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NYT: Uptick in surrender rates of Afghan forces?

May 27, 2021

Summary: The flow of defections and desertions between government and Taliban forces is probably a good indicator of the direction the conflict is headed.  The New York Times report that the negotiated surrender rate of Afghan government forces to the insurgents is speeding up.

The RAND National Defense Research Institute produced an interesting study in 2010 that looked at how insurgencies end.  The paper, by Ben Connable and Martin Libicki, studied 89 insurgencies of varying duration, intensity and character.  They rightly and carefully caveated their findings, cautioning against taking generalised historical findings as a prescription for dealing with current insurgencies.  In 2010, they clearly meant Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have always found the report a useful place to kick-start my thinking.  For this blogpost, I am purely focused on Afghanistan. 

I will crudely sketch in their key findings for context, highlighting in bold the issue I am thinking about today and putting my general comments in square brackets.  I think I need to look through all these findings again and revisit the report in slower time:

Key findings:

  • Modern insurgencies last approximately 10 years and the government’s chances of winning increase slightly over time
  • Withdrawal of state sponsorship [i.e. Pakistan] cripples an insurgency and can lead to its defeat 
  • Inconsistent or impartial support to either side generally presages defeat [i.e. what international support will the Afghan government be able to rely on post-2021?]
  • Anocracies (pseudo democracies) [the flawed Afghan government?] do not often succeed against insurgencies

Key indicators of the progress of the insurgency:

  • The rate of desertions, defections and infiltrations can often indicate significant trends in the course of the conflict
  • The willingness/unwillingness of the civilian population to report on insurgent activity reflects govt COIN success or failure

Additional findings:

  • Complex insurgencies, with more than two protagonists, lead to messier and more protracted endings [what happens when warlords and other factions get involved?]
  • Over the long run, it is more common for governments to outlast insurgents – going against conventional wisdom [i.e. the Taliban’s “they have all the watches but we have all the time”]
  • Insurgencies perform better with a command hierarchy and rural terrain
  • Terrorism often backfires – indiscriminate terror is often a sign of over-confidence or weakness
  • Weak insurgents can win
  • Sanctuary is vital to insurgencies [i.e. Pakistan]

The study offers up the idea of rates of defections and desertions as a potentially useful indicator for the direction in which the conflict was tipping.  The New York Times has a concerning article out today highlighting the increasing pace of surrenders by government forces to the Taliban.  Laghman province is the main subject of the report:

“Ammunition was depleted inside the bedraggled outposts in Laghman Province. Food was scarce. Some police officers hadn’t been paid in five months.

Then, just as American troops began leaving the country in early May, Taliban fighters besieged seven rural Afghan military outposts across the wheat fields and onion patches of the province, in eastern Afghanistan.

The insurgents enlisted village elders to visit the outposts bearing a message: Surrender or die.

By mid-month, security forces had surrendered all seven outposts after extended negotiations, according to village elders. At least 120 soldiers and police were given safe passage to the government-held provincial center in return for handing over weapons and equipment… Since May 1, at least 26 outposts and bases in just four provinces — Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni — have surrendered after such negotiations, according to village elders and government officials. With morale diving as American troops leave, and the Taliban seizing on each surrender as a propaganda victory, each collapse feeds the next in the Afghan countryside.

Among the negotiated surrenders were four district centers, which house local governors, police and intelligence chiefs — effectively handing the government facilities to Taliban control and scattering the officials there, at least temporarily.  The Taliban have negotiated Afghan troop surrenders in the past, but never at the scale and pace of the base collapses this month in the four provinces extending east, north and west of Kabul. The tactic has removed hundreds of government forces from the battlefield, secured strategic territory and reaped weapons, ammunition and vehicles for the Taliban — often without firing a shot.

The base collapses are one measure of the rapidly deteriorating government war effort as one outpost after another falls, sometimes after battles, but often after wholesale surrenders.

The surrenders are part of a broader Taliban playbook of seizing and holding territory as security force morale plummets with the exit of international troops… The surrenders are the work of Taliban Invitation and Guidance Committees, which intervene after insurgents cut off roads and supplies to surrounded outposts. Committee leaders or Taliban military leaders phone base commanders — and sometimes their families — and offer to spare troops’ lives if they surrender their outposts, weapons and ammunition.

