The dramatic collapse of Afghanistan’s armed forces in 2021 which allowed a Taliban takeover of Kabul’s corridors of power, was made possible by ethnic divisions in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the lack of US airstrikes targeting Taliban leadership after 2019, the latest report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealed on February 28.
The report, which reviewed why Afghan security forces collapsed after the United States began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, instead of squarely attributing the Taliban’s comeback to former President Ashraf Ghani’s lack of control over the nation’s state of security affairs, pointed out that Washington failed in its “stated goal of creating a self-sustaining Afghan military” in nearly two decades that its forces were stationed in the country in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks.
Since 2002, the United States allocated nearly $90 billion in security assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), with the goal of “developing an independent, self-sustaining force capable of combating both internal and external threats.” The goal fell flat shortly after the US signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020, while blindsiding the Afghan stakeholders. The agreement stipulated that the United States would withdraw all its military personnel and contractors from Afghanistan by May 2021.
In return, the Taliban promised not to attack the United States or allow attacks from Afghanistan on the United States or its allies, and to enter into intra-Afghan peace negotiations.
Abrupt, uncoordinated US withdrawal and instability in Afghanistan
Several former Afghan and senior United States officials told SIGAR that the Biden administration’s withdrawal process was “abrupt and uncoordinated—in particular, the withdrawal of contractor support for the ANDSF.”
“The United States perpetuated pre-existing ethnic and regional tensions rather than achieving stated mission goals of force diversity and unification,” the report added.
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One former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told SIGAR, “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.”
When Ashraf Ghani failed Afghanistan — the country and its people
The report said that former President Ashraf Ghani frequently changed Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) leaders and “appointed loyalists, often on the basis of ethnicity”. This, the report added, “weakened chains of command, morale, and trust in the ANDSF.”
The leadership changes in the ANDSF often came by presidential decrees, the report revealed.
The report said that following the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Doha in February 2020, President Ghani began to suspect that the U.S. wanted to remove him from power. Ghani feared a military coup and became a “paranoid president… afraid of his own countrymen” and of U.S.-trained Afghan officers.
The former president had an “undeniable belief in ethnic superiority, and among the political and military elites he trusted only those who agreed with him,” a former Afghan army commander, General Farid Ahmadi, was quoted as saying in the report. According to another Afghan official, Ghani believed that “in a tough time in Afghanistan, you need to really, control the security forces, and that loyalty [from] those security forces only comes if most of the soldiers…are from your own tribe.”
By the time Kabul collapsed, Pashtuns headed most of the Afghanistan National Army and Afghanistan Air Force corps, including several from Ghani’s Ahmadzai tribe, the report said.
The US conducted 7,423 airstrikes in 2019 — then stopped anti-Taliban air raids abruptly
The report said that in 2019, the United States conducted 7,423 airstrikes in Afghanistan, “the most since at least 2009”, targeting Taliban and Islamic State leadership hideouts and supply lines. But the U.S. military support to the ANDSF came to an “abrupt end” after Washington signed Doha agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020.
In only 30 days, the Taliban captured all 34 provinces in Afghanistan—33 of the 34 within a 10-day period starting on August 6. By August 15, 2021, the Taliban did chilling “victory rounds” in Kabul to mark their return to power. By this time, President Ghani fled the country and the United States completed its military withdrawal, giving away the fate of over 40 million Afghan citizens to Taliban hardliners.
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