Twenty years of fighting, 2,352 American deaths and it comes down to this: can Afghanistan’s government forces pull back and hold on until the Taliban over-extends its military push?
The battle isn’t looking good. Taliban offensives have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since last week. The Afghanistan Army head was fired by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday. Ghani and top military official Abdul Rashid Dostum flew north to build support for the crucial battle around Mazar-i-Sharif. Afghan forces are pulling back.
What the Pentagon won’t tell you is the Battle for Afghanistan is a deliberate gamble that’s been planned out since 2019.
The Afghanistan government’s strategy is simple, if brutal: take international forces out of the way, then draw the Taliban into a fight they can’t win. If it works, the Taliban will be broken as a military force.
And breaking the Taliban may be a way to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t become a terrorist nest again anytime soon.
It all depends on how well the US and allies have trained key elements of Afghanistan’s forces, and on their military leadership. Nothing is certain. But here’s the plan.
Afghanistan is roughly the size of Texas except with massive mountains. The current fighting will leave the Taliban in control of huge swathes of territory and regional hamlets like Lashkar Gah, population 43,934. Frankly, the Taliban have controlled nearly half of the territory for years.
The Taliban strategy is to take more territory and try for a return to 2001 when they ran the country under harsh laws. The Taliban strategy carries big tactical risks.
No ground army can hold the countryside and the capitals. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad says neither side can win outright.
So, the strategy for the Afghanistan national forces is to withstand the offensive and consolidate around Kabul and other population centers. It’s heart-breaking to watch the Taliban walk over Kunduz and scoop up helicopters left behind by retreating forces. All this is territory where U.S., NATO and allied forces risked their lives.
However, from a military standpoint, it’s by far the best option.
Afghanistan’s forces "have everything they need," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, a retired admiral himself, said Tuesday. The Taliban at perhaps 75,000 fighters are outnumbered by Afghanistan’s 200,000 forces.
Losing provincial capitals in a planned withdrawal isn’t necessarily fatal, if it causes the Taliban to over-reach and expose their forces to attack.
Right now it’s too early to say if the overall strategy will work. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense claimed Afghan national forces killed 439 Taliban in 24 hours on Aug. 11 in battles spanning the country.
Don’t forget two big factors: warlords and airpower.
The Taliban will take more territory but they may not be able to hold it. As the Taliban move to new fighting positions, they are exposed to airpower. U.S. and Afghan airstrikes have been hitting the Taliban – although the Pentagon has been tight-lipped about results.
Much depends on how fast Afghan Special Forces and Air Force can find and strike the Taliban.
Under this strategy warlords like Dostum are back. Dostum was one of Afghanistan’s elected vice presidents until he resigned in February 2020 to become Marshal of Afghanistan’s forces.
Before that, Dostum was one of the key warlords in the successful U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom which ended Taliban control over Afghanistan in 2001 after two months of airstrikes and fast-moving ground operations. Dostum is a complete rogue but he knows how to fight and win.
"The Taliban have come to the north several times but they were always trapped," Dostum told the BBC on Thursday.
An old Army term calls it "destruction in detail."
Yes, the U.S. is still providing airpower from outside Afghanistan as well as some logistic and financial support. The Pentagon has not abandoned the Afghan government forces. U.S. planes carried out strikes on Tuesday.
As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned, there is always an over-the-horizon capability to monitor and punish Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk.
That is Pentagon-speak for surveillance and drones, backed up by Central Command forces such as the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers.
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The Battle for Afghanistan is hard to watch. Over 800,000 US servicemembers served there across two decades, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. Afghanistan’s civilians are paying the price.
But U.S. forces are 95% out, and the final chapter could still yield a better future for Afghanistan if Taliban military dreams are quashed once and for all.