How—and why—the Taliban won Afghanistan’s high-tech war

Things were very different for the coalition. Western forces had access to a wide range of world-class technology, from space-based surveillance to remote-controlled systems such as robots and drones. But for them the war in Afghanistan was not a struggle for survival; it was a war of choice. And because of that, much of the technology was The aim is to reduce the risk of accidents instead of winning. Western forces invested heavily in weapons that could put soldiers out of harm’s way – air forces, drones – or technology that could expedite immediate medical treatment. Things that keep the enemy at a distance or protect soldiers from harm, such as attack helicopters, body armor and the detection of roadside bombs, were the focus of the West.

The West’s overarching military priority was elsewhere: in the struggle between the great powers. Technologically, that means investing in hypersonic missiles similar to those of China or Russia, or in military artificial intelligence to outsmart them.

Technology is not a driver of conflict and no guarantee of victory. Instead, it’s an enabler.

The Afghan government, caught between these two worlds, ended up having more in common with the Taliban than with the coalition. This was not a war of choice, it was a fundamental threat. But the government could not advance like the Taliban; its development was hindered by the fact that foreign military personnel were the main technologically advanced forces. Although the Afghan army and police have certainly provided bodies for combat (killing many people in the process), they have not been able to develop or operate advanced systems on their own. Western nations were reluctant to equip Afghans with state-of-the-art weapons, fearing they would not be obtained or even fall into the hands of the Taliban.

Take the Afghan Air Force. It was equipped with and trained on less than two dozen propeller-driven aircraft. This allowed for a minimum of close air support, but was far from being up to date. And working with the US meant that Afghanistan was not free to look elsewhere for technology transfer; it was in fact in a stunted development phase.

So what does that tell us? Technology is neither a driver of conflict nor a guarantee of victory. Instead, it’s an enabler. And even rudimentary weapons can stand the day in the hands of motivated, patient people who are willing – and able – to make any necessary progress.

It also tells us that tomorrow’s battlefields could be very similar to Afghanistan: we will see fewer purely technological conflicts won by the military with the greatest firepower, and more old and new technologies used side by side. It already looks like this in conflicts like the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the pattern will become even more evident over time. Technology can no longer win wars, but innovation can – especially when one side is fighting an existential battle.

Christopher Ankersen is Clinical Associate Professor of Global Affairs at New York University. He served with the United Nations in Europe and Asia from 2005 to 2017 and with the Canadian Armed Forces from 1988 to 2000. Author and editor of several books including The policy of civil-military cooperation and TThe future of global affairs, holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mike Martin is a Pushtu-speaking former British Army officer who has served as a political officer on several tours in Afghanistan advising British generals on their approach to the war. Today he is a Visiting War Studies Fellow at King’s College London and author of An intimate wardepicting the war in southern Afghanistan since 1978. He has a PhD from King’s College London.