New reports out of Afghanistan shed new light on the recent military gains made by the Taliban. Apparently, one of the key reasons for the Taliban’s success is that as much as 40% of the local Afghan security forces exist are ghost soldiers, in that they exist only on paper.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because the exact same thing has happened in Iraq and helped explain how the Islamic State was able to overrun Iraqi forces so quickly in the summer of 2014.
In these cases, some of the ghost soldiers tend to be real people who simply don’t show up for duty. In Iraq, there were cases where soldiers would arrange to give their commanders a cut of their pay to avoid actually doing any real work. (Er, win-win?) Other times, the “soldiers” are entirely fabricated to so the commanders can take the extra compensation for themselves. Either way, they are little help in fighting insurgents, and they represent a gaping flaw in the “They’ll stand up; we’ll stand down” theory of American support.
After destroying the ruling regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US attempted to support the successor governments militarily by offering weapons and training. Though the details were different, the reality is that both successor regimes started on very unstable footing. Iraq’s new Shia-led government lacked legitimacy among the minority Sunnis who were justifiably fearful of reprisals after they had been favored under Saddam. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, we essentially re-empowered the corrupt warlords that had been thrown out by the Taliban. The new Afghan government was thus deeply unpopular from the start. It is in this context that the US attempted to prop up and support the new regimes. In theory, this was also our endgame. If we could successfully arm and train the new regimes, we would eventually be able to disengage without an immediate collapse in our wake. This is what is meant by the cliche I mentioned above: They’ll take responsibility for ensuring their security; we’ll get the hell out of there.
Obviously, the flaw of this theory was built-in. If we focus just on Afghanistan, we realize that the local security forces were being asked to serve a government of former warlords, that was created by an occupying army, that just spent several months bombing them and their countrymen. That is not an inspiring cause to fight for. The pay offered by the military may have convinced many desperate people to sign up, but it’s easy to see that few would be fully invested. The evidence is in the results. Attacks by Afghan security forces against their American and NATO counterparts are so frequent they have a special name–Green-on-Blue attacks. The outgunned and outnumbered Taliban continue to achieve military victories. And now there’s evidence some of the existing soldiers simply don’t show up.
The problem of the literal ghost soldiers is somehow even worse than all of this. Here, we see that even those commanders that stand to gain the most in terms of personal status and prestige by achieving military victory, are so corrupt that they are happy to just siphon off paychecks instead. When even the people in power don’t care about the success of their government, there’s no chance the average citizen will.
Ultimately, this story reiterates once again the profound limitations of US influence, yes, even our military. We can destroy a great many things, but we are powerless to put them back together. Whether we want to admit it or not, Afghanistan is destined to collapse and just a couple more years of NATO training are not going to change that reality. Our continued presence has amounted to nothing more than delaying the inevitable. The Taliban is likely to return to power. At this point, it’s worth remembering that the Taliban came to power initially because they were better than the warlord alternative. It may be a sad commentary on the corruption of Afghan, that the Taliban were the best option. But it was true then, and it may be true now as well. In the West, we may be appalled by this outcome, but we fail to grasp the alternative. The Taliban may be bad for human rights, but it’s hard to see how perpetual war is any better.