The Taliban-led "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" lacked the administrative efficiency of a state. The military did not exist on a national basis. Some elements of the former Army, Air and Air Defense Forces, National Guard, Border Guard Forces, National Police Force (Sarandoi), and tribal militias existed, but were factionalized among various groups. The Taliban's "army" was a coalition of militia formations composed of assorted armed groups with varying degrees of loyalty, commitment, skill, and organizational coherence. Many had a history of switching sides and shifting loyalties prior to coming under the nominal command of the Taliban. The Taliban government relied on local forces to hold noncontested areas, deploying combat units for the front.
The militia included various formations led by former mujahideen commanders, tribal contingents, seasonal conscripts, and foreign "volunteers. Some elite militia units were formed under faction leaders, with troops recruited from religious schools (the madrassas) and led by veterans of the earlier wars. The combat potential of these units, which ranged in strength from a few dozen to several hundred soldiers, depended on the influence of their leaders and the availability of resources. At times several units could be grouped into ad-hoc task forces for major combat actions under a temporary commander.
The number of troops changed with the operational situation, with the core strength of about 25,000 troops increasing to as many as 40,000 during major military offensives. Massive conscription drives preceded the Taliban's major military campaigns.
Since the emergence of the Taliban, beginning in 1995, there had been a resurgence of the jihadist elements from outside Afghanistan. By the late 1990s these combatants were estimated by some sources to number 8,000-12,000, a significantly larger presence than was the case during the struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. These foreign combatants were better organised than before, and in some cases equipped with heavier weapons than their earlier counterparts.
Osama bin Laden helped Afghanistan in the resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s with money, and he recruited many Arabs to fight with the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. Perhaps as early as 1987 he had determined to struggle against the secular governments of the Muslim Middle East and their Western supporters. Before the Gulf war he had cooperated with the US in the Afghan resistance, but he became an open opponent of the US after the Gulf War when American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, after US pressure forced him to leave Sudan. His arrival marked a turning point in the Afghan civil war, helping the Taliban buy off rival warlords and organizing military forces that contributed to the Taliban's combat successes. The Arab volunteers constitute the second largest foreign contingent in Afghanistan, affiliated to and financed by Osama bin Laden. The 55th Brigade, numbering some 400 to 600 troops trained by bin Laden, operated continuously on the Old Road front north of Kabul since 1996.
The number of Arabs grew substantially following the August 1998 cruise missile strikes. By some estimates there were at least 2,000 combatants, while other reports suggest there may have been as many as 3,000 Arab combatants in the field. Arab units were deployed in an infantry role armed with nothing heavier than RPGs, PK machine guns and mortars. They were widely recognised as the most aggressive and committed fighters in Taliban ranks. This had almost certainly solidified Osama bin Laden's political standing with the Taliban when they came to be the dominant power in Afghanistan.
More than half of the foreign recruits were thought to be from Pakistan. The greatest number had come from Pakistani madrassahs (seminaries) of the Deobandi school, notably those affiliated with the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami (JUI) party, which was closely aligned with the Taliban. Other volunteers were from Pakistan's militant jihadi organisations, such as Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (formerly Harakat-ul-Ansar), which in 1997 was placed on the US government's terrorist list. The anti-Shi'a Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which had contributed volunteers, also had conducted terrorist actions in Pakistan.
Reports of current or former Pakistan Army personnel operating with the Taliban remained controversial, and unconfirmed, despite frequent claims to this effect. For instance, it was claimed that on 23 March 1999 the Pakistani Government deployed a Pakistani regiment of para-military force to Afghanistan, which was initially stationed in the Rishkhor Garrison in western suburbs of the capital, Kabul, poised to be deployed in the Taliban pre-planned incursions. In June 2000 journalists were permitted to visit Rishkhor, and reported that there were no military activities or Arab and Pakistani guerillas at the camp. This followed international publicity and growing diplomatic pressure. Subsequently Rishkhor was placed off-limits to outsiders, and appearently resumed training activities.
The Taliban militia was organized as a pickup truck cavalry. This motorized light force was focused on fast-paced combat operations against the patchwork of fragmented opposition armed groups. The militia used pickup trucks as all-purpose vehicles for both combat and combat support. The vehicle, nicknamed Ahu (the deer), was widely used in mujahideen operations particularly in Kandahar, Helmand, Farah, and Nimroz provinces during the war with Soviet forces. These light trucks were the principle troop carriers, transporting ten or more troops who fight in mounted or dismounted formations. With mounted soldiers able to fire while on the move, the customized pickups were efficient light combat vehicles with considerable cross-country maneuverability.
Some larger units had armored vehicles, artillery, and other support equipment. Hundreds of former army officers and pilots operated the complex armored vehicles, artillery, and air defense systems. Although some former officers served as advisors to military commanders, the more senior command positions were held exclusively by mullahs.
While the Kalashnikov assault rifle was the standard infantry weapon, other combat equipment consisted of a motley collection of weapons captured in previous battles. While some small units had heavy artillery and tanks, other larger formations lacked heavy weapons. Poor tactical employment of armored vehicles had resulted in tanks being captured intact, given ineffective mutual infantry and tank support. Incompetent technical support frequently led to the loss of stalled vehicles to the enemy when a unit was forced to retreat.
Artillery fire and air strikes were usually used disjointedly against static targets, rather than using artillery and air strikes to support infantry maneuver. Tanks and armored vehicles were seldom used to support battlefield maneuver. Armor was typically employed for fire support against static targets.
These light forces were no match for well-organized defensive lines, and their mobility was limited in mountainous terrain. Where Taliban forces enjoyed offensive mobility, they lacked the skills required to penetrate prepared defenses, or to consolidate positions once gained. In major offensives, units had rushed to the front lines, producing a front-heavy and rear-weak force disposition that was extremely vulnerable to counterattack.
As of early December 2001, remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces were estimated to include anywhere from 4,000 to 17,000 combatants around Kandahar, and between 800 and 1,200 combatants in the mountains south of Jalalabad. An estimated 2,000 to 2,500 combatants remained at Balkh, to the west of Mazar-i-Sharif. This force consisted of combatants who had withdrawn from Kunduz before the city fell to Northern Alliance forces in mid-November 2001. Between 800 and 1,000 combatants were south of Kunduz in the direction of Kabul. Another zone due east of Kabul in Baghlan had 800 to 1,000 combatants. And 300 to 500 combatants were southeast of Herat, near the Iranian border.
By mid-December 2001, following a withdrawal from Kandahar, Mullah Mohammed Omar retreated with about 500 Taliban combatants to the mountains near Baghran, a town about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar in neighboring Helmand Province. Paktia Province on the border with Pakistan was one of the other areas where the Taliban militia retained some influence. Al Qaeda fighters in the Tora Bora region were variously estimated to number from 700 to 2,000. While a few hundred were killed or captured in mid-December 2001, the remainder withdrew into the mountains along the Pakistan border.
By late December 2001 more than 3,000 of these Taliban or Al Qaeda combatants were being held prisoner at Shibarghan. More than 2,000 of the prisoners at Shirbarghan were Afghan Taliban fighters, who had surrendered at Kunduz and later around the town of Balkh, while some 750 prisoners were foreigners, mainly from Pakistan.
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