Afghanistan’s Security Forces Versus the Taliban: A Net Assessment

Abstract: A key question for the future of Afghanistan is if the United States withdraws the remainder of its forces from the country, would Afghanistan’s security forces or the Taliban be stronger militarily? According to a net assessment conducted by the author across five factors—size, material resources, external support, force employment, and cohesion—the Taliban would have a slight military advantage if the United States withdraws the remainder of its troops from Afghanistan, which would then likely grow in a compounding fashion.

In the November/December 2020 issue of this publication, Seth Jones examined the ideology, objectives, structure, strategy, and tactics of the Afghan Taliban, as well as the group’s relationship to other non-state actors and sources of state support.1 In concluding his study, Jones considered the implications of the current situation in Afghanistan and wrote that:

… without a peace deal, the further withdrawal of U.S. forces … will likely shift the balance of power in favor of the Taliban. With continuing support from Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida, it is the view of the author that the Taliban would eventually overthrow the Afghan government in Kabul.2

This is a critically important judgment for the future of U.S. policy on Afghanistan, and one that deserves more rigorous attention than Jones was able to dedicate in the concluding remarks of his paper. In addition to Jones’ article, there have been numerous recent, detailed works on the Taliban’s history,3 social resources and adaptations,4 political trajectory,5 and perspectives on peace negotiations.6 There are also various U.S. government reports that periodically give a wealth of information on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).7 Yet, a formal assessment of how Afghanistan’s security forces compare to the Taliban’s fighting forces in the context of U.S. troop withdrawals is lacking. In this article, the author therefore seeks to answer the question: If the United States withdraws the remainder of its forces from Afghanistan,a would the ANDSF or the Taliban be stronger militarily?

To do this, the author will conduct a net assessment of the two sides’ military forces in the projected absence of U.S. forces. In this context, net assessment refers to the practice of considering the strategic interactions of “blue” (friendly) and “red” (adversary) forces through the use of data that are widely available, in order to create strategic insights that lead to decisive advantage.8 While there are many elements that could be focused on while conducting such an assessment and there is a great body of literature about which are most important,9 the author examines five here: size, material resources (i.e., money and technology), external support, force employment, and cohesion. The first four are included because they address the fundamental inputs to military effectiveness: people, things, and the ability of people to use those things. The author includes cohesion because it speaks to the will of both sides to fight10 and because it is particularly important in the context of the war in Afghanistan and efforts to end it via a negotiated settlement.11 Of note, the author does not consider the possible impacts of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 due to a paucity of reliable data and no clear indication that its consideration would change the results of the assessment. This article now examines each of these factors for both sides, then conducts a net assessment of the five factors, before providing an answer to the central question along with some of the implications.


The number of people in the Taliban’s fighting forces is difficult to determine precisely, but a variety of sources give an estimate of 60,000 core fighters, give or take 10-20 percent.12 b The most systematic public study of the Taliban’s size (from 2017) concluded that the group’s total manpower exceeds 200,000 individuals, which includes around 60,000 core fighters, another 90,000 members of local militias, and tens of thousands of facilitators and support elements.13 These numbers are considerable increases over official U.S. estimates of around 20,000 fighters that were provided in 201414 and illustrate the group’s ability to recruit and deploy new fighters in recent years. They also illustrate the Taliban’s ability to withstand significant casualties—estimated to be in the range of thousands per year.15 As a Taliban military commander recently commented, “We see this fight as worship. So if a brother is killed, the second brother won’t disappoint God’s wish—he’ll step into the brother’s shoes.”16

Afghanistan’s security forces have an authorized total end-strength of 352,000 personnel.17 c Yet, the country has never been able to fill all of those billets. As of July 2020, the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD)—which includes the army, air force, and special operations forces (SOF)—had 185,478 personnel. The Afghan Ministry of Interior (MOI)—which includes a variety of police forces—numbered 103,224. This gives a total of 288,702 security force personnel, or 82 percent of total authorized end-strength.18 d While analysts have greater confidence in these numbers now than in the past as a result of a new biometric manpower system in Afghanistan that was implemented to address the phenomenon of “ghost soldiers,”19 e they nonetheless represent an upper bound on the true size of the fighting force—they are merely the number of filled billets. A 2014 study of the Afghan army found that its force structure was about 60 percent combat personnel,20 but the number of soldiers showing up for duty each day is even lower (since some soldiers are always sick, on leave, etc.). One official U.S. reference quoted an on-hand percentage of about 90 percent.21 Using these figures together (and subtracting the roughly 8,000 personnel in the Afghan Air Force (AAF)22) gives an estimated on-hand army fighting force of about 96,000 soldiers. The Afghan police are a much leaner force, with only about 11 percent as administrative and support personnel for the 89 percent that are patrolmen.23 Assuming a 90 percent on-hand rate for the police as well gives about 83,000 patrolmen. All told then, the ANDSF are likely fielding a fighting force in the vicinity of 180,000 combat personnel each day.

Material Resources

There is no consensus on the Taliban’s yearly revenue total. Official United Nations, government, and some independent estimates range from $300 million to $1.6 billion per year,24 with the United States estimating that up to 60 percent of these totals comes from Taliban involvement in the drug trade.25 These numbers are disputed, however, by David Mansfield’s detailed work on illicit economies and drug production in Afghanistan, which suggests that the Taliban’s share of drug proceeds is significantly less than popularly understood and therefore the group’s annual revenues are much less as well.26

What is clear is that the Taliban have for years generated some amount of funding from the drug trade (e.g., via taxes and protection payments),27 whether on opiates,28 hashish,29 or more recently, crystal methamphetamine.30 In recent years, the Taliban have also greatly diversified their portfolio of funding sources.31 The most notable expanded source is illegal mining (e.g., precious stones,32 talc,33 and rare earth minerals34), which some reports now put near or at the same level of revenue for the group as drugs.f The Taliban also actively tax the areas they control (e.g., on infrastructure, utilities, agriculture and social industry35), and generate additional revenue from smuggling,36 extortion,37 kidnapping for ransom,38 and private donations.39

The Taliban have traditionally relied on some degree of centralization of revenue collection, such as that from formal taxation, alongside a redistributive resource model.40 But in recent years, the group has given local commanders more leeway in generating revenue (e.g., via war booty) and expending resources to maintain its war machine. Recent interviews with Taliban recruitment officials and commanders suggest that the group does not pay its fighters regular salaries, but rather covers their expenses: “we take care of their pocket money, the gas for their motorcycle, their trip expenses. And if they capture spoils, that is their earning.”41

The Taliban have also, in recent years, increasingly benefitted from overruns of vulnerable Afghan security force checkpoints and installations, which has afforded them a wealth of armaments mostly procured by the United States, including armored vehicles, night-vision devices, Western rifles, laser designators, and advanced optics.42 And while the Taliban have been using commercial drones to conduct aerial surveillance for years, they have only recently begun routinely weaponizing them for attacks against ANDSF positions.43

Over the past five years, the ANDSF have been funded at around $5-6 billion per year.44 The United States has provided about 75 percent of this funding via the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) and has generally dictated how that money is spent, with another $1 billion or so coming from international partners and the Afghan government contributing roughly $300-400 million more.45 In fiscal year (FY) 2020, Congress appropriated $1.6 billion for the Afghan Army, $1.2 billion for the AAF, $728 million for Afghan special security forces (ASSF),g and $660 million for the police.46 International donors provide funding for the ANDSF either bilaterally or through one of two multilateral channels: the NATO ANA Trust Fund or the Law and Order Trust Fund Afghanistan.47

These sources of funding cover all of the expenses of the ANDSF, though international sources have typically been used to cover salaries, procurement of end-use items (e.g., weapons, vehicles, communications equipment, aircraft), maintenance and sustainment of those items, and training on how to use them. Afghan government contributions have typically been used for food and uniforms.48

