Over the past two decades, the United States has invested more than $88 billion to build, train and equip Afghan troops and police – and yet the Taliban is clearly a superior fighting force.
As President Joe Biden considers finally withdrawing the roughly 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, no one has any illusions that the Afghan security forces will be able to avoid being defeated by the Taliban, especially if the United States stops paying the salaries for Afghan troops and police.
John Sopko, the brutally honest inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, has been sounding the alarm for years about how corruption, waste, and fraud was effectively neutering the U.S. government’s effort to breathe life into the Afghan security forces.
“The Afghan military – and particularly the Afghan police – has been a hopeless nightmare and a disaster,” Sopko warned Congress in January 2020.
Task & Purpose asked Sopko why the Afghan security forces are still so reliant on the United States and NATO nearly 20 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
There isn’t a simple or easy answer, he said.
“Based on all the work we’ve done, it seems obvious that the biggest mistake we’ve made was to try to build an Afghan Army in our own image and likeness,” Sopko said. “In other words, an Army that uses the systems and the equipment and the weapons that our army does. And yet, this is a country where a huge portion of the population are illiterate, where there’s very little electricity, and very little internet.”
Last year, the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office determined that the U.S. military had awarded more than $14 million for an internet-based system to help Afghan keep track of their vehicles and weapons, which the Afghans were not using at 78 of 191 storage sites because they had no electricity or internet connection.
The Afghan military and police force’s pay and personnel systems also rely on the internet, Sopko said.
Recruiting and attrition has also been major problems that have hampered the Afghan security forces’ development, he said.
“When they do get recruits, and we train them, they suffer casualties at a rapid pace due to the operational tempo of fighting insurgents,” Sopko said. “Or they leave the force due to corruption – for example, not having their salaries paid. And then we have to replace and train ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] personnel all over again.”
One of the major flaws of the U.S. military’s approach to assisting Afghan troops and police has been its focus on building combat power at the expense of ensuring that the Afghan security forces were self-sustainable, Sopko said.
Afghan troops and police need more than fighting capabilities: They need to develop other competencies including human resource management, budgeting, maintenance, procurement – and above all, logistics, he said.
Logistics is the “Achilles’ heel” of any fighting force and the United States has either taken control of or heavily influenced the Afghan logistics system for most of the war, he said.
“Currently, the Afghan government has limited capability to move food, ammunition, medical supplies, and so on, to units in the field,” Sopko said. “As SIGAR [the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] has highlighted recently, the Afghans also lack any capability to maintain their equipment. Without development of these core functions, the ANDSF will never be able to sustain itself.”
As of January, the Afghan air force had just under half of its required number of maintainers, who make sure that planes and helicopters are fixed, fueled, armed, and ready to fly combat missions, the most recent SIGAR report found.
“DOD has acknowledged that building an organic Afghan aircraft maintenance capability is a years-long process,” the report says. “Training a fully qualified routine-level maintainer can take up to 18 months, and an advanced-level maintainer up to 7.5 years.”
Meanwhile, the Afghan military and police force’s abilities to maintain their vehicles have atrophied in the past two years, the report found. As of December 2020, the Afghan army and police were only completing about 20% and 12% of their maintenance work orders respectively, the report found.
By any objective standards, those maintenance rates are abysmal. Sopko explained that the U.S. military repeatedly focused on “short-term mission objectives” rather than making sure the Afghans could take care of their vehicles and other equipment.
“Even though one of our core objectives was to develop an Afghan capability to sustain its own equipment, U.S. military advisors would provide routine maintenance and repairs to Afghan equipment so the ANDSF could conduct additional missions,” Sopko said.
A related issue is that Afghanistan relies entirely on the United States to buy weapons systems, and that can result in Afghan troops and police getting equipment that they neither need nor use, he said.
That is also how the Afghan security forces lacked armored ambulances and other important materiel – because the U.S. military didn’t think they needed it, he said.
Compounding these issues: The United States did not have a plan for several years about how the Afghan security forces should be trained and equipped; so the Afghans kept having to learn how to incorporate new weapons systems into their forces, he said.
“Without a stable ANDSF plan, the ANDSF was constantly having to be re-taught something new, which resulted in limited overall progress,” Sopko said.
A prime example of this is when Connecticut’s Congressional delegation succeeded in forcing the Pentagon to provide the Afghan military with locally manufactured UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to replace their Russian-made Mi-17s.
“It’s good news for Connecticut’s economy and jobs, and equally good for our national security,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a November 2016 news release.
But the switch to Black Hawks delayed the Afghan air force’s ability to sustain itself by several years and also marked a setback for the Afghan security forces overall, Sopko said.
“In the field, the ANDSF was taught how to use Mi-17s for logistics and MEDEVAC [medical evacuation flights],” Sopko said. “When we transitioned them to the UH-60s, field units had to all be retrained on how to do logistics and MEDEVAC with a different aircraft that had fundamentally different procedures.”
The United States also made a strategic mistake by not ensuring that the Afghans had developed their own “enablers,” such as close air support and MEDEVAC capabilities, he said.
For many years, U.S. troops taught the Afghan security forces to only conduct operations if they had proper intelligence support, close air support, and other assistance that was not organic to the Afghan military and police force, Afghan troops and police were also taught that if they encountered the enemy, they should stop and request U.S. air support before proceeding.
“Teaching these military principles hurt Afghan self-sustainment because when we pulled off enabler support in 2015, the ANDSF did not have its own combat enablers and suffered large defeats (Kunduz and Helmand),” Sopko said. “The ANA [Afghan National Army] became base-bound, and weren’t engaging in operations because they didn’t have the enablers they were taught that they needed to be successful.”
Despite two decades and billions of dollars of support, Afghan security forces cannot survive without outside assistance. The Taliban can. That advantage will be decisive whenever U.S. troops leave the country.
Featured image: Afghan National Army soldiers stand in formation waiting to be greeted by Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Yasin Zia and Resolute Support Commander Gen. Scott Miller at a checkpoint in western Afghanistan on Dec. 31, 2019. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Spc. Jeffery J. Harris.)