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Miserable options for Afghan soldiers prompt desertions, army’s collapse


The Afghan Army consists of about 300,000 troops who have been financed, equipped, supported and trained (poorly, by the accounts of some former American trainers) by the United States military. They are deployed against a Taliban force of about 75,000. Under just about any reasonable circumstances, that would be no contest, yet a combination of factors has handed superiority to the underdog Taliban.

 What has that meant for the soldiers of the Afghan Army?  A projected Taliban win has left them with three options. They can quit the Army. They can run for it. They can defect. Whatever choice each individual soldier makes, the overall result is a further weakening of the Afghan Army and a strengthening of the Taliban.

 If you were an Afghan soldier and thus a supporter of the losing side in a fundamentalist environment in the Middle East, what would you do? It would be clear to you, given present realities, that if you run for it, you might not be terribly welcome in any country to which you might flee. If you quit and stayed in Afghanistan, you probably, ultimately would be caught and murdered by the Taliban. 

You might wonder if the Americans might exfiltrate you under the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program along with the translators, interpreters and others who assisted them over the past 20 years. But then, soldiers have never been mentioned as SIV eligible and there are, after all, some 300,000 of them.

 Given all of that, a carefully planned change of allegiance to the Taliban might be the only option with hope for any sort of familiar future life. Although there are no available overall, accurate statistics, there is evidence that the current plight of the Afghan soldier has led to a number of departures from Afghanistan and to a goodly number of defections to the Taliban. 

 Mention of defection comes as early as 2015.  Sources say the Afghan police, who are militarized and fight on the front lines, have not been paid for months by the Ministry of Interior. Other sources say the same is true for the Ministry of Defense.

In many areas, soldiers and police are not supplied with adequate food, water, ammunition, or arms. Arms, ammunition, and other equipment are regularly stolen and sold on the black market, with much of it reaching the Taliban.

A former senior official with the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, said attrition rates from the country’s security services were around 5,000 per month, against recruitment of 300 to 500, a ratio he said was “unsustainable.”

The recent defection of a retired Afghan General to the Taliban has provoked comments that give some indication of the extent of such defections. A foreign diplomat in Kabul said the number of defections within the Afghan security forces has increased following the signing of the peace deal more than two months ago.

Afghan officials in provinces hit hardest by the uptick in Taliban attacks have also relayed reports of increased defections. Defections have been reported in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province, and Afghan soldiers have been reported fleeing to Tajikistan. Recent reports from Herat claim that thousands of Afghan forces and officials have switched allegiance to the Taliban. 

Many of the reports of defections of Afghan soldiers have mentioned that they brought with them their arms, including trucks and fighting vehicles, all of which are now in the hands of the Taliban.

Viewed from the Taliban side, it is entirely in their interest to promote the premise that large numbers of Afghan Army soldiers are defecting to them. It reinforces the fears that every Afghan soldier has about the future of his country which, he knows, is about to be taken over by the Taliban. That in turn weakens Taliban enemies at all levels.

In short, the average Afghan soldier is faced with a life and death decision. He can make some sort of accommodation with the Taliban or leave the country for an uncertain future. What he would like to do, but knows he cannot, is simply fade into the familiar Afghan landscape. If he does that he will ultimately be caught and killed by the Taliban.

 It is clearly in his interest to change sides. That way he will face a future with which he is familiar, and in which he and his family have lived for centuries. Far better than a trip abroad.

Note: Haviland Smith is a retired CIA operations officer who focused during his Cold War career In East and West Europe on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

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