As a result of tens of billions of dollars of international expenditures, the ANDSF today have an air force consisting of 174 aircraft (a mix of transport and attack helicopters, and transport, surveillance, and attack fixed wing platforms), some of the region’s best SOF, and an army that boasts heavy artillery, mortars, thousands of armored vehicles and personnel carriers, tactical drones and technical intelligence capabilities, military grade communications gear, and Western weapons and munitions (including technology to operate at night).49

External Support

The Taliban are the beneficiaries of support from a number of external actors. Al-Qaida has been a long-time ally for the group,50 providing “mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance and financial support.”51 The relationship between al-Qaida and the Haqqani-led portion of the Taliban is particularly strong.52 The Taliban also receive funds, arms, and training from Iran.53 Taliban sources have openly admitted to this support, as well as to the receipt of military supplies from Russia.54 Private donors from within the Gulf Arab states have also been a consistent source of funding for the Taliban.55

The most significant source of external support for the Taliban, however, comes from Pakistan.56 In his book on the subject, Steve Coll discusses at length the nature of this support, which includes sanctuary for senior Taliban leaders, but also Pakistan army and intelligence service support to recruitment and training of Taliban fighters in areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, support to deployment of those fighters into Afghanistan, and support to their rest and recuperation (including medical support) back inside Pakistan.57 Pakistan has also provided the Taliban with military materiel, as well as strategic and operational advice for the group’s operations in Afghanistan.58 While Pakistan took great pains to hide this support for years, the amount of reporting on it today is voluminous, and a former Director General of Pakistan’s intelligence agency recently admitted to supporting the Taliban “in any way he could.”59

As discussed in the prior section, the ANDSF receive over 90 percent of their funding from international sources, which pays for nearly everything the force needs except for food and uniforms. They also receive training and advisory support from international forces. Most of that training occurs in Afghanistan, though the United States has also been training Afghan pilots at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.60

Force Employment

Since the mid-2000s, the Taliban have been executing an “outside-in” military strategy.61 h In this approach, they first used sanctuaries in Pakistan (and to a lesser extent, Iran62) to generate military manpower and materiel, which they used to seize rural areas in Afghanistan.63 They then used their control of those areas to generate funding (as described above) and additional manpower, which they have used to seize adjacent territory. More recently, they have been using consolidated tracts of rural territory to project military power into areas surrounding Afghanistan’s district and provincial capitals, with the goal of seizing and holding them in order to undermine the political control and popular standing of the government. Ultimately, the Taliban’s military forces would like to follow this strategy to pressure and seize control of Kabul, at which time the group could claim military victory and political control of the country.64

To advance this strategy, the Taliban use a wide variety of tactics, on which they provide regular training for their military forces (with external support, as described above).65 These include guerrilla tactics (e.g., ambushes, raids, hit-and-run attacks);66 conventional tactics (e.g., massed assaults, multi-prong attacks);67 terrorist tactics (e.g., car and truck bombs);68 intelligence activities;69 intimidation (e.g., targeted assassinations, kidnappings, night letters, death threats);70 influence and information warfare (e.g., media and information operations, shadow diplomacy, destroying communications infrastructure);71 and criminal activities (e.g., drugs, smuggling, protection rackets, kidnapping for ransom).72 To implement these tactics, the Taliban use primarily Soviet-style small arms and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), though they also have limited numbers of heavy machine guns, heavy mortars, anti-armor weapons, and sniper rifles.73 In recent years, the Taliban have been able to overrun numerous ANDSF checkpoints and installations, affording them more advanced gear such as up-armored vehicles, night-vision devices, and laser optics.74 The group has used this advanced equipment to conduct assaults on hardened ANDSF facilities75 and to arm its relatively new “Red Unit,” which is an elite infantry unit (estimated to number from several hundred to a thousand members) used to spearhead and support attacks against particularly important or sensitive targets across the country.76

