How U.S., Afghan governments failed to adequately train Afghan security forces after spending $90 billion over 20 years

The inability of Afghan forces to function independently in the months before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is the fault largely of the U.S. and Afghan governments, according to a new report. 

It was a mistake to train them to be “a mirror image of U.S. forces, which required a high degree of professional military sophistication and leadership,” qualities that the Afghan forces did not have. The report, released Tuesday by the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), points out that the Afghan air force, which was supposed to be “the greatest advantage the force had over the Taliban,” wasn’t even expected to be self-sufficient until 2030.

Over a period of 20 years, the U.S. invested nearly $90 billion in Afghan security assistance and trained and built up Afghan security forces to help them defend their country against the Taliban. 

But those forces crumpled with a speed that surprised everyone, leaving the country in Taliban control the same month as the chaotic, hurried withdrawal by the U.S. 

The Afghan security system was one built on contractors and American leadership, and it led to long-term dependencies, according to the report.

“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,” one former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told SIGAR.

After the Doha agreement, which traded the full military withdrawal of the U.S. for the promise of the Taliban never to allow a threat to Americans or their allies from Afghan soil, including by terrorist groups, the morale of the Afghan security forces degraded — Afghan security officials called it “a catalyst for the collapse.” 

As they saw it, the U.S. was handing the country over to the Taliban as it rushed toward the exit. Despite decades of U.S. training, the Afghan advisers remained inexperienced, and corruption within the forces eroded their capabilities. While Doha limited Afghan forces to a defensive posture, the Taliban took advantage of the offensive by striking supply lines and causing $600 million in damage in 2020, according to the report. 

Another factor in the surprisingly rapid fall of the Western-backed Kabul government was the drastic drop in U.S. military support after the Doha agreement. Gen. Sami Sadat, a former commander of Afghanistan’s Joint Special Operations Command, told SIGAR that “overnight…98% of U.S. airstrikes had ceased.”

Five months before the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 30, 2021,  Afghan President Ashraf Ghani still did not believe that U.S. troops would leave within a specific timeframe. He thought the U.S. was just trying to affect his behavior, based on his communications with U.S. government officials through unofficial channels. It was only about a month after President Biden announced the timing of the withdrawal that Ghani’s inner circle recognized the gaps in the training of the Afghan forces, including a lack of any supply and logistical capabilities, according to the report. Within four months, Ghani had fled the country and the Afghan forces had collapsed.

The report found that nearly $7.2 billion in U.S.-provided aircraft, guns, vehicles, ammunition and specialized equipment including night-vision goggles and biometric devices remain in the possession of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Poor recordkeeping led to a lack of oversight of equipment on the ground, according to the report. 

The huge shipment of military aid to Ukraine over the past year has not been plagued by similar examples of malfeasance, but the SIGAR report warns that the risk of equipment ending up on the black market or in the wrong hands is “likely unavoidable.” The report points to the Defense Department’s difficulty in monitoring U.S. equipment sent to Ukraine — even before Russia invaded a year ago. 

During a House Oversight Committee hearing on Tuesday, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl said the Defense Department had not seen “any evidence of diversion.”

“We think the Ukrainians are using properly what they’ve been given,” Kahl testified. The Defense Department has provided Ukrainians with tools like scanners and software to track the equipment the U.S. has provided.  

The Defense Department said in a written response to the SIGAR report that while the findings provided “important insights,” the department disputed the characterization that the U.S. had not not adequately communicated plans to support Afghan forces after the withdrawal. 

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