At least 37 Afghan troops were wounded in those attacks, according to the report released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and American military officials told the watchdog’s investigators that the numbers could be incomplete, citing gaps in knowledge during the pullout, which is now effectively over.
The data underscores the enormous challenges and immense pressure facing Afghan forces, who have been left to fight the militants with little U.S. support. Thousands of Afghan troops are killed annually, and those numbers are on the rise. Others, meanwhile, have abandoned the security forces, cutting deals with the Taliban, surrendering their weapons and allowing a growing number of districts to fall under insurgent control.
Afghan military fatalities “have shown an upward trend, especially during the month of June,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan told the inspector general, according to the new report, which notes, too, that the Taliban’s aggressive push to retake lost territory continues.
John Sopko, who leads the inspector general’s office, on Thursday took a dim view of the U.S. military’s efforts to train Afghan troops and the 20-year U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Asked why Afghan security forces are collapsing, he told reporters that people “shouldn’t be surprised,” citing long-running questions his office raised about how U.S. military officials assessed Afghan troops’ capabilities and ensured their sustainability.
“If you don’t have fuel, the Afghan army doesn’t fight. And if they’re not being paid, they don’t fight. And if they’re not getting the bullets and food and other equipment, they don’t fight,” Sopko said. “And I think this is what you’re seeing since the Taliban started their latest attacks.”
Sopko criticized U.S. military leaders for casting the Afghan military in a rosy light for years despite its shortcomings, and for setting unrealistic goals. Then he made a stark prediction.
“Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again,” he said. “That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam: ‘We’re never going to do this again.’ Lo and behold, we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again.”
The U.S. military has, for several years, mostly withheld detailed information about Afghan military fatalities, citing requests from the Afghan government. In the inspector general’s previous quarterly report, investigators said the number of insider attacks on Afghanistan troops had increased by 82 percent compared to the same period in 2020, though they did not release specific numbers at that time.
Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst with CNA, said that while statistics about insider attacks among Afghan forces for other time periods are not readily available, the data released now shows a problem that is “yet another source of pressure on unit cohesion” and morale among Afghan forces. If the trend continues, two-thirds of an Afghan battalion, known as a kandak, will be killed this year in friendly fire alone, he noted.
The spate of insider attacks came as the U.S. military transferred its remaining bases to the Afghans, sometimes with little or no notice. In July, Afghan officials complained that the United States had departed Bagram air base, the most significant U.S. base in Afghanistan for years, without notice. U.S. military officials have defended the approach, saying the security of American personnel played a role in that decision.
The new report raises concerns about a number of other grim issues.
When the Trump administration in February 2020 signed a deal with the Taliban, setting the stage for the United States’ exit, U.S. officials said repeatedly that decisions about the U.S. military withdrawal would be “conditions-based.” However, while the U.S. military withdrawal ensued, thousands of deadly Taliban attacks targeted the Americans’ Afghan allies.
From March through May of 2021, there were 10,383 “enemy-initiated attacks,” the inspector general’s report said. That’s up from 9,163 and 6,755 during the same time periods in 2020 and 2019.
While senior U.S. military officials have said that the Afghan air force gives the central government in Kabul an advantage over the Taliban, the inspector general assessed that the loss of American contractors who help maintain the Afghans’ aircraft in Afghanistan “could significantly impact” sustainability of their fleet.
In June, the Afghan air force’s ability to fight began to drop, the report noted. The Taliban offensive, coupled with the U.S. military withdrawal, “appears to reduce aircraft readiness rates,” the report said. It noted that Afghanistan’s fleet of AC-208 attack planes had a readiness rate of 93 percent in April and May, but that it fell to 63 percent in June. The country’s fleet of Black Hawk helicopters had 77 percent reported readiness in April and May, but 39 percent in June.