For years, the ANDSF’s strategy for defending the country from the Taliban relied primarily on two main elements: establishing heavy presence (a “ring of steel”) in and around major population areas and conducting large-scale (e.g., division- or corps-sized) clearing operations to try and retake areas that had been seized by the Taliban.77 More recently, at the behest of the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan—and as a result of significant growth in these forces as part of President Ashraf Ghani’s “ANDSF Roadmap” initiative78—the ANDSF have moved away from this model and relied far more heavily on the destructive and disruptive power of the AAF and ASSF in a move away from a counterinsurgency-centric strategy and toward one based on military pressure and attrition. In this mode of operations, elements of the ASSF like the Afghan Commandos conduct direct action raids (often enabled by the AAF) and generate intelligence to cue strikes by the AAF against Taliban targets.79

Despite all of its technical capabilities and the preferences of U.S. military leadership in Afghanistan, the preferred mode of operation of the country’s army and police remains wide-area security via the use of over 10,000 static checkpoints.80 This is largely the result of the ANDSF’s major shortcomings, which have persistently included poor leadership, high attrition and inability to effectively manage personnel, rampant corruption, and poor sustainment, maintenance, and logistics practices.81 These shortcomings—along with the desire of Afghan political actors to have a visible ANDSF presence in their areas of influence and the checkpoints’ role in extorting local populations82—have made them the lowest common denominator and easiest mode of operation for the ANDSF. The U.S. military has been trying for years to change this dynamic, mostly unsuccessfully.83


The military scholar Jasen Castillo cites military cohesion as a dependent variable consisting of two factors: staying power (the ability of a military force to hold together and fight even as the odds of military victory diminish) and battlefield performance (the willingness of units to fight with determination and flexibility).84 He then relates these factors to two independent variables: degree of regime control and degree of organizational autonomy.85

The Taliban—which exhibit a high degree of control over their fighters and the communities in the areas they control,86 and a high degree of organizational autonomy via their regional shura, mahaz (front), and qet’a (unit) structures87—constitute what Castillo calls a “messianic military.”88 i This type of military is characterized by strong cohesion, reflected in strong staying power (a military that “collapses only when an adversary possesses crushing material superiority”) and strong battlefield performance (whereby “most units fight with determination and flexibility”).89

This observation based on Castillo’s theory is backed by recent studies employing other methods. For many years, analysts studying the Taliban have commented on perceived issues with the group’s cohesiveness and possibilities of fragmentation.90 As evidence, they have cited events such as infighting among Taliban commanders,91 the emergence of rival regional shuras,92 widespread disillusion among rank and file with Taliban leadership, and the direction of the seemingly endless war.93 Yet, recent detailed studies of the Taliban’s structure, history (e.g., the group’s reaction to the announced death of Mullah Omar), and evolution in the context of studies on insurgent group cohesion have concluded that the Taliban are today a relatively cohesive group.94 This cohesion likely stems from four major sources: strong vertical and horizontal ties within and across the entirety of the movement and the communities in which it operates;95 strong and continuous internal socialization of key issues (e.g., peace talks) and focus on obedience and cohesion;96 the group’s organization for, and perceived successes on, the battlefield and in negotiations;97 and its strong base of material resources.98

The Afghan government, on the other hand, maintains a relatively low degree of control over the areas supposedly under its protection,j and it affords its military a very low degree of organizational autonomy.k This results in the ANDSF being what Castillo calls an “apathetic military.”99 This type is characterized by a low degree of cohesion, reflected in weak staying power (a military that “collapses quickly as probability of victory decreases”) and weak battlefield performance (whereby “only the best units fight with determination and flexibility”).100 Examples of weak ANDSF staying power, as defined by Castillo, can be seen at the micro level—in the form of near-daily Taliban overruns of poorly defended ANDSF checkpoints101—and at the macro level—in the form of the near-collapse of the Army’s 215th Corps in 2015102 or the collapse of ANDSF defenses around Ghazni in 2018.103 Examples of weak battlefield performance can be seen in the government’s increasing reliance on the AAF and ASSF as the most capable units within the ANDSF.l

