The US decision to leave Afghanistan under both the Trump and Biden administrations was the driving factor behind the swift collapse of the Afghan military as the Taliban swept across the country with stunning speed last summer, according to a scathing new inspector general report released Wednesday.
The interim report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction called the US decision to withdraw – conceived by the Trump administration in 2020 and implemented by the Biden administration in 2021 – the “single most important factor” behind the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
The inspector general’s report, which also cast significant blame on decisions made by former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, is one of the deepest examinations to date at the reasons behind the stunning fall of the Afghan government last summer that saw the Taliban rapidly take control of Afghanistan amid a full US withdrawal following a 20-year war.
The interim report is another damning indictment of the failed planning and strategy that plagued America’s vision for Afghanistan, even as special inspector general John Sopko wrote that the eventual collapse was “predictable.” The US repeatedly set goals for the Afghan military that were unattainable, implemented metrics that delivered success while obfuscating the real problems and poured resources into solutions that only exacerbated the issues they were meant to fix.
“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,” the inspector general wrote. “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 sector were likely to fail from the beginning. The February 2020 decision to commit to a rapid U.S. military withdrawal sealed the ANDSF’s fate.”
The Doha agreement, signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020, shattered the fragile morale of the Afghan military, according to the SIGAR report. The Pentagon, over 20 years, had attempted to create a “mirror image to the US military,” the report found – something that never materialized and would have required years more training and assistance.
By 2020, Afghan forces still relied far too heavily on US personnel and support, despite $90 billion of investment by the United States over the course of the war.
The Pentagon defended its decades of training and equipping the ANDSF, asserting that an independent Afghan military backed by US support was “very nearly within reach.”
“While not perfect and faced with many residual challenges such as rampant corruption and desertion, the ANDSF had grown to exhibit competency in securing most of Afghanistan’s population centers and had taken over all offensive operations against the Taliban to include the vast majority of airstrikes,” said Army Major Rob Lodewick, a Defense Department spokesperson.
Reduction of airstrikes
Following the agreement with the Taliban, other factors also hampered the Afghan security forces. The inspector general wrote that the US conducted more than 7,400 airstrikes in 2019, but limited them the following year to only 1,600, almost half of which occurred in the two months before the US-Taliban agreement.
The reduction in airstrikes, the report said, left the Afghan forces “without a key advantage in keeping the Taliban at bay.”
The Defense Department said the reduced strikes were a reflection of the US commitment to the Doha agreement, which called for an end to strikes against the Taliban. The Afghan Air Force still conducted unilateral “defensive strikes,” Lodewick said.
The withdrawal of US contractors last year further deteriorated the state of the Afghan air force. Former Afghan Army Corps commander Gen. Sami Sadat told investigators that when US contractors withdraw, every aircraft with battle damage or in need of maintenance was grounded. “In a matter of months, 60 percent of the Black Hawks were grounded, with no Afghan or U.S. government plan to bring them back to life,” Sadat said, according to the report.
The report also criticized the way the US military left Bagram Airfield in July 2021, saying that US forces departed the base at night without notifying the new Afghan base commander.
“The U.S. military also shut off the electricity, enabling looters to ransack the base before security forces regained control,” the inspector general wrote. “Although U.S. and Afghan officials disputed the circumstances of the U.S. departure, which a U.S. military spokesperson said was the result of a miscommunication, the demoralizing effect of the silent late-night departure on Afghan soldiers was clear.”
The report scrutinized multiple ways that Ghani’s paranoia and lack of planning contributed to the fall of the country’s armed forces and ultimately, Ghani’s government.
Ghani was profoundly ignorant about the state of his own military, the report found, only realizing in the final months before the Taliban took over the country that the US provided nearly everything for the Afghan forces except the men doing the fighting. Increasingly distrustful of the United States and paranoid that the west was plotting to replace him, Ghani tightened his inner circle, replacing a young generation of US-trained Afghan officers with loyalists.
“It was not until President Biden’s April 14, 2021, announcement of the final troop and contractor withdrawal date that this senior advisor and President Ghani’s inner circle said they realized that the ANDSF had no supply and logistics capability,” the inspector general wrote. “Although the Afghan government had operated in this way for nearly 20 years, their realization came only 4 months before its collapse.”
‘Old guard of Communists’
In the week before the fall of Kabul, Ghani installed an “old guard of Communists” into nearly the entire army corps, removing the younger officers.
At that point, the Taliban controlled five of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Within days, they would take over virtually the entire country, culminating in the fall of Kabul on August 15. Whatever his motives, Afghan and US officials believed Ghani’s leadership changes also played a fundamental role in the collapse of the Afghan military, according to the report.
The inspector general wrote that some Afghan and US officials believed Kabul would not have fallen had Ghani remained in the capital. One Afghan squadron commander told investigators he arrived in Kabul ready to defend the capital with a dozen attack helicopters and 17 pilots. But once Ghani fled, “self-preservation instincts took over,” and the squadron commander said that anyone who could fly an aircraft fled to neighboring countries, according to the report.
The interim report, which was requested by congressional committees, also sought to assess how much US-provided equipment fell into the hands of the Taliban.
The inspector general wrote that the status of US-provided equipment remains mostly unknown. The Pentagon estimates that $7.1 billion of Afghan security forces equipment remained in Afghanistan in varying states of repair when US forces withdrew last August. “We don’t have a complete picture, obviously, of where every article of defense materials has gone, but certainly a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the hands of the Taliban,” a US national security adviser told the inspector general.
The Defense Department reported to Congress in March it assessed that 78 aircraft, more than 9,500 air-to-ground munitions, over 40,000 vehicles, more than 300,000 weapons and night vision and other equipment were left behind in Afghanistan. Aircraft that remained in Afghanistan at Hamid Karzai International Airport were “demilitarized and rendered inoperable,” according to the Pentagon report.
The interim report concludes with a warning to the US government.
“Unless the U.S. 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,” the inspector general wrote.