How the medieval Taliban overawed 21st century US military

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Guest article by Col Satish Tyagi (Retd)

What shocked the world the most about the Taliban was their blazing speed and unpredicted victory against the mighty US Army, which was equipped with the most modern and next generation arms and ammunition. The Americans used the “Mother of all Bombs”, drones, helicopters and aircraft and several other Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven weapons of war and assistive devices including satellite imagery in Afghanistan. All that the Taliban had were a few AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), a few hand-held and shoulder-fired missiles and some captured arms and equipment. The Taliban moved around in pick-up trucks and motorcycles, while the Americans used Chinooks and other helicopters and heavy armed multipurpose vehicles.

To overcome certain handicaps, the Taliban formed several alliances with various groups with similar ideologies coming from other parts of the world and received major support from Pakistan as well as China. Despite all this, a 30,000-strong Taliban force was no match to the US-led coalition. Still the Taliban emerged victorious against all odds and at unprecedented speed, without a bloodbath—an unthinkable outcome just a few days back. So how did they do it? Was there a deal between the Taliban and the Americans?

It is the second time that the reins of Afghanistan are in the hands of Taliban. Their journey began amidst the backdrop of the withdrawal of Soviet forces, who faced the Mujahideen, from Afghanistan in 1989. The Soviet-Afghan war gave to the Taliban a core leadership who were battle-inoculated to fight a western superpower. This gave them experience and expertise in the use of modern weapons of that time—RPG, RL, Stingers, communication equipment, etc. They also learnt that the use of local terrain is their greatest advantage against an invader. This war laid the groundwork in Pakistan for the creation of the Taliban who are but a carry-over of the Mujahideen, The Taliban took a formal shape in 1994 and grouped themselves mainly in the rural areas of Kandahar, the ethnic-Pashtun heartland in Afghanistan. The Taliban may have been a bunch of illiterate rabble then, but the defeat in 2001 and twenty years of war have been an evolving process that caused them to introspect. At inception, the Taliban were a Pashtun-dominated and driven insurgent group with their core fighters from the madrasas of Pakistan and their leaders primarily clerics from southern Afghanistan. But they realized that if they wanted their movement to be a pan-Afghanistan insurrection, then they would have to introduce other ethnic groups into the leadership councils and fighting ranks. Taliban, that took Afghanistan by storm, are a force of fighters ethnically belonging to the provinces that fell with such ease to the Taliban onslaught.

Besides a few captured helicopters without any trained pilots to fly them, the Taliban do not possess helicopters or gunships to command, let alone an air force or the navy. The Taliban do not have any sophisticated weapons or means of communication and do not have a defence production base to support the supply chain and hierarchical command structure based on a unit/battalion, but even then, they have delivered against the US led forces. When the world is talking about entering a new phase of warfare where drones, AI and cyberwarfare would be the new order of the day, experts seem to have been proven wrong and pushed back by a few decades. On the other hand, reportedly 40% of the US aircraft/helicopters under the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have been shifted to Uzbekistan and the rest have either been disabled or destroyed by the Americans before withdrawal to make sure Taliban do not use them in future. A few helicopters are in Panjshir with the caretaker President Amrullah Saleh.

The Taliban remain a movement with a medieval mindset, therefore it concentrated its battles in the remote backward territories of Afghanistan where the population for most parts were ideologically in tune with the Taliban. These were its recruitment grounds and areas from where they expanded their reach. The Taliban always adopted small team asymmetrical tactics and fought around villages groupings of villages on grounds of their choosing that the US and Afghan troops could never seem to hold. The strength of the Taliban is their over simplistic command, control and operational structure based on local or geographic administrative support. It is loosely knit, and a complete loss of any module doesn’t affect the overall efficiency. No formal orders and strict adherence are needed from any commander to use his ingenuity to perpetuate the regime’s Islamic guidelines and edicts.

One of the specific characteristics about Taliban that stands out in their favour is the patience with which they bided their time for two decades against the Americans. They knew there would be a time when the US would lose its patience when American body bags fly back home. President Donald Trump provided this opportunity when he decided to make a deal with the Taliban and went on to declare that the US forces would leave Afghanistan by mid-2021. In his turn, President Joe Biden was under pressure to keep his election promise of US troops withdrawal and therefore a bloodbath at this juncture would have added more pressure on him to keep the US troops in Afghanistan. The zero resistance offered by the Afghan forces in 17 provinces fits into this scheme of things and those who were putting up a fight, e.g. the western Herat commander Ismail Khan, were reportedly cheated and handed over to the Taliban by their own colleagues.

As per a source, these pro US Afghan commanders have been or are being moved to US with their family, close relatives and associates. Perhaps a deal with the Taliban was struck to allow US troops withdrawal without a bloodbath and in return a national government with the Taliban as a main partner was on the cards. As per the source, President Ashraf Ghani did not subscribe to this idea. The withdrawal of US troops therefore was hastened up by 25 days to ensure no disruption to the deal. The flight of President Ghani first to Tajikistan and finally to UAE and not to the US supports this argument.

The second winning point about Taliban is that they continued with their dominance on the minds of Afghans through instilling fear that if anyone betrayed them, the consequences would be unforgiving and brutal. The frequent suicide attacks, targeted assassinations, Green-on-Blue insider attacks, all lowered the morale of the Afghan troops and made them feel vulnerable, inferior and in awe of the reach of the Taliban into their most highly protected areas/zones. Over two decades the Taliban thus created this fear psychosis that caused the greater portion of the ANDSF to desert or surrender.

