The rapid meltdown of government forces in Afghanistan took everyone by surprise, including Taliban. In a relatively bloodless operation, Taliban forces captured whole of Afghanistan in just two weeks. Afghan army outnumbered the Taliban forces by at least three times. According to most estimates, Afghan army had 300,000 troops on strength against 70,000 Taliban fighters. In addition, Afghan army was equipped with some of the most modern weapons available in the world. They had been trained by qualified professionals to a very high degree of efficiency. They had control of the air, provided by fledgling, though reasonably well equipped Afghan air force. They also had access to persistent surveillance provided by US assets. However, when push came to shove, they wilted and surrendered without a fight. Barring a few occasions, they did not even exchange fire. The numerical and equipment superiority, enjoyed by US-backed Afghan army did not count for much.
Why were Afghan forces, despite fielding greater numbers and better equipment, found helpless in the face of a disciplined and spirited Taliban onslaught?
Military academies, war collages, think-tanks and strategic experts around the world will undoubtable analyse these events in great detail and look for a relevant answer to the abovementioned question. Most of these studies would bring out flaws and deficiencies in tactics, training, weapons, coordination, force planning, intelligence failure and so on. Many of these observations would be dissected in great details in military-strategic journals. In this opinion piece I shall avoid these aspects and would focus on two second-order reasons for the unprecedented failure of Afghan forces. The first reason deals with morale of troops and the second explores morality of the conflict.
Honour above all else
Disciplined military forces don’t fight for spoils of war, they fight for the honour and prestige attached with mission success. The praise and adulation that follows a successful military campaign raises their stature amongst peers and enhances their respect in the eyes of citizenry at large. Similarly, defeat in the battlefield brings sense of shame. For example, Op Vijay (Kargil) brought glory to the Indian military, while Op Pawan (Sri Lanka) brought ignominy.
Under adverse conditions, some troops fight and some flee. Some stay, in spite of overwhelming odds; some run, even though there are reasonable chances of success. Some show bravery that is almost suicidal; while, some show cowardice that is shameful. Bravery cannot be taught, neither can courage be infused via training. To a limited extent, discipline can help. Discipline can be instilled through rigorous and repetitive training. Discipline would condition the troops to obey instructions and hold the line, even under fire. However, under acutely adverse circumstances discipline tends to wilt. After all, nature has programmed humans to self-preserve. Under withering fire, survival instincts kick-in, and troops are tempted to abandon position or surrender. The only bulwark against such fundamental temptation is collective identity; represented by the history, traditions and honour of the Regiment. The moral force attached with such identity is so strong that that it motivates the troops to display extraordinary courage to defend and preserve the honour and tradition attached with that identity.
Courage is contagious and it is also collective. Some Units run into fire, while some duck and take cover. Some fight to the last man, while some surrender at the first sign of trouble. Herein comes the importance of military traditions, the proverbial phrase- regiment ka izzat (regiment’s honour). Soldiers don’t fight for exalted concepts like constitution, political ideology or in the name of national leadership. They fight for izzat (honour), theirs and their regiment’s. Some illuminated individuals often raise questions over military parades and ceremonies, calling them unnecessary and wasteful. Very often military celebrations are termed pompous pageantry. Such criticism is unfortunate, because, tradition is often the only reason, troops stay and fight, when everything else tells them to flee. In year 1897, 21 Sikh troops held their fort, against overwhelming odds at Saragarhi, literally to the last man and last bullet. In 1962, 110 Ahirs of Charlie Company (13 Kumaon) under the leadership of Major Shaitan Singh stood firm at Rezang-la against much larger Chinese force. More recently, in Laddhak, troops from SFF surprised the Chinese and claimed the heights at Kailash range and camped right under the Chinese nose. In all these cases they derived collective courage from their Regiment’s traditions.
Indian military invests a lot in preserving Unit traditions and reinforcing the pride in Regiment’s history. Ethnic and religious identity of the troops is intelligently utilised to reinforce the faith in the purity of cause and trust in the leadership. It’s not uncommon to find a Christian Commanding Officer lead prayers during Janmashtmi or a Sikh commander practice Roja with his Muslim troops. As a result, our troops hold conviction that can match even the brainwashed fanatical jihadist’s belief. Conviction is no assurance of victory, it’s simply an insurance against cowardice.
Afghan army was led, fed, armed and directed by the United States military. Unit living areas, dining halls and offices were all designed as per western specifications. They not only wore American pattern uniforms, but also tried to imbibe their culture, terminology and concept of operations. In a benign training environment, all this seemed to work. However, when real bullets started flying, it came to naught. Afghan army relied heavily on borrowed equipment & concept of operations and invested little in building strong links to the basic Afghan culture and inherent pride in defending the home and the hearth. They were prepared to fight to defend their jobs and their lives, not willing to give it up all to defend their honour.