In addition to these structural examples of weak cohesion, at the individual level, the ANDSF have been plagued with a high level of attrition (on the order of 30 percent per year) for many years, with the primary factor being so-called “dropped from rolls,” or soldiers and police that desert their unit and do not return within 30 days.104 Such desertions accounted for 66 percent of Afghan army and 73 percent of police attrition in 2020.105 According to the U.S. Department of Defense, desertions “occur for a variety of reasons, including poor unit leadership, low pay or delays in pay, austere living conditions, denial of leave, and intimidation by insurgents.” The single greatest contributor to desertions is poor leadership,106 which a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan also called “the greatest weakness of the Afghan security forces.”107

Net Assessment

Having discussed size, material resources, external support, force employment, and cohesion for both the Taliban and the ANDSF, the author now conducts a net assessment of those factors in the projected absence of U.S. forces.

A glance at commonly cited numbers would leave the impression that Afghanistan’s security forces far outnumber the Taliban, by as much as a factor of four or five (352,000 to 60,000). A more nuanced comparison, however, suggests a different story. Most estimates put the number of Taliban frontline fighters around 60,000. The comparable number of Afghan soldiers is about 96,000. The only detailed public estimate of the Taliban’s militia elements—its “holding” force—is around 90,000 individuals.108 The comparable government force is the police, which has about the same number of people (84,000) in the field. Thus, a purely military comparison of strength shows that the government’s fighting force is only about 1.5 times the strength of the Taliban’s, while the two sides’ holding forces are roughly equivalent.109 Assessment: Slight ANDSF advantage.

Material Resources
The Taliban have a much leaner (i.e., fewer administrative and support elements) and less technically sophisticated fighting force than the Afghan government—lacking an air force, heavy artillery, a fleet of armored vehicles, and the like. As such, the group’s military element costs significantly less than the ANDSF. A calculation of the total cost of the Taliban’s fighting force relative to the group’s revenue was impossible given a lack of reliable data. What is clear is that the Taliban have a significantly diversified portfolio of funding streams and there has been no significant reporting in recent years of the group suffering from financial deficiencies.

The ANDSF, on the other hand, are vastly more advanced than the Taliban in terms of technical capabilities. But they also cost far more than the Afghan government can afford.110 The United States and its allies have thus far been willing to pay the multi-billion dollar per year price tag for the ANDSF—and have committed to providing some degree of security assistance through 2024 (though the scope of that assistance is to be determined).111 The ANDSF are thus heavily reliant on just a few sources of funding, and there is little reason to think the Afghan government will reach fiscal self-sustainability anytime soon.112 Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) has only averaged 2-3 percent growth in recent years, and decades of war have stunted the development of most domestic industries.113 Afghan government funding for its security forces (which is only about 8-9 percent of their total cost) is equivalent to roughly two percent of its GDP and one fourth of total government revenues—levels that are already extremely high for a developing country.114 The United States’ own assessment is that “given the persistence of the insurgency and continued slow growth of the Afghan economy … full self-sufficiency by 2024 does not appear realistic, even if levels of violence and, with it, the ANDSF force structure, reduce significantly.”115

Critically, the ANDSF will continue to be reliant for the foreseeable future on contract logistics support for aircraft, vehicles, and other technical equipment.116 For example, sustainment costs make up nearly 64 percent of the AAF budget, and sustainment of the AAF alone is just over 13 percent of the total amount of U.S.-provided funding.117 The U.S. Defense Department has assessed that without this funding, “the AAF’s ability to sustain critical air-to-ground capability will fail and the fleet will steadily become inoperable.”118 Without these capabilities, ground units will not be able to execute operations in locations where the terrain prohibits the use of traditional ground transportation, thereby limiting operational effectiveness.119 Assessment: Strong Taliban advantage for funding relative to requirements; strong ANDSF advantage for technical capabilities.

