The newspapers and cable news television are full of the dramatic success of the Taliban in retaking the regional capitols and population clusters across Afghanistan. There are many comments about the failures of the Afghan Army in their military endeavours and the absence of a logistical plan to resupply the bases across Afghanistan with food, medicine and fuel. In the popular discussion of these phenomena and the competing speculations about the nature of the Afghan government failures I realised that many of these analysts don’t really understand the problems faced in logistical supply in a war zone. These lapses in analysis do not come from any inexperience or bias, but from looking at the problem from above, looking at the problem as diplomats, military planners or commanders. Looking at the problem from ground level exposes the reality of the venality, incompetence of the various partners who make up the cogs in the wheel of delivery of logistics. This is crucial to understanding the problems and their solution.
When I heard that the Taliban had been capturing American equipment in the wake of withdrawal and that many Afghan Army outposts were lost to a lack of supply of ammunition, food and medicine due to the government’s inability to effect a reliable resupply I was drawn back to a memory of an earlier confrontation with those problems. During the most recent war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my cargo planes were used to ferry military supplies from Harare to Kinshasa and other airports in the DRC; and to ferry the wounded home. One day, the Defence Minister, Mahachi, said that the Zimbabwe Army had taken delivery of some spanking new equipment to supply its troops including, inter alia, some new Austrian Steyr equipment and some personnel carriers and half-tracks. These had to be delivered to Kananga (formerly known as Luluabourg) in Kasai where they were urgently needed. He said that our Ilyushin 76 aircraft would carry them easily.
We transported these to Kananga in three lots, to the great joy of the Zim command. They were excited about the ability to move quickly along the roads to push back the enemies. We left. A week or so later we returned to Kananga and found the Zim Army stuck in the city and with no sight of the new equipment. I asked how the battle was going and they told me that all the new equipment was gone. The army had gathered its troops and a column went down the road in the new equipment, seeking to drive off the enemy. They were accompanied, as usual, by a contingent of DRC soldiers fighting alongside the Zims. They were instantly successful. The enemy disappeared into the bush in the face of such strength and the column continued to roll. Unfortunately, they were blinded by success and the ease in penetrating new territory. They continued. After a while the commander of the column realised that he did not have enough fuel to return to base. He radioed headquarters and demanded a fuel resupply. The headquarters told them they didn’t have the fuel or the trucks to resupply the column. There was no help coming. The only thing they could do was to abandon the equipment and return as quickly as possible by foot. They set about booby-trapping the new equipment so that it would be unusable. The local Congolese forces disappeared into the bush and the Zims made as quick a return to base as possible. The commander told me that for almost a month they could hear explosions in the bush as the enemy tried to untrap the abandoned equipment.
This story came to mind as I heard of the Afghan Army becoming bereft of provisions and ammunition, while Taliban had their abandoned equipment. I’ve never been a soldier or a combatant, but I have spent a lot of time as a tourist in six African wars. I have learned that the conduct of a war by military planners is often determined more by the level of logistical planning than in any theory of counter-terrorism. First, the troops have to be fed; there has to be sufficient water available; there have to be sufficient fuel stores in place; stable communications have to be in place and functioning; there has to be a safe place to land aircraft or dock ships; and there needs to be a reliable source of medicines and doctors. All this must be made ready, and often installed, before any battle, probe, invasion or attack takes place. The key rule in military logistics is to plan for failure. Is there a safe exit route for men and equipment as well as fuel for the planes, boats or vehicles to extricate the soldiers?
