deliver all their weapons including their tanks to the Taliban. The formidable military begun to crumble.

Continuance of fighting now would only cause more agony and suffering to the civilian population. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are now seeking shelter in Kabul. A human catastrophe has caused millions to be dependent on charity. The pandemic has further added to the sufferings of the people. Disaster looms. The only pragmatic option is for Ghani’s government to resign and make room for a transitional government led by the Taliban but includes all other factions. That alone could prevent a civil war which looks likely if the stalemate is prolonged.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2021.

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