US deserves big share of blame for Afghanistan military disaster
As one provincial capital after another has fallen to the Taliban, the message from Washington to the Afghans facing the onslaught has been that their survival is in their own hands.
“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” Joe Biden said. Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, added: “They have what they need. What they need to determine is whether they have the political will to fight back.”
But despite more than $80bn in US security assistance since 2002 and an annual military budget far in excess of other developing nations, Afghan military resistance to the Taliban is collapsing with greater speed than even most pessimists had predicted. There is talk among US officials of Kabul falling in months – if not weeks.
Interviews with former officials who have been intimately involved in US policy in Afghanistan point to an interconnected webs of factors behind the implosion, some of them long in the making, some a result of decisions taken in the past few months.
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While there is consensus that a failure of leadership and unity in Kabul has played an important part in the domino-fall of defeats, there is also agreement that the attempt to put all the blame on the Afghans obscures the share of responsibility of the US and its allies for the military disaster.
The candid assessments of US and allied officials and soldiers recorded in congressionally mandated “lessons learned” reports obtained by the Washington Post make clear some of the problems so evident today had their origins at the onset of the US-led military presence in the country.
In the early years, when the Taliban were on the run, the Pentagon, under the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was loth to fund a substantial Afghan force, particularly after the Iraq invasion drew away resources and attention.
Later, when the Taliban had regrouped and struck back, the coalition raced to build the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) comprising army, police and militias on a huge scale, totalling over 350,000 at their peak, cutting corners on training and funding.
Out in the provinces, newly minted police were left to fend for themselves, and many used their authority and guns to squeeze income out of the population. Army officers drew salaries for tens of thousands “ghost soldiers”, whose names were on the books, but who never materialised.
“We economised. We got the ANSF we deserve,” Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as the Afghan war tsar in the Bush and Obama administrations, said in his “lessons learned” interview. “If we started with the ANSF in 2002-6 when the Taliban were weak and disorganised, things may have been different. Instead we went to Iraq.”
Throughout the 20 years of the US war in Afghanistan, it is clear that the ANSF’s capabilities were consistently oversold by a succession of US defence secretaries and military commanders, who enthused over progress made.
Retired Gen Joseph Votel, who led US central command from 2016 to 2019, admitted that in some cases the charge of overselling the ANSF was “fair criticism”. But he added that many individual Afghan units, particularly special forces, were impressive. The main problem, he argued, was unevenness in the quality of the troops and the lack of integration on a strategic, national scale.
“The challenge of leadership at scale has always been a significant one for them – to not just have good tactical commanders, but also to have good leaders at all levels,” Votel told the Guardian.
“National government has always had a challenge with exercising authority, particularly in far-flung provinces of the country.”
Vali Nasr, a former US adviser and now a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, puts a share of the blame more specifically on the shoulders of the current Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.
“He has clearly failed from day one to create a political consensus in Kabul in order to create a much stronger source of resistance to the Taliban,” said Nasr, who served as special adviser to the US Afghanistan envoy, Richard Holbrooke, from 2009 to 2011. “A big part of the problem is the fact that there is no kind of leadership that would give local warlords reasons for why they should resist the Taliban. So the more they see the Taliban victory is inevitable, the more the victory becomes inevitable, because they just cut their own deals with them.”
Given all these structural weaknesses in the security apparatus the US and its allies helped build, many military analysts argue the abruptness of the US withdrawal, begun by Donald Trump and continued by Joe Biden, has contributed to the speed of the collapse.
“The core of the problem is the way President Biden made and announced this decision and its timing,” said Frederick Kagan, a military historian who served as an adviser to US commanders in Afghanistan.
“The president announced the order to withdraw right at the start of fighting season. That was unnecessary,” Kagan, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued. “The president could perfectly well have ordered withdrawal to occur after the completion of the major fighting this year, and allowed the Afghans to continue to have the support that they had expected and prepare themselves for a world without US support.”
Without US soldiers on the ground directing precision airstrikes in the midst of the battle, US air support to Afghan troops is of limited help and is due to cease altogether at the end of the month. Afghanistan has its own air force but it is dependent on US military contractors to service it, and the contractors were among the first to leave. Bringing them back after the US withdrawal would require a new agreement that could take months to negotiate.
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“Very few of America’s allies, even including Nato allies, actually have the capacity to provide their own advanced air power, air cover, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets,” Kagan said.
In view of the sudden US and allied departure at the very start of a mass Taliban offensive, he argued it was deeply unfair to demonise the Afghan forces for the military rout they are enduring.
“They have taken horrific casualties over the course of this war. Their families have been targeted, and yet they’ve continued to volunteer,” he said. “It is in fact offensive not to recognise the determination that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have shown up to fight against our common enemies and their willingness to die and run risks to their families to do so. It is part of a story that is not being told.”