Post mortem of Afghan collapse apportions blame all around
As the world’s attention is preoccupied by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Afghanistan under Taliban rule has been largely overlooked. Afghanistan is in poor shape, with an estimated 55% of its people facing extreme hunger.
In May, a US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report was issued detailing reasons why the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) collapsed so rapidly before the Taliban.
The document – entitled ‘Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise’ – was damning of US efforts to build the ANDSF.
The SIGAR report concluded: ‘The US approach to reconstructing the ANDSF lacked the political will to dedicate the time and resources necessary to reconstruct an entire security sector in a war-torn and impoverished country. As a result, the US created an ANDSF that could not operate independently, milestones for ANDSF capability development were unrealistic, and the eventual collapse of the ANDSF’s was predictable.’
However, it is to the US military’s shame that none seemed to anticipate the Taliban blitzkrieg across Afghanistan, a collapse that was certainly not foreseen by US officials.
The report continued: ‘After 20 years of training and development, the ANDSF never became a cohesive, substantive force capable of operating on its own. The US and Afghan governments share in the blame.’
Of six factors identified in the defeat of the Afghan military, the single most important was the US ‘decision to withdraw the US military and contractors from Afghanistan through the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020, signed under the Trump administration and confirmed by President Biden in an April 2021 address to the nation’.
Indeed, this decision for a rapid US military withdrawal ‘sealed the ANDSF’s fate’. The drawdown of 8,600 remaining US troops began on 1 May 2021.
The AAF operates UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters given by the US military. (Photo: US DoD)
As for assisting Afghan security forces, SIGAR’s report gloomily suggested that efforts to create a security force were doomed to fail from the beginning.
The US ‘lacked the organisational, agency-level and interagency doctrine, policies and dedicated resources to initiate the wholesale development of another nation’s national army. US trainers and advisors performed short tours of duty, limiting institutional knowledge and continuity of effort. In addition, US trainers and advisors were inexperienced and did not receive adequate training prior to deployment.’
It tried to make the ANDSF a mirror image of the US military, with combined-arms units and an NCO corps, something that never existed in Afghan history.
The US military also used flawed performance metrics to evaluate the ANDSF. Such measures focused on whether individuals were getting paid or structures were being built, rather than assessing the sustainability of Afghan military skills. Indeed, it did not have any accurate yardstick to measure progress.
SIGAR complained that, in the lead-up to the American withdrawal, ‘the US wanted to ensure the ANDSF had the appearance of success. The US military reinforced that appearance of success by performing supply, logistics, evacuation, intelligence, maintenance and procurement activities in support of the ANDSF, knowing that the Afghans lacked the capacity required to do these missions on their own. In essence, the US created a false reality with the ANDSF.’
The authors noted: ‘The United States established an early pattern of providing the Afghan government with the aircraft that DoD wanted it to have, not the aircraft the Afghans requested or had experience maintaining. This blocked the Afghan government from developing the managerial skills needed to equip and maintain its own military because the United States did not allow it to own the procurement process, and therefore learn from mistakes made.’
Critically, the US withdrawal denied the ANDSF of the force-multiplying effect of US airstrikes. In 2019 alone, the US conducted 7,423 airstrikes, the most since 2009. Their sudden disappearance greatly hurt the ANDSF, even though the Pentagon knew the Afghan Air Force (AAF) would not be self-sufficient before 2030.
Before its defeat, the Afghan Air Force had 23 operational A-29 Super Tucanos. (Photo: US DoD)
The SIGAR report did not blame the US exclusively, however.
It warned that corruption plagued the Afghan government, with officials often seeking personal gain rather than national success. ‘Due to a lack of accountability and oversight by United States, NATO and [the] Afghan government, a culture of impunity swept its way through the security sector.’
Kabul counted on indefinite US military and financial support, and it had no effective security policy in place to fill the US void.
Furthermore, senior ANDSF leaders were awarded positions based on political considerations rather than military expertise. As of the end of April 2021, the ANDSF had 300,699 personnel, of which 182,071 were for defence and the rest for internal security.
As for the ANDSF itself, it had low literacy rates, high attrition rates, unsustainable casualties, and personnel joining the force primarily for US-provided paycheques.
‘Low troop morale, something the US military did not take into account, was one of the main contributors to the ANDSF’s collapse. However, nothing affected morale more than realising that US military forces were leaving. The ANDSF, along with Afghans throughout the country, felt abandoned,’ SIGAR lamented.
Since 2002, the US spent approximately $18.6 billion equipping the ANDSF, including 600,000 weapons of all calibres, nearly 300 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, more than 80,000 vehicles, communications equipment and other advanced material such as NVG sets and biometric systems.
Afghan commandos wait to be picked up by Mi-17 helicopters of the AAF. (Photo: US DoD)
The DoD estimated that $7.12 billion worth of ANDSF equipment remained behind when US forces withdrew in August 2021. A US national security advisor surprised nobody when acknowledging: ‘We don’t have a complete picture, obviously, of where every article of defence materials has gone, but certainly a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban.’
Astonishingly, the Taliban claimed it took possession of more than 300,000 light arms, 26,000 heavy weapons and 61,000 military vehicles.
The AAF flew about 25% of its flyable aircraft to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, but one senior Taliban leader claimed it repaired half the demilitarised aircraft. It has been working to recruit former AAF personnel to reconstitute the air force. In fact, the group claims about 4,300 members, half the former AAF, have joined the Taliban air force, including 33 pilots.
Direct attacks by the Taliban, as well as negotiated surrenders, set up a domino effect as one district after another fell to the Taliban. ‘The Taliban’s media campaign, magnified by real-time reporting, further undermined the Afghan forces’ determination to fight.’
Worryingly, the SIGAR report concluded: ‘Unless the US government understands and accounts for what went wrong, why it went wrong and how it went wrong in Afghanistan, it will likely repeat the same mistakes in the next conflict.’
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