America’s Afghan reckoning

  • Themes: War

The scale and speed of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021 stunned the world — but as a recent report makes clear, the signs of impending disaster were already in place.

Evacuees wait to board a plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan
Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Sgt Isiah Campbell/ Alamy stock photos

Afghanistan’s security forces collapsed in 2021. For almost two decades, the United States had allocated nearly $90 billion of aid to the defence of the state, with the aim of producing a viable, self-sufficient Afghan force able to repel and defeat internal and external threats alike. Sixteen days before US forces were scheduled to leave Afghanistan, the country fell to the Taliban. How did this happen?

A recent SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) report has collated a comprehensive review of how America and Afghanistan failed entirely in their joint mission of creating a competent, independent force with which to defend the state.

A list of errors — including systemic rot and impulsive, poor decision-making — pervaded the security forces, and rendered Afghanistan’s rapid and total collapse inevitable. After decades of US intervention, American military and civilian leaders must be forced to acknowledge the severity of their failure.

Even after two decades, Afghanistan’s near-total dependence on US military forces ensured that their withdrawal withered what little morale remained within Afghan military and police. When President Trump signed a US-Taliban deal, known as the Doha agreement, in 2020, the writing was on the wall: Afghanistan was to be left to fend for itself. Its signing sparked panic among those who remained within the Afghan forces — and triggered a series of events that ensured the devastating collapse.

As part of the Doha agreement, the US had strong-armed their allies into releasing 5,000 militant Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghanis held by the Taliban. The majority of these 5,000 released prisoners ignored their signed promises to refrain from fighting the Afghan government and instead became a regenerative core of the Taliban’s military power, some commanding soldiers in battle against Afghan forces or becoming shadow leaders of entire provinces. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, had hoped their release, coupled with a cash stipend, would be a joint exercise in trust. Afghan soldiers who suspected the imprisoned Taliban commanders were lying became more demoralised. Afghanistan’s forces had been weak enough to need to lean on America to maintain something that barely counted as peace. When America seemed to betray their cause, the faith the Afghan forces had in their role deteriorated.

The manner in which US forces left Afghanistan similarly eroded what little confidence was left in the remaining forces. Afghan military officials complained — not unjustifiably — that the allies had left Bagram in the middle of the night, shutting off the electricity as they went, without informing the Afghan commander — who only realised the situation after the airfield base had been looted in the interim. ‘In one night,’ complained one Afghan soldier, ‘[the Americans] lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did… without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area.’

In abandoning the Afghan military, US forces were also abandoning the Afghan government. That was much more catastrophic. With no US backing, the government would surely fall, the state would be plunged into chaos — and soldiers would go unpaid. They would become sitting ducks for the Taliban fighters gaining power in the wake of a hasty American evacuation.

Such an eventuality was unthinkable for those in high office. As such, for months, President Ashraf Ghani simply did not believe that America would actually withdraw. His contacts in Washington reinforced the idea that US forces would not leave until a peace deal within Afghanistan had been agreed. Indeed, senior officials in Afghanistan were under the impression that America could not withdraw as the circumstances stood, according to their agreement with the Afghan government. This false confidence led Ghani to believe he had the luxury of prioritising the internal threats to his presidency over the external threats of the Taliban forces.

Ethnic tensions pervaded the national army, and personnel were convinced that the Ghani administration favoured his own ethnic Pashtun group. Few were willing to die for a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy. Was this really the best leadership that America could back? As one former interior minister told SIGAR, ‘nobody wanted to die for Ghani, die for people who were here to rob the country’.

The corrupt incompetence of the Ghani administration helped to engender a culture of complacency within the security forces, in which service to the nation was a means to an income, rather than a calling. By 2020, hardly anyone was willing to risk their life to protect a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy — a number which fell further as Taliban supremacy seemed more and more certain. The Royal United Services Institute’s Antonio Giustozzi explained to SIGAR that ‘[Afghan] families sent one of their kids into the army because it meant a salary. Usually, they didn’t send their smartest kid, because the smartest kid they send to study. Maybe you send another one to become a mullah just to hedge your bets, and you keep one on the farm, and then if you have a fourth one who smokes most of the time, doesn’t want to work, you send him to the army, because that’s a salary.’ Sometimes it wasn’t even that. Many soldiers found themselves going without pay for months, making Taliban offers of amnesty and money more appealing than they might have otherwise been.

Those who were paid were often paid in cash via an intermediary, who would skim money from the soldiers — sometimes taking half of their pay. Soldiers began to steal from their army, taking fuel, supplies, ammunition, and weaponry, often selling to the Taliban. A 2016 Reuters report found that eighty per cent of Afghan soldiers had sold ammunition to a third party. Their commanders were doing the same. Fuel theft alone resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars lost. American forces often looked the other way, considering it ‘the cost of doing business’. When America did decide to counter the thefts, the response was simply to commandeer control of the fuel. Once again, the Afghan government was deemed incapable of being tasked with its own necessities. And once again, Afghanistan became more and more dependent on their invaders.

Such corruption undermined the legitimacy of forces and poisoned local civilians, who were sometimes held at illegal checkpoints they had to bribe their way through. As a result, foreign corporations were unconvinced as to the value of investing or expanding in a country where supplies would be stolen, employees would be extorted, and bribes would have to be paid en masse.

Corruption not only robbed Afghanistan of investment and opportunity, destroyed civilian trust, and alienated security personnel. It also invented Afghan staff that simply did not exist. President Ghani’s last finance minister suggested that ‘at least’ eighty per cent of Afghan troops were ‘ghost soldiers’ —  who existed only so their ‘commanders’ could pocket their wages. As he explained, ‘some people even had the vision of seeing that it’s not just about my job, it’s the whole system that could collapse, it’s the whole republic, and if that happens there [are] no records, there is nothing, why not steal?’ Atta Noor, the former governor of Balkh Province, suggested that the Afghan government had only ever had 100,000 soldiers at most. One former interior minister could verify only 6,000 policemen out of the 17,000 he was paying a salary to.

Despite endemic misconduct and mismanagement, entwinement of the two country’s forces remained ubiquitous. It was obvious that, under these circumstances, America’s withdrawal from a near-totally dependent ally ensured that the little remaining morale of Afghan military and police forces would wither away, encouraging individuals and institutions to further embrace the corruption that already haunted the nation. The experience has left watchers with uncomfortable questions regarding how feasible it really is to construct a self-sustaining military in a foreign land. Any state that wishes to build or support an army abroad must learn from the collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces.


Katherine Bayford