Watchdog highlights US withdrawal blunders that led to collapse of Afghan government
The United States helped lay the groundwork for the quick fall of Afghanistan when U.S. troops left the country in August 2021 by failing to create “an independent and self-sustainable” security force there after 20 years and $90 billion spent, the government’s watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction revealed Monday.
In the days leading up to and during the U.S.-pullout, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) appeared to melt away, allowing the Taliban to quickly retake Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan.
The swift disintegration was brought on by the United States having no “political will” or “dedicated resources to initiate the wholesale development of another nation’s army,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko concluded in his final report.
“Due to the ANDSF’s dependency on U.S. military forces, the decision to withdraw all U.S. military personnel and dramatically reduce U.S. support to the ANDSF destroyed the morale of Afghan soldiers and police,” Sopko wrote in the report’s summery.
As the United States had created a force “that could not operate independently and set unrealistic milestones for ANDSF capability development,” the eventual collapse “was predictable,” he notes.
What’s more, bad planning and limited oversight on billions of dollars in weapons and equipment given to Afghan’s forces added to the mess. American troops ended up leaving roughly $7.2 billion in weapons and equipment including at least 78 aircraft and over 40,000 vehicles for the Taliban to possibly use.
The report to Congress, meant to update lawmakers on why the Afghan government collapsed so rapidly when U.S. forces departed after 20 years of war, blamed both the Trump and Biden administrations for the mess.
While the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban in 2020 to pull U.S. forces “set in motion a series of events crucial to understanding the ANDSF’s collapse,” the decision by both President Donald Trump and Biden to leave “fundamentally altered every subsequent decision by U.S. government agencies, the Ghani administration, and the Taliban,” the report states.
Months after taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he would pull the U.S. military from Afghanistan, a decision that followed the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed under the Trump administration in 2020 to do the same thing.
“Keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me,” Biden said in in April 2021 when announcing the decision. “I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan … I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
Pullout lead to deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan
The decision led to a chaotic and deadly pullout, with both U.S. forces and Afghans killed in a suicide bombing attack outside the gates of the Kabul airport as thousands of civilians frantically tried to leave the country.
House Republicans are now in the midst of two investigations into the chaotic withdrawal, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas), opening the first in January.
Nearly a month later, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), sent a series of letters to leaders at the White House, Defense Department, State Department and other agencies requesting documents related to the events.
While U.S. troops are no longer in Afghanistan, the administration and Congress continue to give the country humanitarian aid, with SIGAR required to report to them each quarter on the situation on the ground.
In speaking with numerous former Afghan and U.S. officials on the ANDSF’s final two years, SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s collapse was the decision by Biden and Trump to pull U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan even as its government forces were unable to sustain themselves.
One former U.S. commander in the country told investigators that the ANDSF was built to run on contractor support and couldn’t function without it.
“When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up,” they said.
Since 2002, the United States had given the ANDSF almost $90 billion in security assistance meant to build an independent force able to keep the Taliban and other groups at bay.
But the U.S. and Afghan governments didn’t seem committed to “doing what it would take to address the challenges, including devoting the time and resources necessary to develop a professional ANDSF,” while U.S. forces were in the country for 20 years.
Trump decisions on Afghanistan created complications
As it takes decades to build up security forces, Trump’s February 2020 decision to stick to a U.S. military withdrawal “sealed the ANDSF’s fate,” according to the report.
And once Biden’s announced the final troop and contractor withdrawal date, the Afghan government realized that its forces had no supply and logistics capability, a senior Afghan official told inspectors.
Prior to that, a last-minute restructuring of Afghanistan’s security institutions between March and June 2021 “undermined ANDSF cohesion, morale, and ultimately, its ability to counter the Taliban offensive.”
Adding to the strife was Afghanistan’s then-President Ashraf Ghani, who, as the country was falling to the Taliban, “was more interested in the tactical daily engagements on small minor issues rather than the big strategic issues that the country was facing,” former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hekmat Karzai told SIGAR.
“For God’s sake, we had provinces falling and he would still bloody hold National Procurement Council meetings for four hours. He would hold urban planning meetings while we had districts falling,” he said.
According to a former Afghan Interior Minister, Afghan security officials briefed Ghani about the impending U.S. withdrawal days ahead Biden’s announcement, but Afghanistan’s then-vice president told him that it was only a U.S. plot and the briefing was ignored.
And once it was announced American troops would leave, the Afghan government “failed to develop a national security strategy.”
Ghani instead frequently switched up his defense and security force leaders, fearing the younger officials trained by the Americans. This wrought havoc on the ANDSF morale, the report said.
Afghan officials had also largely been removed from the negotiations around the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and struggled to understand what the United States had agreed to at the U.S. military “never clearly communicated the specifics of its policy changes to the Ghani administration or ANDSF leadership.”
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