Nearly 18 months after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the White House continues to overestimate the number of Afghan troops and police who were active in the fight when President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country.
On Thursday, the Pentagon provided Congress with a classified version of an independent after-action report that looked at how the Defense Department implemented U.S. policy in Afghanistan from January to August 2021. Separately, the White House also released a 12-page summary of the key events and decisions made by Biden and former President Donald Trump leading up to the Afghanistan withdrawal.
That summary repeats a key talking point that Biden administration officials used several times in 2021 to argue the Afghan government could survive after the U.S. withdrawal, at least for some time: that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which included troops and police, outnumbered the Taliban.
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“Compared to the Taliban, they had vastly superior numbers and equipment: 300,000 troops compared to 80,000 Taliban fighters, an air force, and two decades of training and support,” the summary says.
But by the time Biden announced the Afghanistan withdrawal in April 2021, there were clear signs the Afghan security forces were a house of cards that could not operate without support from U.S. troops and civilian contractors.
While Afghanistan’s security forces had an authorized end strength of 352,000, the country was never able to fill all those billets for troops and police officers, Afghanistan expert Jonathan Schroden wrote in January 2021 for the Sentinel, which is published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Schroden estimated at the time that the entire Afghan military – including the Afghan Air Force – had a total of 96,000 service members; while Afghanistan also had about 83,000 police officers for a total of 179,000 combat personnel present each day.
However, one major reason why it is difficult to say exactly how many troops and police officers the Afghan government had in 2021 is that the ranks of Afghan’s security forces were artificially inflated by tens of thousands of “ghosts” who only existed on paper, not in real life, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.
Before he became president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani told the head of SIGAR in 2013 that the U.S. government was paying the salaries of soldiers, police officers, and other Afghan government officials who simply did not exist, a July 2020 SIGAR report says.
“The consequence, SIGAR noted in 2015, was that ‘neither the United States nor its Afghan allies truly know how many Afghan soldiers and police are available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities,’” the report says.
In a subsequent report in February that examined the collapse of Afghan security forces, SIGAR provided several estimates for the actual number of Afghan troops and police in 2021.
Afghanistan’s former finance minister Khalid Payenda told the Afghanistan Analysts Network that at least 80% of the ANDSF were ghosts, estimating that the Afghan government had between 40,000 and 50,000 troops at the end.
Meanwhile, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh Province, estimated that the Afghan military fielded between 50,000 and 100,000 troops in the final days of the Afghan republic.
“The ANDSF’s actual force strength has been highly debated,” the SIGAR report from February found. “A definitive figure has been impossible to provide because DOD relied on inadequate systems and often manual methods for tracking ANDSF personnel.”
While the size of the ANDSF is in question, there is no debating that they were riddled with systemic problems that meant their fate was sealed as soon as Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The much-touted Afghan Air Force disintegrated without the civilian contractors that it needed to maintain its American-made helicopters.
Moreover, John Sopko, the inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, warned Congress in January 2020 that the Afghan security forces – particularly the police – were “a hopeless nightmare and a disaster” because U.S. training efforts had utterly failed.
Sopko also told Task & Purpose that U.S. government officials had become encouraged to lie about progress in Afghanistan over the years, and by the time the final battles came in 2021, Afghan troops and police were still no match for the Taliban despite $88 billion and 20 years of training from the United States.
The summary of decision-making released by the White House this week places the majority of the blame for Afghanistan’s collapse on former President Trump, who reached an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. Even though an ostensible withdrawal was supposed to be based on conditions on the ground, Trump accelerated the drawdown despite increasing violence in Afghanistan, ordering all remaining troops to leave the country shortly before heft office, although that order was later rescinded, which left 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office.
Notably absent from the White House summary of the Afghanistan withdrawal is any criticism of the State Department’s actions under the Biden administration. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told lawmakers that the State Department waited too long before beginning the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies. During the frantic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, passports of Afghans who had applied for visas were destroyed along with other sensitive documents.
An Army officer later told investigators looking into the Aug. 26, 2021 suicide bomb attack at Hamid Karazai International Airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 13 U.S. service members found that on the day the Taliban took Kabul, some embassy employees were drunk and others had “absolutely no sense of urgency or recognition of the situation,” the Washington Post first reported.
Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who lost his right arm and left leg in the Abbey Gate atack, recently told Congress that State Department officials were unprepared to deal with the crush of Afghans fleeing for their lives while he and other service members guarded the airport.
“In fact, State would not want to deal with the Afghans unable to be processed,” Vargas-Andrews said during his emotional testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 8. “Weakening the security of the perimeter, State would take us away from our mission to walk Afghans out to meet the fate of the Taliban, condemning them to death.”
Even though the White House summary omits these shortcomings, it indicates the Biden administration has learned from its mistakes.
“We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation,” the summary says. “We did so in both Ethiopia and Ukraine. We are now deliberate and clear about the support the U.S. government is able to provide to Americans abroad in challenging country conditions, as well as the limits of that support.”
It is unclear why the Biden administration continues to exaggerate the size of the ANDSF in 2021, but no one can argue that the U.S. government had been warned for years that Afghan troops and police could not hold their own against the Taliban.
Shortly before the fall of Kabul, Sopko decried the United States’ hubris in thinking it could transform Afghanistan into a Western society, and the repeated exaggerations by military and civilian leaders that victory was at hand.
“We have to be honest,” Sopko told reporters in July 2021. “We have to be honest with ourselves. And, we have to be honest with the American people, who pay for this – not only in money but also in blood and treasure.”
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