How the Taliban captured Kabul

How the Taliban captured Kabul

by Scirocco Jazz on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 5:51am ·
The nearly one-year Taliban campaign against Kabul in 1995 put the city under severe harm but the Taliban failed to take the city against Ahmad Shah Massoud's government forces. Instead the Taliban suffered devastating military defeats. At the same time Massoud and Rabbani were finally able to show political successes through an "intra-Afghan dialogue" bringing everyone including Dostum, Hekmatyar, Wahdat or the Jalalabad Shura to the negotiations table. Only the Taliban categorically refused to share power. Rabbani said: "This alliance can be consolidated by bringing in more opposition figures to create a peace axis and I call on others to join the process so that a formula for an interim government can be found". Pressured by Massoud, Rabbani agreed to relinquish the presidency for a new president to be elected  in a conference inclusive of all parties. Massoud told Rabbani that no party could claim the highest office and power for itself forever as shown by the Soviet example.

Considering both the military and political achievements by Massoud and Rabbani, the Taliban and their Pakistani backers decided they had to devise a strategy to ascent to power before the new understanding between the other parties could be consolidated. The  following strategies and external circumstances finally led to the capture of Kabul.

Religious symbolism
To silence unrest within its own ranks and elements which were demanding to negotiate with the Kabul government, the Kandahari elements behind Mullah Omar strictly opposed to negotiations sought to cement Mullah Omar's leadership by implying religious symbolism. After meetings which included Pakistani officials, the Kandahari Taliban mounted a religious play in April 1996, featuring Omar standing in the wind in Kandahar in the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad taken from its shrine. The Kandaharis staged an event in which they declared Omar to be the "Leader of the Faithful" acting according to parts of the script of religious prophecy about an "army from Khorasan" which will save Islam displaying black banners. Omar was placed above the normal political business and any questions with regards to his decisions were no longer tolerated. The strategy proved successful. His decision was to wage war against the government and not to share power with anyone.

Internal spoiler Hekmatyar and over-streched defensive lines
When Hekmatyar joined the government, he and Rabbani demanded Massoud to cover the Hezb-e Islami lines as well. Hezb-e Islami commanders were either unwilling or unable to hold their own against the Taliban. Massoud initially refused to send his forces into largely unknown territory. But Rabbani and Hekmatyar increasingly put pressure on him accusing him of not wanting to act united and Hekmatyar again threatening to act as a spoiler if his demands were not to be met. Massoud finally send troops to cover the Hezb-e Islami lines. He found himself in largely unknown territory deep in Hezb-e Islami country. While his troops were unfamiliar with the area which they still needed to study, Hezb-e Islami commanders quit their positions and left Massoud's defensive lines over-streched and thinly manned.

Corruption and criminal activity by government allies
Corruption and criminal activity by some of the government's allies lead to very low morale among their forces, so that Massoud repeatedly needed to send in troop reinforcements of his own core force. The criminal activities by some also lead to an initially indifferent population.

Treason because of bribery by Pakistan
Pakistan for months desperately tried to bribe Dostum, Hezb-e Wahdat, the Jalalabad Shura and others to not make peace with the government but to join the Taliban's war instead. They largely failed. But when the Taliban approached Jalalabad instead of Kabul, they finally cracked the Jalalabad Shura. Abdul Qadir, leader of the Jalalabad Shura, fled to Pakistan taking, according to some sources, $10 million in Pakistani bribes with him. The Jalalabad Shura forces did not recover from the treason among their leadership and Jalalabad was lost to the Taliban. Kabul suddenly faced a new hostile front to the east. At the same time many Hekmatyar commanders committed treason and vacacted their positions for Taliban to take their place.

Seemingly unrestricted access to Saudi funds and Pakistani hardware
Seemingly unrestricted monetary funds were flowing to the Taliban from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan provided the military equipment. In the meantime Massoud had to cut his troops because of a shortage of money.

Pakistan army strategy: Mobile warfare
The mobile warfare employed by the Taliban during the capture of Jalalabad was a phenomena introduced as a strategy by the Pakistan army. Pakistan provided the Taliban with the necessary hardware including heavily armored pickup-trucks. The offensives themselves were planned, coordinated and led by Pakistan army advisers. Funds were coming from Saudi Arabia. As had happened in September 1995 in Herat, the Taliban when capturing Jalalabad employed mobile warfare, repeatedly outflanking their enemies, cutting them off and attacking from the rear. (Anthony Davis, Fundamentalism Reborn) In this style they were to rapidly move forward towards Kabul from all sides.

Thousands of Pakistani nationals as troop enforcements in cross-border incursions
While Taliban troops already inside the country were approaching from the south and west, Pakistan opened up its borders with thousands of Taliban troop enforcements, many Pakistani nationals or Afghan refugees, suddenly placed to the east of Jalalabad and later moving towards Kabul.