External Support
As just discussed, the Taliban appear to have a sustainable, diversified funding model for their fighting forces. Thus, while the group benefits from external support from the likes of Russia, Iran, and even al-Qa`ida, it does not appear to require any of this support to continue its operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, however, has been essential to the group’s success to date.120 While the Taliban could, in theory, attempt to fully move their organization into areas they control in Afghanistan, doing so would be not only a serious logistical undertaking (e.g., since many of the group’s recruitment efforts and training locations are centered in Pakistan’s border areas) but would also expose the group to persistent threats of attack by the ANDSF (most notably, by air). Taliban leaders are thus quite reliant on sanctuaries in Pakistan for their own safety and comfort. While this has occasionally made them vulnerable to pressure by Pakistan (the arrest of Mullah Baradar is an important case in this regard121), this pressure has thus far not been significant enough to warrant the group completely decamping to Afghanistan.

The ANDSF are similarly reliant on external support, though critically in different ways. Costing many times what the Taliban’s fighting force costs, the ANDSF are almost entirely reliant on foreign funding, most notably for salaries and the costs of procuring, maintaining, and sustaining the force’s technical capabilities. The continued provision of this funding is at risk in the absence of U.S. advisors to provide oversight of the billions of dollars in aid such support requires.122 Even if it were to continue with no U.S. troops on the ground, there are other important roles played by advisors that would end. For example, only a fraction of the funding provided by the United States and its allies for the ANDSF is given to the Afghan government directly (as “on budget” funds), with the rest being spent “off budget” by U.S. military entities in Kabul.123 The Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior persistently struggle to spend even the on-budget amount, averaging only about a 60 percent execution rate.124 U.S. advisors have been getting around this by doing their own procurement for goods and services down to Army corps and provincial headquarters levels—a practice that would disappear in the absence of those advisors.125 Assessment: Draw; both forces have significant external dependencies.

Force Employment
At the strategic level, the Taliban have consistently employed their “outside in” strategy since the mid-2000s, and have steadily eroded the government’s territorial control since then.126 This is roughly the same strategy that was successfully employed by the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation and by the Taliban in its initial conquest of Afghanistan.127 The Afghan government, on the other hand, has vacillated in its strategic approach since the end of the U.S. surge in 2014. In the 2015-2018 timeframe, the ANDSF implemented what was called a “hold-fight-disrupt” strategy. As described by the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time:

This methodology designated areas which the ANDSF would “Hold” to prevent the loss of major population centers and other strategic areas to the enemy, those for which the ANDSF would immediately “Fight” to retain and those areas where they would assume risk by only “Disrupting” the enemy if they appeared. The ANDSF designed their phased operational campaign plan, called Operation SHAFAQ, to anticipate and counter the enemy’s main and supporting efforts. This prioritization caused them to concentrate forces in more populous areas and remove forces from more remote, sparsely inhabited areas.128

It is perhaps not surprising then that the last reported official U.S. assessment of territorial control (in October 2018) showed the government in control of 54 percent of the country’s districts, with the Taliban in control of 12 percent and the rest contested.129 In 2015, the same source had assessed the Afghan government as being in control of 72 percent of districts.130 The dramatic decrease in government control (from 72 to 54 percent) was commensurate with both the introduction of the “hold-fight-disrupt” strategy and the dramatic increase in estimates of Taliban strength (from 20,000 to 60,000) over roughly the same timeframe.

By late 2018, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan shifted to an attrition strategy, featuring offensive operations by the ASSF and AAF, with the rest of the ANDSF largely in supporting roles (e.g., attempting to hold ground via checkpoints).131 This shift increased the number of Taliban casualties through more aggressive air and SOF targeting of Taliban fighters, and there are indications that the Taliban wanted that bleeding to stop.132 But overall, it failed to stem the Taliban’s steady encroachment on Afghanistan’s major cities. Today, approximately 16 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals are effectively surrounded by Taliban-controlled or -contested areas.m Assessment: Slight Taliban advantage.

Application of Castillo’s theory of military cohesion to both the Taliban and the ANDSF shows the former to be a more cohesive fighting force than the ANDSF. This theoretical conclusion is supported by independent analyses of the Taliban in the context of theories of insurgency cohesion, as well as by observations of ANDSF manpower trends. Assessment: Strong Taliban advantage.

