Kabul – Across northern Afghanistan bad things are happening. The Taliban has swept into the fighting season with vim and vigor, raising hell in province after province. Badakshan, Kunduz, Farah, Nangarhar and Faryab provinces have seen significant action. The Taliban came right up to the gates of Kunduz City, a city of 300,000 people, before being pushed back. Isolated outposts have been ransacked and security forces beheaded.
As bad as it is to lose hundreds of security forces and see almost 100,000 refugees (by UN estimates), the Governor of Kunduz said this week that the worst is now happening; the Taliban have teamed up with fighters aligned with the Islamic State, which is trying to get a foothold in the region. If that happens – and that’s a big if – the war could take a harsher, more violent turn.
Whew! What the heck is going on and where does this end?
Analysts are torn into two camps. One is that major cities won’t fall, the security forces are fighting back and all will be well.
The other camp (which I am in) sees whole swathes of areas in far-flung provinces being taken over and the government control being loosened. We knew this would happen as soon as America stopped fighting and it has. Is holding the cities and half a province good enough? It will have to be because in many, or even most, provinces that’s what’s happening.
Forget media reports that the US is bombing the bejeesus out of the Taliban by pretending to “protect” nearby American forces. The US has stopped bombing despite pleas for help from the authorities in Kunduz. The Afghans are pretty much on their own, even as we keep 9,800 US advisors there along with some special operators doing counter-terrorist (snatch or kill) missions.
So this is the test for the Afghan security forces, and this is what we’ve trained and equipped them for. So how well will they fare?
Not all that well, honestly. Much of what they need in order to do more than just hold on just aren’t there any more.
For instance; there are supposed to be 352,000 army and police. But the armed forces are having trouble retaining their men. So they have about 325,000 men instead.
This is what life is like for those men.
The tooth-to-tail ratio in US forces is 9-to-1. So for every one guy pulling a trigger, nine are handling fuel, food and so on to keep him in the field.
Let’s pretend the Afghans do 50% better than the US, and the tooth to tail is one in 7. (Unlikely given the Afghan soldier’s propensity to go on extended vacations, but all right). That gives us 46,500 men out of 325,000 that fight.
There are 34 provinces. So that’s about 1,200 men per province.
The men are scattered around to a bunch of rural outposts, but mostly concentrated in the cities.
A typical outpost will have 15 or so men. Of these three will be on vacation and one away at headquarters. So call it 11 men, (in reality it is probably 8).
The Taliban can mass with 25 to 75 men. You are an Afghan policeman in an isolated outpost with nine other men. You have no radio that works, three hand grenades for everyone, and three magazines of bullets (90 bullets) for yourself, if you are lucky. (The basic load US soldiers carry is 210 rounds).
Your vehicle probably has no gas to flee. You are stuck there.
And then your outpost is taken. If you are captured you might be shot or told to go home; it’s a 50/50 chance. If ISIS gets you the chances are you will be lined up and shot or beheaded.
All the support you have been used to – rescue by the Americans, medevac if you get hurt, close air support, advisors at your battalion to help push through enough beans and bullets – is now gone. None of that has been replaced with credible Afghan alternatives.
This then is the reality of your life. Last year a US general said the Afghan army was losing men at an “unsustainable” rate. Already this year casualties are almost 70% higher, running at 330 men per week lost from the front line, according to the AP.
When the Taliban almost reached the gates of Kunduz City the government sent 2,000 soldiers to push them back. A week later they are still pushing. The Taliban is that strong.
This isn’t just happening in Kunduz Province. The government is being assaulted in about a third of the country.
What’s going on is a big push the Taliban will make this year and next to unseat the government. They almost certainly won’t succeed. But they’ll take a lot of territory with them, and then wait.
Is a divided Afghanistan our version of success? However you define it – success, failure or “Afghan good enough” – that’s where we’re headed at this rate.