How Taliban’s ‘Cash for Arms’ Strategy Worked

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The Taliban fighters display their flag on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan. — Photo courtesy: AP

Taking advantage of the uncertainty caused by the Doha accord in February 2020, the Taliban started offering financial assistance to government forces and police officers in exchange for surrenders

Syed Khalid Husain | Clarion India

NO MAJOR war in history has been fought without a strategy, and no war has been won without a good strategy. Taliban’s war against the United States, its allies and its puppet government’s military in Afghanistan, in which they achieved a miraculous victory last week, was no exception to this military rule. But the Taliban’s war strategy was entirely different from those of all other such wars and ultimately proved to be very effective and useful.

The way the Taliban gradually occupied Afghanistan’s villages, districts and provincial capitals without much bloodshed in just a few weeks and then took control of the country’s capital Kabul without facing any resistance has surprised the entire world. Governments and people across the globe are at a loss to understand how the more than 300,000 Afghan government forces equipped with sophisticated American weapons, 20 years of US military training and US$88 billion aid collapsed so miserably, falling like a deck of cards and surrendering weapons to a force of just 75,000 poorly equipped Taliban fighters.

US President Joe Biden, who in early July had expressed confidence in then-President Ashraf Ghani’s puppet government and its forces and ruled out a Taliban victory despite their ongoing successes on the ground, has blamed the Afghan rulers and military for the humiliating defeat of his country and armed forces after two decades of occupation. However, the fact remains that America’s own war strategy against the Taliban failed miserably, forcing US troops to leave Afghanistan in broad daylight and flee in the darkness of night. The pace of the military collapse stunned many US officials and other foreign observers, forcing Washington to dramatically accelerate efforts to remove personnel from its embassy in Kabul.

Troop withdrawal 

In fact, the Taliban’s return to power after two decades had begun in February 2020 itself with an agreement reached between them and US officials in Qatar’s capital, Doha. The accord sought an end to the war in Afghanistan and complete withdrawal of American troops from there. Soon after, the Taliban began negotiating and signing deals with some of the lowest-ranking Afghan government officials in rural areas to surrender. These negotiations culminated in a breathtaking series of surrenders by government forces. An Afghan official and a US official told The Washington Post that Afghan officials would often describe these deals as “cease-fires”, while the Taliban leaders were actually offering financial support to government forces in exchange for their weapons. Government officials and soldiers could not turn down these offers partly because of corruption and partly they needed cash to survive.

According to a US official and an Afghan official, in the months following the Doha accord the surrender of government forces to the Taliban gradually intensified. After Biden announced in April that the US troops would withdraw unconditionally from Afghanistan this summer, the walls of resistance from government forces began to crumble, paving the way for the Taliban to move forward.

Corruption, tenuous loyalty 

The Doha agreement had disappointed a large section of the Afghan army, and some of its members had begun to realise that they would soon lose the US air power and other key support on land. It left many of them demoralised, bringing into stark relief the corrupt impulses of many Afghan officials and their tenuous loyalty to the country’s central government. Thousands of members of the US-backed Afghan security forces were already angry with the US because they had not been paid salaries for several months. Hence, the Afghan forces began to lean towards the Taliban.

Taking advantage of the uncertainty caused by the Doha accord, the Taliban started offering financial assistance to government forces and police officers in exchange for surrenders. After the success of their cash-for-arms strategy in rural areas, Taliban leaders expanded their operation to the entire country. According to Afghan government officials, police and special operations personnel, the wave finally reached the landlocked country’s districts over the next one year and a half, and then rapidly spread to provincial capitals.

According to an Afghan Special Forces officer, some members of the government army “just wanted the money”, so they agreed to join the Taliban. Others thought the Taliban will definitely return to power after the complete withdrawal of the US forces. So, they joined the Taliban in order to secure place in the next administration. In Kandahar, however, members of the security forces who were not ready to surrender or fight took off their uniforms and fled in civilian clothes. When an Afghan police officer was asked about his force’s apparent lack of motivation, he explained that they hadn’t been getting their salaries. Several Afghan police officers on the front lines in Kandahar before the city fell said they hadn’t been paid in six to nine months. Taliban payoffs became ever more enticing.

Fall of provinces 

As the Taliban increased their control, the government-administered districts rapidly collapsed without a fight. Kunduz was the first key city to fall to the Taliban just a week before Kabul. After several days of mediation, tribal elders in the capital of Kunduz province surrendered and handed over the last government-controlled base to the Taliban. Shortly afterwards, negotiations in the western province of Herat reached an agreement overnight, with the governor, top interior ministry and intelligence officials and hundreds of soldiers resigning their posts. The government forces in the southern province of Helmand also surrendered en masse in July. And as Taliban fighters closed in on the south-eastern province of Ghazni, its governor fled under Taliban protection, only to be arrested by the Afghan government on his way back to Kabul.

Thus came to an end of a series of rapid surrenders by government forces. As a result, in less than a week the Taliban seized more than a dozen provincial capitals and entered Kabul without resistance, forcing Ashraf Ghani to flee the country. As his government collapsed, Afghan security forces in Kabul and surrounding districts began to disappear from the scene, police checkpoints were evacuated by nightfall and Taliban soldiers appeared everywhere.

These mass surrenders and desertions probably led the Taliban, immediately after they returned to power, to declare a general amnesty, collect weapons from the public and appeal to the Afghans and foreigners not to flee the country by assuring them safety.

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The writer is a senior journalist based in Singapore. He may be contacted at [email protected] or +65 91195711

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