How do the Afghan forces and the Taleban compare?

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KABUL – The Taleban now control around half of Afghanistan’s districts after lightning offensives in the months since foreign troops began their withdrawal from the country.

But analysts and officials said their military victory is far from guaranteed, pointing to the ability and resources of the Afghan defence forces, who remain in control of major cities.

Here is how the two forces compare:

Personnel

The total strength of the Afghan national security forces – including the army, special forces, the air force, police, and intelligence – was more than 307,000 at the end of April, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a report last week.

The combat forces available on any given day are likely around 180,000, according to an estimate by Jonathan Schroden of military think tank CNA.

The precise strength of the Taleban, on the other hand, is not accurately known. UN Security Council monitors last year said the group had between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters.

Funding

Foreign assistance is critical for Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations in the world.

Its military has required US$5-6 billion (S$6.7 – 8.1 billion) a year, according to the US Congressional Research Service. Washington has usually provided around 75 per cent of it, and has pledged continued support.

Taleban finances are unclear. Their revenues are estimated between US$300 million (S$404 million) to $1.5 a year, according to UN monitors.

They generate funds from the country’s huge narcotics industry, through extortion of businesses, other criminal activities, and by imposing taxes in the areas under their control, the monitors said.

“Based on information available… it is clear that the Taleban are not struggling with respect to recruitment, funding, weapons or ammunition,” they added.

Pakistan, Iran and Russia have been accused by Washington and Kabul of supplying the Taleban with resources and advisory support, but all three deny the allegations.

Weapons and equipment

The United States spent tens of billions of dollars to raise and equip the Afghan military after it toppled the previous Taleban regime in 2001.

Afghan forces possess a technological advantage over the Taleban, using a wide variety of Western-made weapons, including modern assault rifles, night-vision goggles, armoured vehicles, artillery and small surveillance drones.

They also have something the Taleban cannot match: an air force. The Afghan military has an available fleet of 167 aircraft, including attack helicopters, SIGAR reported.

The Taleban on the other hand have mainly used the small arms and light weapons that flooded Afghanistan over decades of conflict – such as Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifles – while also procuring them from regional black markets, analysts say.

In addition to sniper rifles and machine guns, the insurgents have also deployed rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other small rockets, while also trying to use some anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons with success, Taleban expert Antonio Giustozzi wrote in a 2019 book on the group.

Suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been among the deadliest weapons the Taleban have used against Afghan and foreign forces.

The Taleban have also captured and used Western-made weapons and equipment supplied to the Afghan military, including night-vision devices, assault rifles and vehicles.

Cohesion and morale

Afghan forces have had their confidence tested for years, suffering high casualties, corruption, desertions, and now the departure of foreign troops and the end of US air support.

Poor planning and leadership have also been blamed for low morale.

The Taleban, on the other hand, have displayed greater cohesion despite reports of internal rifts in recent years, analysts say, pointing to religious zeal as well as the promise of material gains as contributing factors.

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