Table 1 summarizes the comparative discussion of each factor and presents a net assessment of each. As the last row indicates, the net assessment of these factors tilts slightly to the advantage of the Taliban. While the ANDSF field a slightly larger fighting force and have vastly more technical capabilities than the Taliban, they are almost entirely reliant on external funding (75 percent from the United States)—most critically, for salaries, procurement, and sustainment of those technical capabilities. They have also not been able to identify an effective strategy, and they are aptly described by Castillo’s theory as an “apathetic military.”133 The Taliban, on the other hand, field a slightly smaller and far less technically sophisticated fighting force than the ANDSF. But that force is cohesive and appears to be financially sustainable, and is employing technologies that are sustainable and a strategy that has been proven to work in Afghanistan. Those advantages are evident in tangible successes of the Taliban’s military machine on the battlefield, most notably in the steady erosion of government control since the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in 2015.

Conclusion and Implications
The author set out in this article to address the question: If the United States withdraws the remainder of its forces from Afghanistan, would the ANDSF or the Taliban be stronger militarily? Having conducted a net assessment of the Taliban and ANDSF in the projected absence of U.S. troops across five factors—size, material resources, external support, force employment, and cohesion—the author concludes that the answer is slightly in favor of the Taliban. This finding has numerous implications, but this article now focuses on two immediate suggestions for improving the military balance in Afghanistan.

First, the ANDSF would be well served by significantly increasing its focus on recruitment. While authorized for an end strength of 352,000 soldiers and patrolmen, the ANDSF has never approached that figure and is currently about 63,000 personnel short. In other words, the ANDSF are missing a cadre roughly the size of the Taliban’s entire fighting force. Growing the ANDSF to their approved end strength would give the force a much stronger size advantage than it currently enjoys. While size is not everything, in an attrition war of territorial control—which the war in Afghanistan has steadily become—it is a critical factor. Having a larger force may also help mitigate the risk of increased desertions or defections by members of the ANDSF if U.S. advisors depart or if the Taliban continue to gain territory.134

Second, the U.S.-led advisory mission since 2015 has not been helping the ANDSF to win, so much as it has been slowing the ANDSF’s lossesn by improving the force’s technological advantages over the Taliban. As this analysis shows, that advantage is today quite large. However, it has come at the expense of dependency—the ANDSF are currently far too complex and expensive for the government to sustain. This has been mitigated for years by advisors who have been directly performing critical support and sustainment functions of the ANDSF. If the United States fully withdraws those advisors, as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban agreement,o the Taliban’s slight military advantage at that point would begin to grow, as a result of at least two factors: (1) the ANDSF’s technical advantage will erode as maintenance and support functions currently performed or overseen by advisors slow down or cease; and (2) the ANDSF’s major vulnerability—its dependence on foreign funding—will increasingly be at risk, since without U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the United States would have limited ability for oversight of security assistance and less “skin in the game.” Both factors portend likely declines in U.S. security assistance funding (which may be exacerbated by continued corruption in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior135 ). Further, the resultant increase of the Taliban’s military advantage is likely to be non-linear. This will result both from increasing overuse and cannibalization of technical capabilities (e.g., helicopters) and from the ANDSF’s general lack of “staying power” as predicted by Castillo’s theory.136 To stem the rate of this possible future decline, the United States would be wise to immediately do everything it can to decrease the complexity of ANDSF equipment and systems, and increase the sustainability of the force. This would ideally include significant adjustments to both force structure and force employment.137

In conclusion, the author finds that if the United States were to withdraw the remainder of its forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban would enjoy a slight military advantage that would increase in a compounding manner over time. While the Taliban’s chief spokesman recently “said that the group’s primary goal is to settle the issues through talks and that a ‘military solution’ would be used only as a last resort,”138 the results of this analysis suggest that the United States and government of Afghanistan would be wise to vigorously pursue negotiations while U.S. forces remain and avoid tempting the Taliban to exploit the military advantage it would have in their absence.