Taliban.21 advanced with lightning speed surprising many with their audacity, shrewdness and most of all their application or threat of application of force. If it was a lesson learnt from Taliban.96, it is phenomenal. The choice of ground, the timing of offensive, the direction of force application, the maneuver, the ‘time, space and relative strength’ (TSR) matrix…all attested to a superior strategy with inbuilt surprise and deception.
Taken to heart that Taliban.96 bogged down in the non-Pashtun highlands north of Hindu Kush, in a tangle of foreign-sponsored and supported militias, Taliban.21 decide to roll up the North first.
Politically the movement had worked harder for ethnic inclusivity and – as per Mr Sohail Shaheen – Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, Turkmen and other ethnicities are not only constituting Taliban.21, they occupy senior positions in the Movement. Roughly 10-15% of the Taliban cadre is non-Pashtun.
Offensive across Hindu Kush during July/August 21 in the relatively cool climes of Northern Afghanistan ostensibly had four purposes; a) to occupy the ground that bred the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (NA) in 2001; b) to control Afghanistan’s trade with the Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan besides China across the Wakhan Corridor, in order to recharge the Taliban war chests; c) to completely shut any Central Asian support to the anti-Taliban forces; d) to showcase this early success across Afghanistan, in forcing a rethink on the potential challengers and warlords.
The strategy adopted was that of “Double Envelopment” with a larger and a smaller pincer. The smaller envelopment was of Balkh province (capital city Mazar-i-Shareef), the centre of gravity of Northern Afghanistan. Balkh was encircled from all sides. Taliban/Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) forces captured Sheberghan (Jowzjan Province) – west of Balkh, the stronghold of Gen Dostum and his Junbash-e-Milli Militia on Saturday, 7 Aug 2021. Yar Mohammad son of Gen Dostum unsuccessfully tried to cobble a force to fight Taliban. On Sunday 08 August, IEA bagged three provincial capitals. Kunduz City (374,000), Kunduz Province, east of Balkh, bordering Tajikistan fell for the 3rd time since 2015, with just 15 casualties in two days of ‘intense fighting’. IEA forces were already controlling the Sher Khan Bandar dry port and international trade route with Tajikistan.
Second was Taloqan (Takhar Province) – east of Balkh – bordering Tajikistan with a mixed population of Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Pashtun. The city was the operations centre of Ahmad Shah Massoud in the 1990s. Third was Sar-i-Pul in Sar-i-Pul Province (621,000, mixed but mostly Uzbek) – west and southwest of Balkh – a commercial hub, with untapped natural resources, including oil fields near the provincial capital. On 10th August. Aibak, (Samangan Province) and on 11th August Pul-e-Khumri, (Baghlan Province) – both southeast of Balkh – were captured. On 12 August, Qala-i-Nau (Badghis Province) fell. In all these provinces, the countryside was already under the IEA control.
So, in the first ‘Envelopment’, the ring around the ultimate prize of Mazar-i-Shareef was completed. The city fell on 14 August, delivering north decidedly to the IEA.
Taliban Operational Strategy was akin to ‘Swarming the Battlefield’. Their multi-pronged maneuver along multiple thrust lines, using light infantry backed by artillery, drones and heavy weapons, caused ANA’s operational exhaustion.
In the larger ‘Envelopment’, commencing from the ‘IEA base of operations’ in the east and south (mainly the Pashtun belt), Taliban advanced to control the entire periphery of Afghanistan. Zaranj (Nimruz Province) bordering Iran in southwest was the first to fall on 6 Aug 21, a Friday. Farah, (western Farah Province) falling on August 10; Faizabad, (capital of the northeastern Badakhshan) on August 11; Ghazni in the southeastern) on August 12. The strategic province of Herat (Herat city being the 3rd largest city) along the Iranian Border fell on August 12, with the strongman Ismail Khan reportedly in protective custody of the IEA.
Kandahar, 2nd largest city (southern Kandahar Province,) was captured on August 12 and the psychological barometer of Lashkar Gah (southern Helmand province) was captured on August 13. Faryab (capital city Maymana) in northwest, bordering Turkmenistan fell on 14 August.
Between 13 to 15 August, IEA captured Ghor, Logar, Uruzgan and the remaining provinces in central Afghanistan, systematically reducing the remaining pockets of resistance. By 15 August, IEA was in control of all 34 provinces except Panjshir, which is now invested. Taliban were ‘reportedly’ poised to attack Kabul between 12/13th August, but were ‘dissuaded in some behind the scene understanding with the US forces’ who were shifting their embassy to the airport.
At politico-strategic levels, Taliban mainly resorted to ‘peaceful surrender’ through ‘Tasleem Strategy’ evoking Afghan and Muslim amity with the ANSF; and using effective parleys with local strongmen, persuading them to come to their fold. Some fighting was reported in Herat and Kunduz, elsewhere it had been virtually a ‘walk over’ …consequent to protracted negotiations using local clergy/elders and media effectively.
This strategy removed government forces from combat, secured strategic territory and provided huge stocks of weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Taliban, mostly without firing a shot. Stories about Taliban atrocities and massive displacement of population are manipulated and angular.
In complementary manoeuvres, IEA continued dominating the night, country-side and the Afghan public opinion, especially in the rural heartland where they belong. Taliban’s multipronged attacks wore down Afghan commandos and air force, the last viable components of Afghan military system. Badly led ANA troops faced exhaustion; food, ammunition, fuel shortages and felt abandoned. ANSF, importantly, faced ‘diminishing returns’ in manpower, weapons, equipment and spares due to defections/surrenders and disrupted logistics.
Contrarily Taliban had plenty of fresh troops/reinforcements (both regular and irregular cadres) and better TSR at decision points to force a favorable decision in tactical engagements. They enjoyed high morale, moral ascendency and popular support even in the northern non-Pashtun belt. Popular discontent with Afghan Govt greatly helped.
The US/ANAF bombing support (5 daily sorties till end August) remained ineffectual, given the collateral damage that close air support causes in built-up areas. IEA response to US/ANAF bombings i.e elimination of Afghan govt cadre, proved quite effective quid-pro-quo.
In the end, the ANSF unraveled considering it not worth dying for a corrupt regime in Kabul… in its dying pangs. Complementary reasons causative to the surrender and unwillingness to stand and fight include; a culture of corruption as identified in the Afghanistan Papers; lop-sided ethnic representation (Pashtuns being under represented in the officer cadre); an officer cadre that was removed and city-based; no will to fight fellow Muslim compatriots (Taliban) who effectively evoked religious idioms; and rural roots of the ANA rank and file who feared Taliban reprisals. Departure of the US as their paymasters and uncertainty of the US air cover hastened the unravelling of a force, addicted to almost ubiquitous US air cover. It was natural to conclude it wasn’t worth fighting and dying for a losing order.
Thus, Afghanistan reverted to its people…with challenges to overcome.
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