ISLAMABAD - An official U.S. agency report has blamed the sudden demise of Afghan security forces in August 2021 mainly on Washington's decision to rapidly withdraw the American military, leading to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), tasked to monitor events in the war-torn nation, on Wednesday released what it said was the first U.S. government report on how and why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) fell apart abruptly.
The 300,000-member ANDSF, which had received billions of dollars in U.S. training and equipment over two decades, crumbled without offering any significant resistance in the face of a lightning, 11-day insurgent offensive that brought almost the entire country, including the capital, Kabul, under the Taliban control on August 15.
"(The) SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces' 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," the report said.
President Joe Biden and his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw U.S. and allied troops and end the longest U.S. war, not only announced deadlines for the troop exit but the U.S. military significantly reduced its battlefield support of Afghan forces, leaving them without the crucial backing of American airstrikes. The SIGAR assessment is based in part on interviews with U.S. and former Afghan government officials and military leaders.
"We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can't function. Game over ... when the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up," a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told SIGAR.
Former Afghan generals told the agency that most of the U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were grounded shortly after American contractors withdrew in spring 2021, including those who performed maintenance on the helicopters.
"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," one Afghan general told the U.S. monitor. As a result, Afghan soldiers in isolated bases were running out of ammunition or dying for lack of medical evacuation capabilities, according to the report. It noted that the U.S.-Taliban deal and subsequent withdrawal announcement degraded ANDSF morale, with some Afghan army officials denouncing the pact as "a catalyst for the collapse."
In 2019, the U.S. military conducted 7,423 airstrikes against insurgents, the most in a decade. In 2020, the U.S. conducted 1,631 airstrikes, with almost half occurring in the two months before the U.S.-Taliban agreement. A former Afghan special operations' commander told SIGAR that "overnight ... 98 percent of U.S. airstrikes had ceased."
Afghan military officials were quoted as saying that the agreement's psychological impact was so great that the average soldier switched to "survival mode and became susceptible" to accepting other offers, knowing they were not the winner. The deal also introduced tremendous uncertainty into the U.S.-Afghan relationship, according to SIGAR findings.
Afghans share blame
The report also blamed successive U.S.-backed Afghan governments for not doing their part to address the long-running problems facing ANDSF and affecting their determination to keep fighting. SIGAR identified low salaries, poor logistics that led to food, water and ammunition shortages; and corrupt commanders who colluded with contractors to skim off food and fuel contracts. It was not until Biden's April 14, 2021, announcement of the final troop and contractor withdrawal date that deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's inner circle said they realized that the ANDSF had no supply and logistic capabilities. Although the Afghan authorities had operated in this way for nearly 20 years, their realization came only four months before its collapse, the report said. A former Afghan interior ministry official told SIGAR that Ghani and his aides had been dismissing the impending foreign troop withdrawal as "a U.S. plot" until early that April, believing it was merely intended to pressure the embattled president as opposed to being official U.S. policy.
"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 multigenerational process," the SIGAR concluded. "In essence, U.S. and Afghan efforts to cultivate an effective and sustainable security assistance 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 report said.
The U.S.-led Western military alliance invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to punish the then-Taliban government in Kabul for harboring the al-Qaida leaders who Washington said were behind the deadly terrorist attacks against U.S. cities in September of that year. The Islamist group, however, quickly regrouped in alleged sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan before unleashing a deadly insurgency against international forces and their Afghan allies. U.S. and Afghan officials accused the Pakistani spy agency of covertly helping the Taliban sustain and expand their insurgency.
Islamabad rejected the charges and blamed several million Afghan refugees on its soil for sheltering insurgents. The allegations strained Pakistan's relationship with the U.S. but did not rupture it, mainly because Pakistani ground and air routes were playing a crucial role in ferrying supplies to the foreign military mission in landlocked Afghanistan for nearly 20 years until the last American and allied troops flew out of Kabul on August 30.