Why the Afghan government army failed to defend the capital Kabul against the Taliban remains a mystery. Also for an ex-soldier like Teun Baartman, who fought together with Afghan soldiers. “Maybe the army didn’t want to fight in the city, because you don’t benefit from your long-range weapons there, but you run the risk of making a lot of civilian casualties,” says Baartman. “Perhaps the soldiers lacked the will to fight.”
The latter seems to play a major role in the rapid crumbling of the Afghan government army, into which the US has invested tens of billions of dollars and many thousands of hours of training. Otherwise it is difficult to explain how this army has been rounded up by the Taliban without a fight since the (announced) departure of the Americans, says Baartman. “Because the Taliban are not such a formidable adversary militarily. They are mainly weekend soldiers with only one real quality: a high willingness to die.”
Baartman, now a retired colonel, emphasizes that his view on matters is “just one of many views of soldiers and veterans”. But in 2007 he was commander of a unit that trained Afghan soldiers during the Uruzgan mission (2006-2010). And last week he looked with extra attention at the images of the Taliban entering the former Camp Holland in Uruzgan. “I saw how the Taliban confiscated equipment. I drove there myself with a huge convoy in 2007.”
The Taliban are weekend soldiers with only one quality: a high willingness to die
What were you doing in Uruzgan?
“With about seventy Dutch soldiers we built an Afghan brigade of 2,500 men, with infantry battalions and relatively light weapons. It was training while you fight. We accompanied Afghans in operations and taught them things they couldn’t do, such as applying for air support. Those Afghan soldiers were mainly in the army to earn money for their families. That became one of the problems.”
“An Afghan soldier risks his life for his salary, literally. Only in my period of several months have twelve Afghans died in my small unit; compare that with the twenty-five Dutch people who died in total in the Uruzgan years. The Afghans came from all over the country, were far from their families and were on leave once every six months; then they had to be lucky that there was just a flight to their house. These men often received little or no salary. And it has remained that way.”
While there was still enough money?
“Yes, but that money comes in at the top of a ministry. Then everyone skims off their share, so that in the end there is nothing left for soldiers. We call that corruption. In Afghanistan this is seen as: because the government does not arrange anything for you, you do it yourself for your family and tribe. In order to get money to the soldiers anyway, you have to build a reliable administrative system, with pencil pickers, receipts and checks. The Americans did have a network of administrators, but they were special forces who drove with large bags of money from Kabul to various headquarters – without knowledge. The fact that the money has hardly reached the soldiers, if at all, is part of the explanation for why the will to fight seems to be lacking.”
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Why is that will so important?
“That mental component is one of the three pillars of the military profession, in addition to the physical component such as learning to shoot, and the conceptual component, which includes things like leadership and planning. Many people have the TV series Camp of Koningsbrugge seen and think: after a few weeks everyone is commando. Teaching an infantryman to shoot is indeed not that difficult. Building a military force with a mental component is a different story. Two things are essential in an army: an assignment is sacred and a comrade will never abandon you under any circumstances. You only get that by training, living, practicing and being formed in that culture for a long time. That takes years!”
The West was there for twenty years
“That is not true. The Netherlands only started seriously training the Afghan army in 2007 and stopped doing so in 2010 for politically opportunistic reasons when the Uruzgan mission came to an end. In my opinion, we should have invested longer in the Afghan army, for a successful exit strategy.”
Were you surprised that the Afghan army collapsed so quickly?
„No, not really, because the high end support has completely disappeared: logistics, fire support, air support. That is the higher school of military action and the Afghans are not ready for that yet. They now only have soldiers with long coats and guns. Even against an adversary like the Taliban, who are also not that much militarily, that is very difficult. This affects the mental state of the Afghan soldiers. They now think: I can walk out the gate, but without support I am a target.”