The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. watchdog details collapse of Afghan security forces

Members of Afghanistan's security services regroup after an exchange of friendly fire with an Afghan National Army base in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on July 15, 2021. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Paranoia riddled the most senior levels of the Afghan government, and chaos overwhelmed the country’s security forces in the days and months leading up to their collapse, according to a U.S. government watchdog report released Wednesday, one of the first since the Taliban takeover in August.

The latest assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, examined the roots of the Afghan military’s demise at the end of America’s longest war. Many of the findings confirm previous reporting by The Washington Post and other outlets on Taliban-brokered surrender deals, but also shed new light on the intrigue and suspicion that consumed the Afghan leadership in its final days.

As Taliban forces closed in on Kabul, then-president Ashraf Ghani feared his own military would turn against him and suspected the United States was plotting to remove him from power, the report reveals, quoting former Afghan and U.S. officials.

Ghani also dismissed many of his senior security officials and key commanders on the ground, believing they were disloyal, moves that further undermined the morale of Afghan security forces, confused the war effort and culminated in the country’s fall, the report concluded.

The rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces, despite billions of dollars in arms and training over 20 years of war, have been central to criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.

The report said “the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan,” despite the inability of Afghan forces to support themselves, was the most significant factor in the country’s collapse.

“When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up,” former senior U.S. commander David Barno told researchers. “We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can’t function. Game over.”

Despite some U.S. assessments that the Afghan capital could hold off a Taliban attack for months, Kabul fell to Taliban fighters in a matter of hours in August after the city’s defenses melted away.

Similar scenes played out in cities across the country. Afghan security forces said Taliban leaders had been securing negotiated surrenders many months in advance, laying the groundwork for its fighters to isolate and take control of urban centers.

Ultimately, the majority of territory taken by the Taliban was not captured by military force, but was handed over after dealmaking with local government officials, tribal elders and Afghan military commanders.

The withdrawal agreement the United States signed with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020, paired with growing Taliban success on the battlefield, was interpreted by many Afghans as “a clear sign that … the tide had turned,” the report stated.

After the U.S.-Taliban deal, Ghani also began to fear there was a U.S. plot to oust him and so he began “changing commanders constantly [to] bring back some of the old-school Communist generals who [he] saw as loyal to him, instead of these American-trained young officers who he [mostly] feared,” former Afghan Gen. Sami Sadat told the watchdog.

Sadat described Ghani as a “paranoid president … afraid of his own countrymen.”

Former senior Afghan government and security officials have provided similar accounts to The Post suggesting Ghani feared his own security forces would ultimately turn on him.

Afghanistan’s security forces were beset by poor leadership at the top and were never trained to operate independently, the report stated. When U.S. troops departed and withdrew aerial support for government operations, the Afghan military began to falter.

As the number of U.S. airstrikes dropped, Taliban forces began steadily isolating patches of government-controlled territory in Afghanistan. Afghan troops were unable to defend against the advances because the forces “never became a cohesive, substantive force capable of operating on its own,” the report said.

“The U.S. and Afghan governments share in the blame,” the report concluded. “Neither side appeared to have the political commitment to doing what it would take to address the challenges.”

U.S. efforts to build a self-sufficient Afghan security force “were likely to fail from the beginning,” SIGAR noted, but the decision “to commit to a rapid U.S. military withdrawal sealed the [Afghan military’s] fate.”