In July 2021, less than two months before Americans would bear witness to the end of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan in the chaotic withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport, President Joe Biden appeared before reporters in the East Room of the White House and insisted that despite Taliban’s slow march across the war-torn country towards the capital of Kabul, a militant takeover was “not inevitable.”
“Together, with our NATO allies and partners, we have trained and equipped nearly 300,000 current serving members of the military, of the Afghan National Security Force, and many beyond that who are no longer serving,” Biden told reporters. “Add to that, hundreds of thousands more Afghan National Defense and Security Forces [ANDSF] trained over the last two decades.”
“We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military,” he continued. “We provided advanced weaponry. And we’re going to continue to provide funding and equipment. And we’ll ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force.”
By mid-August, Biden’s rosy proclamations about the future of Afghanistan’s military had all been proven false. Despite spending more than $90 billion in security assistance for the ANDSF, Afghanistan’s core security forces had proven a paper tiger. Amid the Taliban’s rapid advance through the northern part of the country, Afghan security forces simply threw down their weapons and scattered, while some members of the the ANDSF’s fearsome special operations forces fled to Iran and aviators flew their aircraft over the border to Tajikistan.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” Biden conceded in remarks to reporters in the East Room on Aug. 16, the day after the Taliban proclaimed victory in Kabul. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”
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But why? Despite well-documented issues with the ANDSF — like missing weapons and ammo and non-existant “ghost soldiers” intended to siphon off money and equipment — how did a 300,000-strong fighting force stood up by one of the world’s most advanced militaries buckle under an onslaught of poorly-equipped militants?
The answer is relatively simple, according to a new report from the U.S. government’s top watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction: despite the influx of money, equipment, and training, the Afghan security forces simply couldn’t stand on their own without U.S. support, so far that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country “destroyed the morale” of Afghan forces suddenly left fighting alone for the first time in 20 years.
The report, published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) on Monday, examines the circumstances surrounding the Afghan security forces’ sudden collapse.
The ANDSF “had long relied on the U.S. military’s presence to protect against large-scale ANDSF losses, and Afghan troops saw the United States as a means of holding their government accountable for paying their salaries,” according to the SIGAR report. “The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed under the Trump administration in 2020 made it clear that this was no longer the case, resulting in a sense of abandonment within the ANDSF and the Afghan population.”
While the report faulted “the decision by two U.S. presidents” — Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden — to pull U.S. military forces out of Afghanistan, it was the 2020 agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban to eventually end the years-long conflict that “set in motion a series of events crucial to understanding the ANDSF’s collapse.”
The first effect of the 2020 agreement was a sudden decrease in U.S. airstrikes, which rose so rapidly after Trump took office that the U.S. military conducted nearly 7,500 airstrikes in 2019 alone, the highest volume in a decade. The ANDSF was “making progress and recapturing territory” from the Taliban with airstrikes at their back, according to the SIGAR report, but “limiting airstrikes after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement the following year left the ANDSF without a key advantage in keeping the Taliban at bay.”
The issues exposed by the sudden evaporation of U.S. air support were built into the very structure of the ANDSF, according to the SIGAR report. The ANDSF remained reliant on the U.S. military ”in part because the United States designed the ANDSF as a mirror image of U.S. forces, which required a high degree of professional military sophistication and leadership” — something the Afghan security forces simply lacked, the report noted. A chief example was the creation of a noncommissioned officer corps within the ANDSF, which “had no foundation in Afghanistan military history,” according to the report.
“Because U.S. troops were far more effective at fighting, they often led missions or filled critical gaps in missions — providing close air support, airstrikes, medical evacuation, logistics, and intelligence gathering — at the expense of the ANDSF gaining experience fighting on its own,” the report says. “As a result, the ANDSF became overly reliant on borrowed capabilities.”
The collapse of the Afghan Air Force, long-predicted before it actually happened in the leadup to the Taliban sweep of Kabul, was all but inevitable despite its status as a jewel of the Biden administration’s withdrawal plan, according to the SIGAR report, which indicated that the AAF was “not projected” to be self-sufficient “until at least 2030.” Despite this, the Biden administration made the decision in May 2021 to withdraw on-site contract maintenance from Afghanistan, a move that greatly reduced the availability of operational aircraft and maintenance resources at critical airports, further compounding logistical problems for the ANDSF’s ground forces.
“Because the ANDSF did not have the logistical capability of moving stockpiles of U.S.-provided weapons and supplies by ground quickly enough to meet operational demands, it had to rely on a thinly stretched AAF to do so,” according to the SIGAR report. “As a result, ANDSF units complained that they lacked enough ammunition, food, water, and other military equipment to sustain military engagements against the Taliban.”
Indeed, the Trump administration isn’t entirely to blame for the collapse of morale. The SIGAR report also faulted the Biden administration for an “abrupt and uncoordinated” withdrawal effort, so far that “the character of the withdrawal left many Afghans with the impression that the U.S. was simply handing Afghanistan over to a Taliban government-in-waiting,” in the report’s words.
With the ANDSF structurally compromised and low on morale, it was only a matter of time before the Taliban managed to retake the country. “The Taliban’s military campaign exploited the ANDSF’s logistical, tactical, and leadership weaknesses,” according to the SIGAR report. “Direct attacks and negotiated surrenders set up a domino effect of one district after another falling to the Taliban. The Taliban’s media and psychological warfare campaign, magnified by real-time reporting, further undermined the Afghan forces’ determination to fight.”
There are larger systemic factors that influenced the collapse of the ANDSF as documented by SIGAR, chief among them is that “the length of the U.S. commitment was disconnected from a realistic understanding of the time required to build a self-sustaining security sector — a process that took decades to achieve in South Korea.” Nation-building is a difficult, multi-generational challenge, one that requires socioeconomic stability to truly implement — something that Afghanistan fundamentally lacked.
More damning, however, is that the SIGAR report indicates that Afghanistan reconstruction efforts were fundamentally mismanaged, so far that the U.S. military “was tasked with balancing competing requirements” and “no one country or agency had ownership of the ANDSF development mission.” In short, long-term ownership and accountability for the progress of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort basically didn’t exist; few, if any, of the organizations involved knew what they were responsible for and no one group was particularly willing to take the lead.
Speaking in the East Room that afternoon in July 2021, Biden may have captured the hopes and aspirations for the ANDSF among the U.S. government’s military and diplomatic circles. But the SIGAR report makes one thing perfectly clear: when it came to the actual future and security of Afghanistan, all those hopes and aspirations meant nothing at all.
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