The Taliban’s lightning offensive in Afghanistan last weekend saw the Afghan army hand over the country to armed groups without real fighting, which reminds people of the ISIL (Islamic State) invasion of Iraq in 2014, which led to the collapse of the country’s army .
In response to the latest events in Afghanistan, international media have published articles with titles such as “How the Taliban conquered the Afghan army built by the United States over the past 20 years”, and raised issues such as “The United States spent $83 billion to train the Afghan army.” Why did it collapse so quickly? “
In the past, similar questions about the Iraqi army were often asked (I answered some of them in a recent magazine article). The explanation for the failures of the Iraqi army since the US invasion in 2003 helps to understand the reasons for the recent collapse of the Afghan army.
In fact, although there are many fundamental differences in the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military failures of the two countries are caused by the same three factors:
First, the United States tried to impose rigid and hierarchical American military doctrines on the two armies without considering the differences in cultural backgrounds between Afghanistan and Iraq.
Second, these weak military forces have to face ISIL or the Taliban-violent non-state actors with stronger “asabiyya” (group unity) than them.
Third, the existence of weak leaders in both Kabul and Baghdad — former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and President Ashraf Ghani, who recently departed in Afghanistan — has led to government inefficiencies and faltering governance. Together with the United States, these leaders allowed the networks of grace and corruption to take root in their country’s military during their respective reconstructions, thereby making ISIL and the Taliban ultimately successful.
Intervention and failed state building
It is assumed that there are major differences between the history of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the socio-economic and ethnic sectarian composition. But the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014 and the collapse of Afghanistan in 2022 can still be linked. One reason is that these two collapses were the result of the US invasion and the subsequent failure of nation-building efforts.
In fact, the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 both led to an externally imposed and secure nation-building process, which had devastating consequences for these countries and their security agencies.
After the invasion, the United States excluded Iraqis from the Baath Party, soldiers from the Taliban, and Afghans from its nation-building efforts. In response, both groups turned to violence to destroy the new country and military.
Even after the artillery fell silent, it was difficult to build peace. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a good example. But the countries of Afghanistan and Iraq had to be rebuilt amid internal armed uprisings.
In both cases, the uprising arose after US military intervention caused a security vacuum. The occupying US military must assume the role of domestic security provider, while also working hard to build a new local army from the ground up.
The problem is that in both cases, US efforts have resulted in the creation of an army in the image of the US military, with a strict, centralized hierarchy. Washington hopes that these imitated troops will eventually develop the necessary capabilities to conduct large-scale ground operations with the support of the United States. Neither armies achieved this goal, but it soon proved to be unnecessary, because Afghanistan and Iraq have become battlefields for asymmetric wars and attacks by armed groups.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States provided new military forces with cutting-edge weapons, such as aircraft, but it soon became clear that without the continuous deployment of US military advisers on the scene, the local military could not maintain these complex equipment. The irony is that other American weapons, including jeeps, armored personnel carriers, artillery and tanks, eventually fell into the hands of ISIL or the Taliban, causing American taxpayers to indirectly subsidize these groups.
Corruption is pervasive
In June 2014, approximately 30,000 Iraqi soldiers could not prevent 1,500 ISIL fighters from occupying Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. This month, the official number of Afghan security services, including the army, air force, and police, exceeded 300,000, but it is estimated that there are fewer than 60,000 Taliban fighters.
Both armies looked much stronger than their opponents on paper, so what caused their humiliating defeat?
First, despite the large number of official forces, the two forces have been fighting serious structural flaws from the beginning.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, widespread desertion and corruption prevent American-trained troops from becoming capable.
For example, it is well known that senior officers of the two armies exaggerate their roster with fictitious names and collect salaries for these “ghost soldiers.” This practice has appeared in both states, because the military is a sponsoring network of national leaders, and officer positions are granted to political loyalists rather than military-minded people. These military officers with political backgrounds used their positions to seize wealth for themselves, not only by exaggerating the roster, but also from the “transit fees” regularly charged by the soldiers at checkpoints.
Corruption and predation by the national security forces, especially at checkpoints, alienated local residents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes wrote in her book “National Thieves: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” that a disgruntled Afghan civilian was fed up with bribing the security forces after 2001. He hoped The Taliban came to solve this nuisance. This anecdote is just one of many examples of how corruption robbed any legitimacy and public support before the two countries’ security forces failed disastrously.
The historical legacy of the 20 Years’ War
What we see in Afghanistan today, and what we saw in Iraq about seven years ago, is not only the US intervention in these two countries, but also the ultimate failure of its entire “war on terrorism” theory.
The purpose of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was to eliminate terrorist organizations and their supporters. Then it began a securitized nation-building process, which led the United States to reorganize the armed forces of the two countries. However, these new institutions failed to cope with the security vacuum created by the US invasion itself. In the end, the US war on terrorism did not eliminate terrorist organizations, but instead allowed these organizations to gain more power. In fact, 20 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban are preparing to take full control of the country again. In addition, with the comeback of the Taliban over the past weekend, Al Qaeda is likely to reappear in the country. At the same time, ISIL, a branch of Al-Qaida, still exists in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The current situation in Afghanistan is a direct result of US actions, but for now, Washington seems unwilling to take any action to reverse its mistakes. It is not yet clear what security consequences for Americans will be if the United States fails to build a strong and capable army in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that this failure will have a direct and irreversible impact on millions of Afghans, who now face the grim prospect of living under the oppressive Taliban again. After all, we have seen similar dramas being staged in Iraq with devastating consequences.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.