To see everything that we fought so hard to achieve unravel so quickly is devastating, yet it has a sad air of inevitability about it
There is an oft-quoted apocryphal tale of a conversation between a Taliban commander and a NATO military officer spawning a now infamous adage. Upon witnessing the might that a modern western military force could bring to bear, the Taliban commander prophetically stated, “You may have the watches, but we have the time”. Though it is a phrase that could be applied to a plethora of scenarios that have occurred during the peaks and troughs of the mission in Afghanistan, it is now more pertinent than ever.
As a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan myself, to see everything that we fought so hard to achieve unravel so quickly is devastating, yet it has a sad air of inevitability about it. As an Infantry Captain I spent a tour in an embedded partnership role mentoring the Afghan National Army’s 2nd Kandak in Sangin as we strived to stabilise the area and assert control over one of Helmand Province’s most contested regions. Operation Herrick 11 was a costly tour for our Battlegroup and the ferocity of the fighting there well documented. Despite the frustrations and complexities of working alongside the Afghan National Army we were resolute in achieving our mission, to further develop the skills and capabilities needed for Afghan Security Forces to operate independently.
Just over a decade later and questions are now being asked as to how successful that strategy proved to be. How could an Afghan National Security Force of soldiers and police officers, theoretically numbering in the region of 350,000, be reduced to all but a susurration in the wind? Defeat that came not from an overwhelming and unstoppable military force but from melting away in the face of the strategic cunning of a smaller and more nebulous foe. A foe that had won the psyops battle long before it reached Kabul.
The advancing Taliban giving quarter to Army units willing to lay down their arms without a shot fired, whilst brutally murdering those surrendering after running out of ammunition, led to a situation where swathes of troops quickly decided that discretion is the better part of valour; who would be willing to sacrifice their life needlessly for a lost cause they were barely wedded to in the first place?
The speed and scale of the collapse in Afghanistan has far exceeded even the worst-case scenario of military and political planners. Twenty years of force-building that has seen the Afghan Army increase a hundred-fold in that time, with tens of billions spent equipping the force with men and materiel, lasted barely three months. The abrupt withdrawal of 15,000 US contractors used to keep Afghan air assets flying and the subsequent lack of organic air support, intelligence-gathering and logistical capability, leading to the surrender of hungry and unarmed soldiers, looks at best naive, at worst cynical. The failure to honestly appraise Afghan military capability, its overstated theoretical strength or anticipate its inherent fragility before handing over the security situation, is unforgivable.
The corruption and perceived incompetence of Afghanistan’s political leadership coupled with the poor morale of troops ordered to defend a country that for many soldiers exists only on paper, trumped by tribal and regional loyalties, exacerbated the speed of the military collapse. The strategic error of the demoralising Doha agreement in February last year set the conditions for a year-long Taliban force build-up, compounded by President Biden’s unilateral decision to withdraw ahead of the totemic date of September 11th. Emboldened, the Taliban made deals with rural leaders, slowly negotiated surrenders with isolated Afghan units and, as per the adage, simply bided their time.
We should rightfully be proud of the stability and security that two decades of blood and treasure bought. However, the sacrifices made by the 457 British soldiers who lost their lives and the many more who bear the physical and mental scars were made in the name of lasting change. Veterans and their families should not be left with the feeling that those sacrifices were in vain, or that the legacy in Afghanistan has been squandered by a litany of US strategic blunders in their haste to end their commitment.
The capitulation has been as swift as it has been comprehensive. As the dust settles at the end of Afghanistan’s western military epoch we are left with the sobering realisation that the failure of the military mission in Afghanistan will reverberate for decades to come. For all the watches the west could fashion, time is the only military asset required for victory in the Graveyard of Empires.