20 years into the War in Afghanistan, the US is in the same position as the Soviets when they lost

The Taliban insurgency is growing.

After nearly two decades of fighting, the U.S. military is facing a force of Taliban fighters that is roughly the size of the Mujahideen insurgency at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Soviet Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Lyakhovskiy, a respected historian, estimated that by the end of 1988 the Mujahideen fielded about 82,300 full-time fighters out of a total of 173,000 personnel.

Fast forward a couple of decades and a May 2020 United Nations report estimated that the Taliban have between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters, adding: “Taliban facilitators and non-combatants could bring the total figure to 100,000.”     

The Taliban’s ranks have swelled immensely since 2014, which marked the official end of the U.S. military’s combat mission in Afghanistan, said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Center for Stability and Development at CNA, a federally funded research and development center.

“When you go back to 2014, that time frame, the sort of official estimates of Taliban size you can find quoted openly by U.S. officials was in the 20-30,000 range,” Schroden said. “Certainly since then, it’s just continued to grow.”

Schroden, who recently authored a paper for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center about the size of the Taliban, said the “common wisdom these days” is the Taliban have around full-time 60,000 fighters – give or take 20%.

20 years into the War in Afghanistan, the US is in the same position as the Soviets when they lost

But one expert has estimated the Taliban also have up to 90,000 “part-time militia-type fighters,” along with additional personnel that make up a support network, Schroden said.

“All of those numbers are likely to be wrong by some degree, but the bottom line is it’s pretty clear that the Taliban insurgency has pretty markedly increased in size over the last five to seven years,” Schroden said.

The Defense Department is “well aware” of the United Nations estimate that the Taliban have up to 85,000 fighters, said Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, who referred follow-on questions on the matter to the United Nations.

“While estimates and analysis of historic adversarial force levels and corresponding operational capacities remain important, it is more important to focus on the FUTURE of Afghanistan and the historic opportunity for peace now at hand,” Lodewick said.

“When all agree that there remains no military solution to conflict in Afghanistan, counting bad guy boots achieves only so much,” he continued. “The path to a lasting peace in Afghanistan remains an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process capable of achieving a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. DoD remains focused on supporting this peace process.”

At the moment though, the Taliban appear to have the upper hand – decreasing any chances that they would be willing to make any concessions as part of a peace settlement with the Afghan government.

One of the most important factors driving the growth of the Taliban has been the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government, both of which have worsened in recent years, Schroden said.

These chronic problems are pushing the Afghan population toward the insurgency – or at least away from the government, he explained.

“The average Afghans find themselves kind of squeezed between the government that really doesn’t do anything for them and this insurgency that is increasingly controlling larger and larger swaths of the country – and looks like it has the momentum in a lot of ways,” Schroden said.

President Joe Biden is now considering whether to honor an agreement with the Taliban that calls for withdrawing the remaining 3,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May or keeping a military force in the country as leverage as the Afghan government negotiates a peace deal with the Taliban.

In a recent interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Biden described the withdrawal agreement struck under President Donald Trump’s administration as “not a very solidly negotiated deal.”

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

The president indicated that his deliberations on whether to end the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan would not last too much longer. While it is still possible that all troops could leave by May 1, it would be “tough” to meet that deadline, he said.

Even so, the enemy still gets a vote, as retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda noted in a recent interview with Vox: “We’ve had a false sense of confidence over the past 14 months in which the Taliban have not attacked any US bases or facilities,” said Kolenda, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and advised top defense leaders on strategy. “If we tear up the agreement, we can look forward to a Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Some of those major attacks are going to be much more successful than the Tet Offensive was.”

When the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in February 1989, its client government in Kabul managed to survive for three years because the Soviets provided a lifeline of military aid and other assistance.

But then the Soviet Union collapsed and Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided to end the assistance to the Afghan government that kept it alive. Afghan troops stopped getting paid and deserted.

Kabul fell in April 1992 and rival warlords fought a bloody civil war with each other that only ended when the Taliban assumed control of most of Afghanistan in September 1996.

One major difference between the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and now is the Taliban are not showing any serious signs of splintering into warring factions as the Mujahideen did following the departure of the Red Army, Schroden said.

The Taliban view Afghanistan’s elected leaders as foreign puppets, so as long as the central government continues to exist, it will provide the Taliban a unifying reason to fight, he said.

Separately, the Taliban have learned from the civil war and have spent a lot of time and energy over the past several years trying to maintain their internal cohesion, frustrating the U.S. government’s efforts to peel off Taliban commanders, he said.

On the other side of the conflict: The Afghan government is “nowhere near to being self-reliant” and is wholly dependent upon foreign assistance to pay its troops, police, and other security forces, according to a report recently released by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

As it weighs whether to withdraw all of its troops, the U.S. government must also decide whether or not to continue reconstruction aid for Afghanistan, the report said.

“It could be a critical decision, for it was not the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 that led to the collapse of Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah’s regime in 1992, but the end of Soviet security assistance,” the report says.

Much like then, the fate of the current Afghan government hinges on continued foreign support.

If the United States withdrew all of its troops without a peace settlement, the Afghan government could probably hold on for one to two years as long as the U.S. government continued to pay the salaries of Afghan troops and police, Schroden said.

“I have yet to find someone who disagrees with the idea that if the U.S. also stopped paying for the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces], that the Afghan government wouldn’t just collapse in relatively short order,” Schroden said.

Featured image: A column of armored vehicles crosses the Afghan-Soviet border on the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River. (V. Kiselev/Sputnik via AP.)

Jeff Schogol
Jeff Schogol

is the senior Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years. You can email him at schogol@taskandpurpose.com, direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter, or reach him on WhatsApp and Signal at 703-909-6488. Contact the author here.

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