Afghan army did not feel any dishonour in shedding their arms and uniforms to escape the Taliban. Unfortunately, senior military and political leaders were the first to flee, leaving little choice for the beleaguered troops. In order to preserve their lives they were prepared to sacrifice their honour. Devoid of any cultural mooring or pride in being the defenders of the faith, they found nothing to hang onto when the ship started sinking. Not surprisingly, many of the former army personnel are now willing to join the Taliban led military.
In the last two decades under American patronage, Afghan elites gained a lot, whereas the life of a working class labour or peasant remained largely unchanged. Western commentators were surprised when Taliban troops marched into Afghan towns on foot or on a motorbike with few rag tag weapons; and the town fell without a fight. People in streets were largely indifferent. Not many tears were shed for foreign troops or foreign backed government troops. Most western researchers mistook ‘tolerance’ of foreign troops as ‘affinity’. The battle was lost when the moral high ground was lost.
This brings me to my next point- the moral dimensions of Afghan war.
There are two precepts regarding armed conflict that ought to be understood clearly. Jus-ad-bellum and Jus-in-bello are terms with Latin origin that codify rules of war. Their references can be found even in the International Humanitarian Law as propagated by the Red Cross. Jus-ad-bellum refers to the conditions under which a party would be ‘justified’ to resort to war. Whereas, Jus-in-bello comprise set of rules that dictate ‘just conduct’ of war. Jus-in-bello emphasises that, irrespective of the fact whether one entered the war for just reasons or not, one must conduct the war by just means. To illustrate this point with an example I would draw an analogy from Mahabharat. The great warrior Bheeshm entered the war leading the Kaurav army, fully aware that he is not siding with the just cause. However, in the pre-war conference he laid down clear rules for both parties that would ensure just conduct of war. Hours of fight, care for the wounded and surrendered, amnesty for non-combatants and proportionality in force application. Although the reference is mythological, however, these stipulations still find relevance today. Law of armed conflict (LOAC), a bunch of various international treaties and agreements dealing with armed conflict lay emphasis on similar precepts.
America may have entered the war in Afghanistan assuming just-cause, they can reasonably claim Jus-ad-bellum. However, reckless targeting of civilians and non-combatants using stand-off weapons and drones led to them losing the moral high ground. Their treatment of surrendered or captured militia was also not in accordance with humanitarian law. They did not subscribe to Jus-in-bello. General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan in 2009 was aware of this fact and has been famously quoted as saying that, “Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly; adding, if not careful -We can lose this fight.” The recklessness continued over the years with negligible accountability for targeting civilians. It is ironic that the last drone strike in the country during the tense last days of US withdrawal, targeted an aid worker and his seven children. A reluctant Pentagon owned up the mistake, pressured by a mountain of evidence presented by international and Afghan media. It is almost certain that no service member or intelligence operator will be prosecuted for this tragic error.
Afghan forces were seen, by many Afghan citizens, as an extension of the western military. Over the last two decades many afghan citizens had faced criminal intimidation at the hands of foreign troops. The aversion that affected afghan felt for the foreign troops was also reserved for the foreign backed Afghan army. They were seen as a tool for an unjust and oppressive force. Unfortunately, Afghan army failed to distinguish themselves from the foreign troops, instead they continued to reinforce themselves in the image of their foreign trainers and fund providers. The fact of the matter is : Taliban is not widely liked, neither were Americans. Foreign military and a large hoard of military contractors were seem as outsiders, who would eventually leave. Taliban on the other hand was a home grown movement, which, even if despised, was there to stay. External forces that do not enjoy wider popular support are unlikely to succeed. We learnt this bitter lesson in Sri Lanka.
Afghan army should have presented themselves as an alternative to Taliban militia, however, they decided to present themselves as an alternative to western military. When the fighting started, the army leadership failed to make a case for either Jus-ad-bellum or Jus-in-bello.
In sum, the comprehensive defeat suffered by Afghan army at the hand of inadequately-trained, ill-equipped and under-resourced militia has a lesson for modern militaries around the world. Notwithstanding tactical, numerical or technical superiority, victory in the battlefield would be ensured only if your troops are convinced that they are fighting a just war for a just cause.
The author is a former Indian Air Force officer with extensive experience as a leader, fighter pilot, instructor and administrator with international exposure. He is keenly interested in matters concerning national security and strategic affairs.
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