Afghanistan's Coming Coup?

The Military Isn't Too Weak -- It's Too Strong

Afghan National Army soldiers march during their graduation ceremony, Sept 2010.
Afghan National Army soldiers march during their graduation ceremony, Sept 2010. (ISAF Media)

In February 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan after ten years of brutal counterinsurgency warfare. International observers and Afghan rebels expected the swift collapse of the newly orphaned Afghan communist regime in Kabul, as did the regime itself. Looking to take advantage of the government’s weakness, the Afghan mujahideen temporarily put aside their differences and planned an ambitious assault on Jalalabad, the country's second most important Pashtun stronghold. In March, the rebels rallied a force of some 10,000 soldiers and marched on the city.

They failed spectacularly. Bolstered by Soviet arms, training, and advisers, the Afghan army and its allies easily outgunned, outmaneuvered, and outgeneraled the oncoming force. Although the mujahideen had mastered guerilla tactics and defensive maneuvers on their home turf, they proved incompetent at carrying out a conventional offensive; poor leadership and factional disputes undermined their fighting power. Three years later, the communist regime finally did collapse -- not because it was overrun by the superior fighting abilities of the Afghan rebels but because Russia stopped funding its security forces.

There is no shortage of experts who warn of the impending demise of the current Afghan government after the withdrawal of most NATO military forces at the end of this year. In 2012, the International Crisis Group, for example, warned of a possible “state collapse.” The military historian Tom Ricks wrote that Kabul’s fall was “all too likely.” Yet the case of 1989 suggests the opposite outcome: the Afghan government is likely to survive the withdrawal of international troops, just as the communist regime did, and it stands a good chance of surviving so long as international donors keep the Afghan army in the field. Although Afghans should expect some decrease in international aid, donors -- many fearful that state collapse in Afghanistan could trigger instability in Pakistan -- are unlikely to end their military assistance anytime soon.

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