The third “winning” point about the Taliban have been to conserve their cadre and not unnecessarily seek confrontation with them. This was further enhanced when the Americans responded in equal measure unlike the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, who went out on the ground to hunt for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) who were stronger, better trained and organized than the Taliban. The author is one of the veterans of this phase of Indian Armed Forces’ history. The Americans believe in the use of technology and massive punishment of the target with the use of unique weapons and multiple platforms from a stand-off position instead of engaging with the opponent at close quarters. Forty-eight bases throughout the length and breadth of Afghanistan were established by the US-led coalition. The Bagram Airbase was the central hub of activities, from where the actions were coordinated and monitored. These bases had several manned outposts surrounding them. The US patrols were mainly on vehicles which were ambushed by the Taliban on the ground at a time of their own choosing. This is where the US troops got maximum casualties when the Taliban struck.

While the prolonged war has ended, the current version of Taliban, having just taken over the reins of Afghanistan, will face the acid test once they are faced with holding on to all the factions and warlords together. The withdrawal of the US troops has provided the opportunity to those who have waited for long to extract their pound of flesh as well as share the spoils of war. But, before all this happens, a bugle has already been sounded against Taliban by the people of Afghanistan.

Col Satish Tyagi is a veteran of the Indian Army who fought in the IPKF, Sri Lanka and took part in the Kargil war. He is the founder of the Counter Terrorism School in Kashmir. He has authored several books and the latest one is “The Kargil Victory: Battles from Peak to Peak” based on his experiences in the war.

Original article was published at:

36 thoughts

  1. Good read
    What happened to the Afghan Air Force?
    Did US took away all the choppers and bombers with them?
    Seems like an agreement between Ghani, US and Taliban as almost no fighting occurred in last 2 days.

    1. Thanks.
      No, as the article says 40% of choppers and planes have flown down to Tajikistan. Some with Vice Pres and balance with the Taliban.

  2. Mission creep and feckless US civilian leadership doomed the US military to faiure in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

      1. My God but the intel and propaganda opportunities for America’s enemies are incalculable.

        This is staggering.

  3. The difference between President Trump and Biden is that President Trump listened to his advisers. Although President Trump was naive when he entered office, Biden is inept. I was appalled at how quickly so many people’s lives were destroyed because Biden didn’t listen to good advice.

    I’ve mentioned before that our founders warned us not to become embroiled in foreign wars. We were warned to be diligent. We were given the tools to create — and to keep — a great nation and we didn’t heed their warnings. You are witnessing the result.

    1. The moment a nation loses focus, that is the day decline starts. When one is at the top it’s downhill all around. Apt leaders give that balance to be at the apex, nothing much is expected from them.

  4. Very good article. Looking at the larger picture, which I know you do, the US has lost a foothold in the middle of Asia. China will exploit this. The Afghans may have little use for drones and helicopters, but they now have trade items and China is in the market for US military technology, to adapt it or combat it. Pakistan celebrated the Taliban victory and may gain leverage against India. With the US gone, India loses another prop against China. I suspect China will be reluctant to empower the Afghans very much. They have Muslim problems and Afghanistan is en route to Xinjiang. So it goes.

    1. Soon or later, China would be on the receiving end. It is just a matter of time. Till that time we have to prepare for the propaganda war from China.
      India is aware of all Pakistani tricks. Indian strategists have ignored China for too long and we are paying price for that.

  5. Thank you for posting this, I so appreciate hearing analysis from ‘foreign’ veterans (as an American civilian). Do you think it’s possible that ‘playing the fool’ is actually a US military strategy? I’m thinking of it in terms of playing dumb, which we call ‘country dumb’ and celebrate actually, as inspired by great literary characters like “the Good Soldier Sveik” promoted in fictionalized popular war propaganda like Hogan’s Heroes and Mash.

    1. I suppose at some point American strategists realized the futility if American forces in Afghanistan. Till the time a nation is not ready to take a stand for itself no one can help. We saw how a force of 200k collapsed in no time without putting up a fight. At least now US will be able to dedicate itself to Quad. Execution of evacuation of the forces and understanding if Pak-China intentions could have been better though.

  6. This superb article helps somebody like me understand why the Taliban have won the day in Afghanistan, but I think we now need somebody who can tell us how to get out of this shit before the superpowers meet head to head. Russia and China are no doubt laughing up their sleeve, but no good will come of it if the Western Alliance, and the US in particular, are pushed into a corner they they will have to fight their way out of – or maybe they can’t.

    1. I am sure strategists of all mature democracies are burning midnight oil to tackle this Gordian Knot. It is time to stay united. A barrage of propaganda is coming our way in next few months.

  7. The bloodbath is coming, once the Taliban ids all the Christians and Hazara people and of any who cooperated with the US and Britain. The locals in Bamyan and Mazir-e-sharif say the Taliban’s promise of reform is all a PR smoke screen until the Americans leave the airport. Currently going door-to-door according to friends in Kabul, to get names and ages of any females SIX YEARS OLD or older! Guess why.

    1. Agree with you. In my assessment, things will start going bad in months. It is not in their nature to be a normal human being.

  8. If the USA wanted to do nation building in Afghanistan, then needed to stay for at least one generation. Twenty years is far too short. The British as colonisers, to the detriment if the colonised I hasten to add, went in for the long haul and a couple of hundred years was quite acceptable.

    That is why I am an Australian with my family coming here from Britain starting in 1794, as we stole this continent from the Aboriginal peoples of this land. (I write this while on the land of the Kaurna People and pay my respects.)

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