A government watchdog says the decisions of Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan were key factors in the collapse of that country’s military.
New report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, mirrors claims made by senior Pentagon officials and military leaders following the U.S. troop withdrawal that ended last August by the chaotic evacuation of Americans and other civilians from the besieged country. Military leaders made it clear that their recommendation was to leave about 2,500 American troops in the country, but that plan was not approved.
In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in which the United States promised to completely withdraw its troops by May 2021. The Taliban committed to several conditions, including the stopping attacks on US and coalition forces. The stated goal was to promote a peace negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but that diplomatic effort never gained momentum until Biden took office in January 2022.
A few months later, Biden announced that he would complete the US military withdrawal. The announcement fueled the Taliban’s campaign to take over the country, aided by widespread Afghan mistrust of their government and entrenched corruption that has led to low pay, lack of food and poor living conditions among Afghan troops.
“Many Afghans believed the US-Taliban deal was an act of bad faith and a signal that the United States was handing Afghanistan over to the enemy as it rushed to leave the country,” the interim report said. . “Its immediate effect was a dramatic loss of morale (of Afghan troops).”
US officials said they were taken aback by the rapid collapse of the military and government, prompting strong congressional criticism of the intelligence community for failing to foresee it.
At a congressional hearing last week, senators debated whether there was a need to reform the way intelligence agencies assess a foreign army’s readiness to fight. Lawmakers cited two key examples: US intelligence believed the government in Kabul would hold out for months against the Taliban, and more recently, they believed Ukrainian forces would quickly fall to invading Russia. Both were wrong.
Military and defense leaders said Afghanistan’s collapse was built on years of missteps as the United States struggled to find an effective way to train and equip Afghan forces.
In a stark assessment of the war, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last fall that the outcome had taken years to prepare.
“The results of a war like this, a result that is a strategic failure – the enemy is in control in Kabul, there is no other way to describe it – it is a cumulative effect of 20 years,” Milley said, adding that lessons need to be learned, including whether the US military has made Afghans overly dependent on US technology in a misguided effort to make the Afghan military look like the US military.
Indeed, in the end, the new report indicates that Afghans still rely heavily on US air support for strikes and emergency evacuations, as well as US contractors to maintain and repair aircraft and other systems.
But all agree that the Doha agreement was the keystone of the collapse.
“Signing the Doha agreement had a really pernicious effect on the Afghan government and its military – psychological more than anything else, but we set a specific date for when we were going to leave and when they could leave. ‘expect all the help to come to an end,’ General Frank McKenzie told Congress last year.
McKenzie, who was then the top US general in the Middle East and has since retired, argued for keeping 2,500 US troops there, as did Milley.
The Doha agreement, according to the SIGAR report, has left the Afghan people and their military feeling abandoned. And the Trump administration’s decision to limit US airstrikes against the Taliban halted any progress the Afghans made and left them unable and ultimately unwilling to hold onto territory, he added.
According to the report, a former US commander in Afghanistan said the US built the Afghan army to rely on contractor support. “Without that, it cannot function. Game over,” the commander told SIGAR. “When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of Jenga’s pile and expected it to stay put.”
More broadly, the SIGAR report says the US and Afghan governments “lacked the political will to devote the time and resources needed to rebuild an entire security sector in a war-torn and impoverished country.”
Neither side, he said, “seemed to have the political commitment to do what it would take to meet the challenges.” As a result, he said, the Afghan army could not operate independently and never really became a cohesive force.