The speed of the Taliban advance in Afghanistan seems to have taken many by surprise. Regional capitals appear to be falling like dominoes.
On Thursday they took the third city, Herat, and the strategic Ghazni. There are already reports that they took the second largest in the country, Kandahar.
The balance appears to be in favor of the insurgents, while the Afghan government, the product of an alliance with the United States after the 2001 invasion, struggles to maintain control of power.
This week, a leaked US intelligence report estimated that Kabul could be attacked in a matter of weeks, and that the government could fall within 90 days.
How did this unprecedented drive by the Taliban militias come about?
The United States and its NATO allies have spent most of the past 20 years training and equipping Afghan security forces.
Countless American and British generals said over and over again that they created a powerful and capable Afghan army. Promises that seem pretty empty today.
Who has more soldiers?
The Afghan government should continue to have the upper hand. Its military power is, in theory, greater.
The Afghan security forces have, at least on paper, more than 300,000 members. This includes the Afghan army, the air force, and the police.
But nevertheless, Afghanistan has always struggled to meet its military recruitment goals.
The Afghan army and police have a troubled record of casualties, desertions and corruption, with some unscrupulous commanders demanding non-existent soldiers’ salaries: so-called “ghost soldiers.”
In his latest report to the US Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan expressed “grave concern about the corrosive effects of corruption … and the dubious accuracy of the data on the actual strength of the force.”
Jack Watling, from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), affirms that not even the Afghan army knows, nor has it ever known, how many troops it has.
Additionally, Watling says there have been problems with maintaining military equipment and troop morale.
Soldiers are often sent to areas where they have no cultural or family connections, one reason some may be quick to leave their posts even without fighting.
The military might of the Taliban is even more difficult to measure.
According to the United States Counter-Terrorism Center, estimates suggest a core of 60,000 fighters. If other groups of militants and supporters are added, that number could exceed 200,000.
But Mike Martin, a former Pashtun-speaking British army officer who has followed the history of the conflict, warns of the dangers of defining the Taliban as a single monolithic group.
Instead, it asserts that “the Taliban are closer to a coalition of independent franchise holders, loosely affiliated with, and most likely temporarily, one another.”
Martin points out that the Afghan government itself is torn apart by the ups and downs of local factions, which frequently switch back and forth.
Afghanistan’s changing history illustrates how families, tribes, and even government officials have been changing sides, in part to ensure their own survival.
And the weapons?
Regardless of the number of soldiers, in terms of the arsenal each army possesses, once again, the Afghan government should have the upper hand in terms of both funding and weapons.
The official military has received billions of dollars to pay for soldiers’ salaries and equipment, mostly from the United States.
In his July 2021 report, the US inspector in Afghanistan stated more than $88.000 million in safety.
But he added almost like an omen: “The question of whether that money has been well spent will ultimately be answered by the outcome of the fighting on the ground.”
The Afghan Air Force should provide it with a critical advantage on the battlefield, but it has always had trouble maintaining and flying its 211 aircraft (a problem compounded by deliberate Taliban attacks on pilots).
The army is also unable to meet the demands of commanders on the ground.
Hence the US air support in cities like Lashkar Gah in the face of the Taliban attack. It is unclear how long the United States will continue to provide that support.
Afghanistan has been awash in weapons since the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and the Taliban have shown that even the most rustic artillery can defeat sophisticated Western commandos.
Think of the deadly effect of improvised explosive devices (known as IEDs) on American and British forces. That, and local knowledge and understanding of the terrain, are a crucial advantage.
An unprecedented strategy vs. an indecipherable strategy
Despite the messy nature of the Taliban, some see signs of a coordinated plan in their recent mission.
Ben Barry, a former British Army Brigadier and current fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, acknowledges that Taliban advances may be opportunistic, but adds that “it would have been difficult to design a better plan than this”.
The expert points out that the Taliban attacks are focused on the north and west, and not on their traditional strongholds in the south, and that regional capitals have fallen into their hands.
The Taliban have also captured key border crossings and checkpoints, diverting much-needed customs revenue from a cash-strapped government.
Targeted killings of senior officials, human rights activists and journalists have also escalated. And they are slowly but inexorably wiping out some of the small gains made in the last 20 years.
The Afghan government’s strategy, on the other hand, is more difficult to define.
The promises to recover all the territory captured by the Taliban ring increasingly hollow.
Barry says there seems to be a plan to keep control of the bigger cities.
The Afghan special forces are relatively small in number, around 10,000 personnel, and they are already on edge.
The Taliban too seem to be winning the war of propaganda and the battle of narrative.
Barry claims their momentum on the battlefield has raised morale and given them a sense of unity.
On the contrary, the Afghan government has been on the defensive, arguing and firing the generals.
How does this end?
The situation certainly looks bleak for the Afghan government.
But nevertheless, Jack Watling, from RUSI, affirms that, although the outlook is increasingly pessimistic for the Afghan military, “the situation could still be saved through politics.”
If the government can win over the leaders of the country’s tribal groups, he says, there is still the possibility of a stalemate.
Mike Martin agrees, and points out that several leaders have already reached major cities, and are already closing deals.
The fighting season may end when winter arrives, making it difficult for forces to maneuver on the ground.
There may still be a stalemate at the end of the year, and the Afghan government clinging to Kabul and a number of larger cities.
The tide could even turn if the Taliban fracture.
But for the moment it appears that the efforts of the United States and NATO to bring peace, security and stability to Afghanistan have been as futile as those of the Soviets before them.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.