Why Afghanistan Fell
The official report on Biden’s Afghanistan disaster places the blame squarely on the U.S. government.
The final report of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) confirms what most of us already knew: The collapse of the Afghan army and government was mostly our fault.
You remember the war in Afghanistan, don't you? It was America's longest war, stretching from 2001 until 2021—long enough that soldiers who deployed near the end had not even been born when it all started. The war accomplished nothing in its 20 years. The situation on the ground—Taliban in charge, open territory for any terrorist needing an AirBnB—is pretty much status quo September 2001. It is now 2024, and so many are dead for so little.
SIGAR’s report, Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise, posits two major factors that led to the failure: unclear U.S. war aims, and corruption and mismanagement on the part of the Afghan government created, advised, and funded by the U.S. (so that's sort of on us, too).
General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, head of Central Command from 2010 to 2013 and Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2018, told SIGAR, “The lack of political clarity on ends, ways, and means meant we were always wondering if we were still going to be here next year. Were we going to be funded next year? We weren’t sure whether to attack, retreat, or go sideways.”
SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ (ANDSF) collapse in August 2021 was the decision by two U.S. presidents to withdraw U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan, while Afghan forces remained unable to sustain themselves. One former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told SIGAR, “We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can’t function. When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up.”
The sad thing about those quotes is that they could have been applied at almost any point in the 20 year war.
Lack of political clarity? It was a couple of years into the war itself before anyone knew the reason for the war. (It turned out to be “terrorism.”) An unsustainable Afghan military? Maybe someone could point out where in, say, year 16 that the army was sustainable. Heads are going to roll over that one! All we need to do is find out who was responsible for creating a sustainable army and political clarity and roast ’em.
The other factor that contributed to the demise of the Afghan army was the last-minute wholesale restructuring of Afghanistan’s security institutions. In 2021, amid rapidly deteriorating security, President Ghani reshuffled most of his security officials, often replacing them with fellow ethnic Pashtuns. These leadership changes were part of a broader pattern of politicization and ethnicization (in favor of hometown Pashtuns) of the security sector.
One analyst told SIGAR, “Districts collapsed not because of the army, but because of that restructuring that happened and the fact that none of [the replacement police chiefs] had connections” at the district level. He claimed it was the police that did most of the fighting in the final 18 months, not the army. By undermining the morale and political legitimacy of the police, this restructuring directly contributed to the collapse in August 2021.
Ethnic competition between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns was likely the single biggest source of dysfunction within the ANDSF. But some former Afghan officials described other types of friction. One former MOD official described competition between the younger and older generation of officers, and between the jihadis and the professional officers. All these issues distracted from the fight, he said. Now, see, someone on the American side should have been watching for that!
This strategic-level mismanagement had a direct effect in the field. “Overnight, 98 percent of U.S. air strikes had ceased.… The Doha agreement’s psychological implication was so great that the average Afghan soldier felt this idea of abandonment…[and] U.S. soldiers were confused about what to engage and what to not,” said one former Afghan Army corps commander. “On an hourly basis, the U.S. military had to coordinate with the Doha office of Ambassador Khalilzad and others from the State Department to get clarification on what they could do.”
“[U.S. partners] said it was not right, but they have to follow orders. They would see the Taliban attacking our checkpoints. They would have videos of the Taliban doing it. But they would say we are not able to engage, because we have limitations. There was also so much concern about civilians, which gave the Taliban an advantage,” explained a former Afghan Army general.
According to a senior Afghan official, it was not until President Biden’s April 2021 announcement of the final troop and contractor withdrawal date that Afghan President Ghani’s inner circle said they realized the ANDSF had no supply and logistics capability. Although the Afghan government had operated in this way for nearly 20 years, their realization came only four months before its collapse.
Then there was the lack of coordination between the U.S. and the Afghan governments as the Americans negotiating in Doha cut their own deals with the Taliban to enable a quick exit. One former Afghan government official told SIGAR that following the U.S.–Taliban agreement, President Ghani began to suspect that the United States wanted to remove him from power. That official and a former Afghan general believed Ghani feared a military coup. According to the general, Ghani became a “paranoid president…afraid of his own countrymen” and of U.S.-trained Afghan officers.
According to a former Afghan general, in the week before Kabul fell, Ghani replaced the new generation of young U.S.-trained Afghan officers with an old guard of Communist generals in almost all of the army corps. Ghani, that general said, was “changing commanders constantly [to] bring back some of the old-school Communist generals who [he] saw as loyal to him, instead of these American-trained young officers who he [mostly] feared.”
The Afghans, largely removed from the negotiations, struggled most of all to understand what the United States had agreed to with the Taliban. According to Afghan government officials, the U.S. military never clearly communicated the specifics of its policy changes to the Ghani administration. According to a former Afghan general, in a broad sense, the U.S. military took on the role of a referee and watched the Afghan government and Taliban fight, something the general referred to as “a sick game.”
According to that general, Afghan troops had not only lost U.S. support for offensive operations, they no longer knew if or when U.S. forces would come to their defense. U.S. inaction fueled mistrust among the ANDSF toward the United States and their own government. The Taliban’s operations and tactics, however, suggested that they may have had a better understanding of new levels of support the United States was willing to provide to the ANDSF following the signing of the U.S.–Taliban agreement.
For example, under the U.S.–Taliban agreement’s rules, U.S. aircraft could not target the Taliban groups that were waiting more than 500 meters away—the groups “beyond the contact” that would engage in the second, third, or fourth wave to defeat the last ANDSF units.
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SIGAR's sad conclusion to the report could have been written at any point in the history of American empire, including in 1968:
The U.S. 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 U.S. created an ANDSF that could not operate independently, milestones for ANDSF capability development were unrealistic, and the eventual collapse of the ANDSF was predictable.
After 20 years of training and development, the ANDSF never became a cohesive, substantive force capable of operating on its own. The U.S. and Afghan governments share in the blame. Neither side appeared to have the political commitment to doing what it would take to address the challenges, including devoting the time and resources necessary to develop a professional ANDSF, a multi-generational process. In essence, U.S. and Afghan efforts to cultivate an effective and sustainable security assistance sector were likely to fail from the beginning.
“Likely to fail from the beginning” is a hell of an epitaph for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. If only SIGAR could find the people responsible, we might avoid another round in Ukraine, where our policy depends on another patsy leader whose army is now totally dependent on U.S. funding, supplies, and advice in a war that cannot be won, only sustained at great expense.