These rules generally hold true for Afghanistan as well as for Africa. Outside the major provincial capitals, it is difficult to fight a war with modern, high-tech weapons. There are broad expanses of sand and dunes, broken up by small villages and, occasionally, a town or city. It is difficult to mobilise military forces there without a detailed regard for logistics. There are no petrol stations, wells, repair shops, water stores, food stocks or fuel reserves in most of the region. Trucks and buses, as well as conventional armour, are difficult to transport in such a terrain. Air bases are usually suited only to small aircraft and lack the scissor-tables, cranes, fork-lifts and loading equipment which allow the free flow of cargo. This has meant that warfare has had to be expeditionary war. This is a polite way of saying that massed troop formations have no real use as there are few opposing forces of equal size to fight. The enemy of NATO forces is rarely an army battalion of any strength. Insurgents, or the Taliban, are bands and groups of often, irregular soldiers. Large-scale NATO troop concentrations can sit in a city or town and maintain order, but they rarely can take the battle to the enemy.
The ability of the airports to handle the type of plane used to supply and resupply is crucially important. This is why, other than for many of the advanced urban airports, Soviet or Ukrainian aircraft were the most reliable to use. Soviet-built aircraft. Soviet or Russian aircraft were sturdily built and had the advantage of a rear door which opened on an angle to the ground which would allow loading and discharging of the cargo without additional equipment like scissor-tables or pallets. By folding down into a ramp, cargo could be loaded and unloaded in undeveloped airports with unskilled labour. The traditional workhorses of the Russian fleet, the Ilyushin 76, the Antonov-12 and the giant Antonov-124 all had this characteristic loading and unloading ability. They burned massive amounts of fuel but were, otherwise, cheaper to operate and could (except for the AN-124) operate on relatively short and unfinished runways. The only Western equivalents were the C-130 Hercules of Lockheed and the C-160 Transall of France and Germany. These were strictly designed and registered as military aircraft and were treated as such by ATCs everywhere.
With the push by NATO forces in Afghanistan modern military equipment was engaged in the battle. Advanced helicopters, attack aircraft and bombers, drones were all engaged in the struggle. Fortunately for NATO, there were sufficient military technicians employed to service and maintain this sophisticated equipment. The withdrawal of NATO forces has left a hole in the maintenance category of the advanced equipment and a growing dependence on imported spare parts. This situation is likely to grow. This has always been a problem in African warfare and will soon be a problem in Afghanistan. The care and maintenance of IEDs (Improvised explosive devices), a principal weapon in the Afghan War is not a challenge to the Taliban.
What has always puzzled me in my limited dealings with the war in Afghanistan is the unspeakable arrogance of the journalists and NGOs in dealing with the war. In the early days of the conflict, we had some Russian helicopters in Dushanbe and were contacted by several companies who wanted to hire them for delivering journalists and NGOs to visit Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance. We worked out a rate for the trip and invited the first group to Dushanbe. They arrived at the airport, and we told them to get on board the Mi-24 which would take them in. They were very upset. The helicopter was fully armed and had four Spetsnaz (Special Forces) on board. In addition, there was a fully-armed second Mi-24 full of Spetsnaz which would accompany them. They refused to board. They told us that they were “neutrals” and engaged in humanitarian pursuits and should not travel in armed helicopters. They asked me why I had provided armed helicopters. I suggested that it was because I wanted to make it back to Dushanbe after delivering them. I suggested that they would not instantly know which turbaned host awaited them at the landing spot and the second helicopter would supply ground fire if it was a mistake. They said that they were exceptional cargo and should be treated as neutrals in the struggle. They asked for me to supply unarmed helicopters for them. I gave them a Xeroxed copy of a map of Afghanistan and indicated the location of the Khyber Pass and suggested that they walk there. That was my only Afghan experience.
So, the news from Afghanistan about the Taliban taking over territory and effective political control is not surprising. Logistically, it was inevitable. Whenever NATO decided to leave the country, the result would have been the same. The Great Game always has one ending; a situation in which everybody loses. In my estimation, the only solution to the Afghan problem is to destroy the poppy fields. This will help with the international drug supply problem and will eliminate any major effective corruption in the country. The Taliban will have territory but no income and will be unable to run anything. I suspect the West will not heed my suggestion.