Result
The result of above strategies and general circumstances were:
1. Embolded by the religious symbolism of their leader, Taliban troops had very high morale.
2. Millions in cash were coming from Saudi Arabia, military equipment was provided by Pakistan and military campaigns were planned and led by professional Pakistan army advisers. Thousands of Pakistanis acted as troop enforcements.
3. After the capture of Jalalabad Kabul was wide open from all sides for the first time, except for a small corridor to the north. Hekmatyar had abandoned his positions to the south, Abdul Qadir had abandoned his positions to the east, Ismail Khan had been defeated to the west not least because corruption had decreased the morale among his people.
4. Massoud's defensive lines were over-streched in areas were Hezb-e Islami had formerly held its positions. Immediately after the surprising capture of Jalalabad the Taliban quickly moved towards Kabul  from all sides, also trying to cut off the small northern corridor. When the Taliban approached the Hezb-e Islami areas with their rapid mobile warfare, this led to a disorderly retreat by over-streched government forces which in turn led to confusion.
5. Although morale was high among Massoud's troops in his core territories, he foresaw that reestablishing a defensive line, including troops which were in confusion and retreat, for Kabul on four fronts against a mobile warfare force with a working air force rapidly approaching from all sides, if possible, would cause destruction and bloodshed maybe worse than the destruction caused by the 1994 Dostum-Hematyar bombardments. Instead of risking slaughter and bloodbath, Massoud ordered a strategic retreat saving his forces from being trapped in the capital and preventing bloodbath in Kabul. Able to defend the northern corridor, his forces retreated to the north while the external defense circle surrounding the city was left in place creating the impression the government was still situated in Kabul while in fact covering the strategic retreat. The anti-Taliban resistance was moved to the mountains to fight another day.

What is the difference today?
The Karzai government today has forces in more parts of Afghanistan than the Rabbani government had in 1995 and 1996. The current administration also enjoys extensive foreign funding which the Rabbani government did not. The current number of Afghan security forces is significantly larger than in 1995 and 1996.

On the other hand the current administration and its hundreds of thousands of security forces are nearly entirely dependent on foreign funding which at some point is going to decrease significantly, Massoud's forces were not dependent on foreign funding. Morale today is low and Karzai's personal influence on the forces quasi non-existent, while Massoud's forces had very high morale and were ready to die for their leader and his vision. The question remains whether today's forces are sustainable, Massoud could always sustain a core force.

While Massoud's problem lay in the over-streching of his loyal  troops, the current government's problem lies in the question whether the Afghan army will remain loyal and whether it might disintegrate or not after 2014. The repercussions of Massoud's problem were the need for a strategic retreat while his forces remained largely intact. The possible repercussions of today's problem could be a complete disintegration of the current Afghan forces and government with armed splitter groups joining militias based on ethnic or tribal affiliation or even joining the enemy, the Taliban.

If the Taliban and Pakistan were to pull-off a compareabl campaign for the capture of Kabul today
- religious symbolism would still place the Taliban morale very high,
- treason and corruption could still lead to the break-down of government lines on several fronts reducing the forces loyal to the current Afghan government to a smaller core group which then could also face over-streching,
- Pakistan army strategy has not changed and it will still allow massive cross-border incursion opening up new fronts, support and lead mobile warfare and other warfare strategies,
- Hekmatyar is still working as a spoiler from within, with Karim Khurram decisively responsible for Karzai's inconsistency and a break-down of Karzai's alliance with other groups,
- as an addition, the Taliban today are able to infiltrate Kabul and launch attacks from inside which they were not able to do in 1996.

What are the lessons
As pointed out by many knowledgeable observers, Afghan forces today need a leader and a vision for which they are ready to die. A corrupt leadership cannot fulfill this role. The difference can be seen between the low morale in Herat 1995 or Jalalabad 1996, which was due to corruption among the leadership. Meanwhile in Kabul, Massoud had to force his people to leave Kabul because their morale was too strong. Elections in 2013, one year early, could provide a chance to elect such a leader.

Afghanistan needs to find a way to sustain its forces even after foreign funding is drastically reduced.

The Taliban's hegemony with regards to the claim that they are the "true defenders of Islam" needs to be shattered as they are not. What is the true Islam?! This needs to be defined and defended by Muslim leaders against the Deobandi and Wahhabi aspirations of extremists planting the seed of hatred all over the world.

Preventive strategies against mobile warfare and infiltration into major cities need to be developed.

Crucial border crossing points need to be secured.

And, time and again, the international community needs to put pressure on Pakistan, two-thirds of whose budget in 1999 was funded by international loans and credits. One of the greatest dangers to Pakistan would be if it was to be officially listed as a sponsor of terrorism. Without Pakistan all the Taliban would have been left with would have been religious symbolism. But Afghanistan also needs to deal responsibly with Pakistan's concerns such as over the disputed Durand border. The border dispute needs to be resolved in front of the United Nations once and for all. Strategic over-expansionism by Pakistan needs to be replaced by economic cooperation and the establishment of stable trade routes.

Other anti-Taliban forces could have reinforced government forces as the Taliban were approaching Kabul, but they were just standing by. With the allies waiting until the last moment to support each other, they were all decisively weakened and pushed into a corner. Such shall not be repeated.

Last one of the most important things, a population is not going to back a force involved in atrocities and corruption even if the other force is committing worse atrocities. Anti-Taliban forces need to create mechanisms controlling their own forces leading to trust among the general population. Dostum and the Wahdat have never created such mechanisms. When Massoud was in Kabul, he too could not control all of his forces, some turning criminal. But when Massoud was in the north during the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance he was able to control most of his commanders and this led to strong support among the population.

4 comments:

  1. Why would the taliban decide to talk to people that literally destroyed Kabul from 1992-1996? Not a single woman was left alone and not a single child was safe! Thanks to Allah Massoud and Rabbani are dead!

    By the way, you've made major spelling errors. I advice you to improve your English.

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