In several cases, the committees have given surrendering troops money — typically around $130 — and civilian clothes and sent them home unharmed. But first they videotape the men as they promise not to rejoin the security forces. They log their phone numbers and the names of family members — and vow to kill the men if they rejoin the military.

“The Taliban commander and the Invitation and Guidance Committee called me more than 10 times and asked me to surrender,” said Maj. Imam Shah Zafari, 34, a district police chief in Wardak Province who surrendered his command center and weapons on May 11 after negotiations mediated by local elders.

After the Taliban provided a car ride home to Kabul, he said, a committee member phoned to assure him that the government would not imprison him for surrendering. “He said, ‘We have so much power in the government and we can release you,’” Major Zafari said.

The Taliban committees take advantage of a defining characteristic of Afghan wars: Fighters and commanders regularly switch sides, cut deals, negotiate surrenders and cultivate village elders for influence with local residents.”

There doesn’t appear to be any significant government punishment for desertion.  Desertion has been a major problem in the ANA – I might even call it commonplace.[1]  In the early years of the ANA’s creation, soldiers would spontaneously return to their homes and villages to help with the harvest or to physically hand over their wages in the absence of electronic banking systems, or during the winter (traditionally the end of the “fighting season”) or for Ramadan.  Others have deserted out of frustration – lack of wages, food, uniforms, time off, poor equipment or corruption in the senior levels of command.  More recently, high levels of casualties in the war against the Taliban are a more worrying reason for desertion to increase.  SIGAR report the ANA as currently at only 75% of its official strength.[2] Most of the efforts to curb desertion in the ANA revolve around improving the conditions of the soldiers – wages, living conditions, food and contact with home.  I do not know the precise punishments for deserting from the Afghan National Army – or even if there is a set of formal penalties.  One report in 2015 from the US military journal, Stars and Stripes, suggested that there was no official penalty (my highlight in bold): 

“Matiullah Laghmani was done with the army.  One day in 2013 he asked the army trainers at his base for a day of urgent home leave, then never returned.  The Afghan security forces are losing some 4,000 members per month, American officials say, an attrition considered among the highest in recent military history.  While battlefield casualties, which have increased over last year, account for some of the losses, the vast majority are soldiers and policemen who, like Laghmani, simply go absent without leave, Gen. John Campbell, commander of the NATO-led coalition, said recently.  Like many other recruits, Laghmani, 25, had turned to the army as his only chance for employment. But only a few months later, his family began receiving threats from the Taliban.

‘The army was the only option for me, but very soon I realized that my family will suffer if I stayed there,’ he said.

There is no legal penalty for soldiers and police who decide to quit before their term of enlistment is complete.”[3] The Afghan government and military are not well resourced to prosecute desertion and do not appear to treat it as a serious crime – it is too commonplace: high casualties, low morale, poor treatment and low pay are some of the reasons for high levels of desertion. 

What is being described here does not entirely fit the Connable and Libicki definitions of either desertion or defection.  But it certainly seems to have an effect in areas where the local security forces are under-resourced, unsupported and with low morale. It seems to be a well-structured process of negotiation and agreement – including documenting and photographing – by which the Afghan security forces agree to take themselves off the battlefield.  However, it is also fair to note that when an Afghan fighter defects, deserts or withdraws from the battlefield, he may not stay in that situation indefinitely: a perceived change in military or financial fortunes could see fighters returning to the fray on the same side or a different side.

 Need to keep an eye on this.


[1] Amani, S., and MacAskill, A., ‘Desertions deplete Afghan forces, adding to security worries’, Reuters, 18 Jan. 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-army-desertions/desertions-deplete-afghan-forces-adding-to-security-worries-idUSKCN0UW1K3

[2] ‘Quarterly Report to the United States Congress’, SIGAR, 30 July 2019, https://www.sigar.mil/, p.64.

[3] Smith, J., ‘Tide of desertions – among highest in recent history – strains Afghan forces’, Stars and Stripes, 3 Sep. 2015, https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/tide-of-desertions-among-highest-in-recent-history-strains-afghan-forces-1.366071

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