The Taliban swept to victory in Afghanistan faster than anyone had expected. There were several reasons: massive corruption, struggles among government factions, warlords dividing the country and a lack of a long-term vision for the nation.
Afghan government forces, which consisted of more than 300,000 soldiers and were equipped with US-made Black Hawk helicopters and other advanced equipment, were ingloriously defeated by a mere 60,000 Taliban fighters.
However, a closer look at background factors reveals one thing that Taiwan should learn from: a voluntary military service.
In the final days of providing financial aid to Afghanistan, Western democracies realized that more than 60 percent of the funds were spent on administrative and personnel expenses. Simply put, Afghanistan had a volunteer military system, and despite continuous civil war, the country still relied on the US to pay the salaries of its military personnel.
As it is difficult to make a living in Afghanistan, where the situation is chaotic and territory is controlled by warlords. Many people joined the army simply to make a living. They came from various tribes and provinces in Afghanistan, and their allegiance was to the salary, not the country. Once the situation changed and it was possible that the government would be unable to pay their salaries, they abandoned their jobs, dispersing in no time.
In Taiwan, the public has never stopped questioning the voluntary military service after its implementation in 2018, when it replaced the conscription system that had been in place since 1945.
The American Institute in Taiwan, the US Department of State and several think tanks have repeatedly questioned Taiwan’s voluntary military service system, and even said that Taiwan lacks the determination to defend itself and has insufficient crisis awareness.
The Control Yuan said bluntly in a report that it has not been proven that Taiwan’s combat readiness under the voluntary system is better than under the conscription system.
In other words, the government’s promotion of voluntary military service is not as effective as expected, and this poses a major national security risk.
Moreover, according to the Ministry of National Defense annual budget, the military’s personnel maintenance costs exceeds NT$140 billion (US$5.03 billion), which is close to 50 percent of the total national defense budget — in Afghanistan, it was 60 percent on average.
The Legislative Yuan Budget Center said in a report that through various bonuses and benefits, it is “easy to increase, but difficult to reduce” personnel expenses in the armed forces. This will inevitably reduce the budget funds available for the improvement of equipment and training, as well as high-tech battle readiness and exercises.
Lithuania and Sweden reactivated conscription in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
The rapid defeat of the Afghan army is also thought-provoking.
The Control Yuan’s report highlighted five major shortcomings of voluntary military service: difficulty recruiting soldiers, the overly high costs of maintaining troops, a decline in mobilization and battle capabilities, insufficient quality of soldiers, and difficulty establishing the idea that national defense is everyone’s responsibility. These are problems that the government must address.
Even Switzerland, a country that has maintained neutrality and is not the target of any foreign aggression, has adhered to conscription to cultivate a sense of responsibility among its citizens to fight their own battles.
Faced with the threat of China’s powerful military, can Taiwan really afford to insist on voluntary military service?
Chang Feng-lin is a university administrator based in Taichung.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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