The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s bogus claim that Afghanistan’s military was larger than those of many of our NATO allies

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. ”

— President Biden, remarks on the situation in Afghanistan, Aug. 16

Ever since the president announced his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he has emphasized how the Afghan security forces totaled more than 300,000. He made this claim when he announced his plan April 14, when he reaffirmed his decision July 8 and again Aug. 10 when the situation deteriorated in the country.

On Monday, after Kabul fell to Taliban forces, Biden once again used the figure and favorably compared the “Afghan military force” to the military might of NATO allies.

This obviously raises the question — how could such a large, “well-equipped” military fall apart so quickly?

It’s because this is an inflated number.

The Facts

Let’s start with the size of the militaries. The gold standard is The Military Balance, an annual report issued by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) that methodically lists the size and capabilities of the world’s armies. If Afghanistan actually had more than 300,000 military troops, the active force would be bigger than every NATO ally but Turkey.

But in the 2021 report, IISS shows Afghanistan with an active force of only 178,800 — 171,500 in the army and 7,300 in the air force. “Reports suggested that already high losses and high levels of desertion further increased in 2020,” the report said. “There was reported 22% personnel shortage in mid-2019, and there are problems in retaining key specialists including pilots and special-operations troops.”

IISS also notes Afghanistan has 99,000 “paramilitary” forces — members of the Afghan National Police. But NATO countries do not have such forces and so it does not make sense to include them as part of the total. NATO countries also have reserve forces — Turkey, for instance has 355,200 active troops and 378,700 reserve troops — but no reserves are listed for Afghanistan.

In other words, Biden comes up with the 300,000 troops by including police, not regular army or air force. The police report to the Interior Ministry, not the Defense Ministry. They guard the border, staff security checkpoints and try to hold territory that the army has cleared of insurgents.

“Roughly 40% of the total [300,000 security forces] consisted of Afghan National Police (ANP) whose forces varied sharply in quality, were largely conventional police, and could not play an effective paramilitary role or properly hold even supposed secure areas,” writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a report published this week on the Afghan military’s collapse. “These ANP totaled 96,788 in October 2019; 121,088 in January 2021; dropping to 118,628 in April 2021. Some fought bravely in the period before U.S. force cuts began, but most collapsed or deserted in the face of any serious Taliban action, and significant numbers deserted or changed sides when the Taliban took control over a given District.”

Even the numbers for the Afghan military must be taken with a jaundiced eye.

“The few Afghan Army and Air Forces units that were highly effective were also increasingly stressed by excessive combat assignments as well as by political allocation to other assignments of marginal value,” Cordesman says in his report. “Only a small fraction of the 182,071 personnel supposedly in the Army and Air Force could be used effectively, and the total force suffered a 25% annual turnover rate due to losses and desertions by 2020.”

Cordesman told The Fact Checker that the number of effective military personnel cannot be determined at this point: “The units involved have not been fully identified in open-source material, no personnel figures have been quoted, and they have taken serious casualties that have increased with each cutback in U.S. support, plus suffered from cuts in foreign contract support, so the current totals are probably uncertain.”

“It is not a like-for-like comparison figure with NATO militaries,” said Henry Boyd, a IISS research fellow who collected the data on Afghanistan. “On paper, the 178,800 active military total is indeed still larger than most NATO militaries in raw numbers. In practice, however, even the 178,800 figure is somewhat misleading. It is possible that, in terms of deployable combat forces, the Afghan government had only a slight numerical superiority over the Taliban, and maybe not even that.”

In its final report, issued this week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that the national police routinely engaged in torture and abuse, which further “alienated local Afghans and undermined the U.S. government’s overarching security goals for the country.” In 2017, SIGAR had concluded that the United States “designed a force that was not able to provide nationwide security, especially as that force faced a larger threat than anticipated after the drawdown of coalition military forces.”

The latest SIGAR report said that the United States also encouraged the formation of militias, known as “Afghan Local Police,” which sometimes included Taliban fighters who had agreed to stop fighting the government. So it’s little wonder they would quickly switch sides again.

The sudden collapse is “not surprising,” said John Sopko, who heads SIGAR, in an interview with NPR. “I mean, we’ve been warning — my little agency — for the last almost 10 years about issues with [the Afghan National Security Forces’] capabilities and sustainment. All the signs have been there. I mean, we’ve been shining a light on it in multiple reports going back to when I started 2012 about changing metrics, about ghosts, ghost soldiers who didn’t exist, about poor logistics, about the fact that the Afghans couldn’t sustain what we were giving them.”

We sought comment from the White House on why Biden keeps using this figure but did not get a response.

The Pinocchio Test

This is an inflated number. The president is including police forces, which are not part of the military and have often heightened insecurity with their tactics. Even among the active military, there is high turnover and only a small core of professionals which could be expected to fight professionally against the Taliban. In other words, the number is not 300,000 — and probably not even 30,000.

By repeatedly using this figure, the president is misleading Americans about the capabilities of the Afghan military — which has now demonstrated it could not defend Afghanistan from the Taliban offensive. He does not quite earn Four Pinocchios because “security forces” sometimes is broadly defined to include the police. But it’s close, especially when making a ridiculous comparison to the militaries of NATO allies.

Three Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles