Two Decades And $90 Billion US Dollars Later.
In February, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published an extensive investigation into the spectacular collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ (ANDSF), which the U.S. spent two decades and $90 billion building. In common with previous SIGAR reports, it offers a remarkably uncompromising, no-punches-pulled assessment, exposing corruption, incompetence, lies, and delusion every step of the way.
At the report’s core is a highly detailed timeline of the ANDSF’s – and, therefore, the Afghan government’s – disintegration. That SIGAR was able to construct such a painstaking obituary is nothing short of miraculous, for the Special Inspector General was stonewalled and obstructed at every turn by the agencies it is officially charged with scrutinizing.
The Pentagon and State Department rejected SIGAR’s jurisdiction over them, declined to review interim drafts of the report, denied access to their staff, and “mostly” refused to answer requests for information. “Very few” documents SIGAR asked for were turned over, and material disclosed “was often not materially relevant to our objectives.”
In lieu of cooperation from the guilty parties, SIGAR conducted a panoply of probing interviews with U.S. and Afghan officials. While often unnamed, their admissions and analysis provide stunning insight into conversations, deliberations, and machinations hidden from public view at the time. Together, these accounts help explain how the ANDSF, much-vaunted by the White House until its demise, failed so spectacularly.
It is a highly cinematic retelling that is part thriller, part farce. Take, for example, a former “senior Afghan national security official” recounting the morning of August 15, 2021, the day Kabul fell. As Americans rushed to depart the country, en route to a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani, he was told by the Presidential Protective Service chief that the Taliban, contrary to promises not to enter the city, had done so.
In the president’s office, the pair scrambled to draft an official statement to be transmitted domestically and internationally on the group’s unwelcome arrival. A secretary was asked to request some green tea from catering, as was customary in such meetings:
He went and brought the tray himself. Wait a minute, what happened to the server? He said, there’s no one left. People in our offices had abandoned and they had gone…[By around] 10 or 11, we no longer had a consolidated security force.”
This mass walkout was evident in every state apparatus. The president contacted the head of the National Security Directorate, the Afghan government’s primary intelligence service, which was created in the early 2000s by the CIA, requesting he rally operatives “to keep order in Kabul.” The Directorate chief regretfully informed him that the formerly 500-strong force tasked with managing the city’s defense now numbered less than 20 people.
Back at the President’s office, as word spread of police units all over the city summarily abandoning their posts en masse, the few in-house security officers who had come into work that day began shedding their official livery, which they’d pre-emptively donned over civilian clothes. By 11 am, all their uniforms were literally consigned to the garbage – and with that, the Afghan government ceased to exist.
“A Conspiracy Theory”
This cataclysm came to pass first gradually, then rapidly.
Despite the vast financial, material and practical assistance Washington provided to the ANDSF over the years, the force was throughout its life completely dependent on the U.S., not only for anti-Taliban military operations but to make sure the Kabul paid soldiers’ salaries. Its undoing was ensured in February 2020, when the Doha Agreement was reached by the Taliban and Trump administration, which set a blueprint for eventual American withdrawal.
This concord immediately led to a drastic, total scaling back of Washington’s assistance, in particular airstrikes, which were fundamental to the ANDSF’s ability to stop the Taliban’s encroachment. The previous year, the U.S. had conducted 7,423 airstrikes on the force’s behalf, the most since 2009.
Overnight, though, this ceased outright, leaving air defense the exclusive responsibility of the Afghan Air Force, as per the agreement. In practice, Kabul’s fighter fleet consisted of just two A-29s, aging propeller-toting Brazilian-made light aircraft designed to operate in low-threat environments.
This also immediately crippled the ANDSF’s logistical capability. Weapons and supplies could not be ferried by ground quickly enough to meet operational demands, leading to the force lacking ammunition, food, water, and other vital resources necessary to sustain anti-Taliban military engagements.
Muddying matters even further, the full terms of the Doha Agreement were seemingly kept confidential from local police, security forces, and even the government. A former Afghan army general quoted by SIGAR suggests U.S. forces on the ground were likewise “confused about what to engage and what not to,” and thus forced to coordinate with the Pentagon and State Department “on an hourly basis…to get clarification on what they could do.”
“They would see the Taliban attacking our checkpoints. They would have videos of the Taliban doing it. But they would say we are not able to engage because we have limitations,” he records. “The Taliban started moving around connecting their small pockets of fighting groups across the country, uniting them and making the fighting units bigger and bigger. The U.S. would watch but do nothing because of the Agreement.”
Come May 2021, when the Taliban offensive began, demoralized, ill-equipped protective forces – who, in some cases, hadn’t seen their families or been paid for over six months – offered little resistance. Some of them joined the Taliban, and others were bribed to give up their positions. The ease with which the group breezed through fortified territory gave rise to a “conspiracy theory” circulating through state institutions that “the Americans wanted the Taliban to come back to power,” according to a former government minister.
The Taliban purportedly seized upon this development, publicizing they had “some kind of a secret deal with the Americans…under which certain districts or provinces would be surrendered to them” to facilitate ANDSF capitulations, according to an ex-Afghan national security official:
[Defeat] was going to happen anyway, so why would they want to die… they used that tactic very well throughout the country, they used it with local commanders, leaders in their areas, parliamentarians.”
Same Old Story
It is tantalizing indeed to consider whether, far from “conspiracy theory,” the Doha Agreement did indeed amount to the Taliban being given free rein to take back control of Afghanistan and the apparent surprise of U.S. officials at the pace of the government’s collapse was just for show.
However, SIGAR outlines a total lack of professional oversight on the ANDSF’s development and capabilities, which “prevented a clear picture of reality on the ground” from emerging to any relevant party before it was too late. This was no accident, though; the Afghan government and military, their trainers and the Pentagon alike were all heavily incentivized to lie to one another, and political leaders in Washington, who were in turn motivated to mislead the public and justify the enormous investment.
This deceit also conveniently obscured industrial-scale corruption and embezzlement within the ANDSF. As prior SIGAR reports also found, so much money and equipment were flowing into Afghanistan without any supervision whatsoever, and weaponry and other aid were misused, stolen or illegally sold off with ease by Afghans, U.S. personnel and Pentagon contractors.
SIGAR ominously warns that a similar absence of accountability is evident in the “unprecedented” U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022.
“Diversion to illicit markets, misuse amongst groups fighting in Ukraine, or their acquisition by Russia or other non-state actors” are resultantly considered “likely unavoidable” consequences of this wellspring. Despite U.S. leaders promising a keen eye is being kept on the weapons shipments, SIGAR’s report makes clear these same officials did not even know what was being sent to Afghanistan. Is the same true for Kiev?
In a perverse irony, some of the American military equipment rescued from capture by the Taliban has been dispatched to Ukraine – specifically, fighter jets that could not be used by the Afghan Air Force. For the most part, though, what ended up in Kabul is now in the hands of a formerly sworn enemy, with armored vehicles and military aircraft featuring prominently in the group’s propaganda and training videos.
There are disturbing historical echoes in this. In the 1980s, the CIA and MI6 provided Afghanistan’s Mujahideen with 600 Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles to take down Red Army jets and helicopters. Following the 2001 NATO invasion, these weapons were routinely found in Taliban and Al-Qaeda arms caches across the country. As late as 2010, Western media was reporting the shoulder-fired Blowpipes were a major threat to American operations there.
In the present day, the U.S. has provided 1,400 MANPADS – another shoulder-fired missile – to Ukraine. The State Department believes these weapons “pose a serious threat to passenger air travel, the commercial aviation industry, and military aircraft around the world.” Since the 1970s, over 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS.
“Close Friends With Senators”
One of the SIGAR report’s most striking sections documents the Afghan government’s failure to dedicate any time or resources at all to planning how the country’s assorted U.S.-created and sustained political, judicial, security and military institutions might operate post-withdrawal. Refusal might be more accurate – for as August 2021 approached, Ghani and his men remained implacably convinced the U.S. was not going anywhere and acted accordingly.
The reasons for this catastrophic oversight were manifold. First and foremost, neither President Ghani nor his administration at any point considered the prospect of total U.S. withdrawal to be remotely credible or even possible. They reasoned that Washington had expended so much blood and treasure over so many years, and the country was so strategically significant it would never be fully jilted by its generous benefactor.
In fact, they were certain the U.S. could not leave without the government’s express consent under the terms of the Bilateral Security Agreement inked in September 2014 by Kabul and Washington. It enshrined a permanent American troop presence in the country “until the end of 2024 and beyond” unless terminated by either side with two years’ notice.
As such, when U.S. officials began warning Afghan ministers the withdrawal would very much be total, they simply were not listened to. A State Department official despairingly recalls how Ghani interpreted his repeated cautions of what was to soon come as a mere diplomatic bluff intended to “shape his behavior.” Declaring Afghanistan to be “the most important piece of real estate in the world,” he asked the official airily, “how could you leave a territory as important geopolitically?”
“That [sic] was some of the toughest conversations I had with the President of Afghanistan,” the State Department official lamented. “I tried to plead with him, saying I know he’s very well-connected but, in our system, the President ultimately decides, and he should take this seriously not to miscalculate.”
A staggering blunder indeed, but in their defense, Ghani et al. were encouraged in their delusion by contradictory and conflicting messages, both private and public, from U.S. officials.
“They refuted profusely any argument their negotiations with the Taliban and their subsequent deal…was essentially a guise to withdraw all of their troops,” a former Afghan national security advisor alleges, adding:
We were constantly reassured the [U.S.] was committed to the partnership with the Afghan government. They insisted they wanted a peaceful Afghanistan in which the gains of the last 20 years would be preserved. They maintained this position until the very end.”
Ghani’s close personal connections to the U.S. power elite also helped foster the sense he was a “made man” and wouldn’t be discarded by his fellow gangsters. Hekmat Karzai, former Afghan deputy foreign minister, records how the president “thought he knew Washington, though many of these senators were his close friends…he was able to address both houses of Congress, and he thought he had lobbyists in Washington that were pulling for him.”
“Slowly Cracking Apart”
The SIGAR report offers no formal recommendations for the U.S. government. It is simply intended as a comprehensive postmortem to enhance public understanding of how unaccountably vast American taxpayer funds were spent on a nation-building project thousands of miles away from home, which ultimately failed miserably.
Yet, the lessons for all U.S. allies, particularly those heavily dependent on Washington’s diplomatic, financial and military backing, could not be starker. SIGAR’s findings are particularly relevant to consider in the context of the Ukraine conflict, given there are increasingly unambiguous indications the day Kiev is thrown under a bus by its Western sponsors rapidly approaches.
At the end of January, influential Pentagon-funded think tank RAND published a report, “Avoiding a Long War,” which concluded the risks and costs of keeping the conflict grinding on through endless weapons shipments and bottomless financial aid far outweighed any benefits to the U.S. It accordingly urged policymakers to immediately start laying foundations for a future “shift” in support for Ukraine, nudging Kiev to rein in its ambitions and rhetoric and initiate peace negotiations with Moscow.
It may be no coincidence that in the RAND report’s wake, public pronouncements by U.S. officials are no longer tubthumping and bullish, and there has been a marked shift in media reporting on the conflict. Stories of Ukrainian battlefield success and heroism and Russian incompetence and embarrassment, a daily staple for much of 2022, have suddenly become rather scarce.
In their place, numerous outlets have published detailed accounts of the bleak reality of the frontline, with poorly equipped, untrained Ukrainian conscripts forcibly marched into a relentless, highly lethal deluge of artillery fire while Russian forces steadily gain ground. Kiev’s personnel losses, a closely guarded state secret hitherto consistently downplayed by the media, are now widely acknowledged to be catastrophic and unsustainable.
On March 12, Politico reported Washington’s unity with Ukraine was “slowly cracking apart,” and administration officials privately worry so much manpower and ammunition is being expended that no counteroffensive can ever be mounted. It was also claimed – contrary to Biden’s explicit pledge to support the proxy war “as long as it takes” – Kiev had been plainly informed that U.S. support would not continue “indefinitely at this level.”
If true, there is no indication that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky received the memo. He recently hailed Kiev’s “invincibility” and dubbed 2023 “the year of victory.” His military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov has even suggested Ukrainians will be vacationing in Crimea this summer.
Maintaining the morale of one’s citizens, soldiers and foreign backers during wartime is absolutely essential, and the former comedian has proven himself highly adept in this regard. Yet, the same U.S. figures who not long ago readily echoed and legitimized this optimism are now actively repudiating Zelensky’s swagger. On February 15, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gravely warned Ukraine that its dream of retaking Crimea was not only fantastical but even trying would inevitably lead to a severe counter-response from Moscow.
This unprecedented intervention was in direct keeping with the RAND report’s contention that Kiev regaining territory from Russia was of “debatable” value to American interests, given “the risks of nuclear use or a Russia-NATO war would spike.” Ukrainian land being considered so expendable raises the obvious prospect Washington could compel Kiev to cede even more to Moscow in a peace deal.
One cannot help but wonder if, behind closed doors, Zelensky is in the manner of Ghani, being warned that Washington’s total withdrawal from the proxy war impends, but these entreaties are similarly falling on deaf ears.
If so, the Ukrainian president can be forgiven for similarly thinking the prospect to be inconceivable. Pan-Western public and political sympathy, fawning profiles in prominent newspapers and magazines, unrelenting positive media coverage, high-level visits to and from Washington, London and other centers of power, and ceaseless statements of solidarity from overseas would convince any leader they were eternally indispensable. But the U.S. abandoning Afghanistan entirely was likewise beyond belief to all concerned until it happened.
It is easily forgotten that in June 2021, Ghani flew to Washington for a well-publicized personal summit with Biden as the Taliban simultaneously surged across the country, inexorably seizing district after district. Widely reported as a strong signal that the White House still steadfastly supported Kabul, a government spokesperson said the visit would “highlight the enduring partnership between the U.S. and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues.”
Less than three months later, Ghani would unceremoniously flee Kabul for the United Arab Emirates, where he has languished in almost total obscurity ever since, completely forgotten by the Western media and forsaken by his former “friends.” The “most important piece of real estate in the world” likewise almost instantly vanished from headlines and mainstream political discourse following the Taliban’s takeover, never to return.
This time round, U.S. investment is lower, the stakes far higher, and extrication considerably easier. And as the RAND report argued, the Ukraine conflict is taking up valuable time and energy of military chiefs, which could instead be more fruitfully devoted to planning a war with China, a horrific prospect now openly mooted in Washington. The only question is how many more Ukrainians will needlessly die before the forewarned “shift” in American policy comes to pass, and Beijing is in the firing line.
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.