Before the dust settles on the collapse of the government in Kabul, the blame game has begun. There are many and varied reasons for this calamitous end to the US project in Afghanistan, from the April decision of the current US president, to strategic blunders of several of Biden’s predecessors. And while some are offended at the notion that Afghans themselves might need to take partial responsibility for the collapse of the government and the return of the Taliban to power, it is not unreasonable to consider why the Afghan security forces were not able to muster more strength and will to confront the Taliban, and to defend the capital, Kabul.
Throughout the two-decade long engagement in Afghanistan, creating an effective national security system was the core function of US and Nato policy, alongside improved governance by civilian leaders. It had been widely accepted that the only way to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism again, as it was in 2001, was to create a modern security sector, with police to protect civilians and defend the rule of law, and a national military force to protect the borders and prevent local or outside threats to the nation.
Of the total $2 trillion price tag of America’s longest war, about 10 percent ($183 billion according to one US government report) was allocated to the training and equipping of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). That investment was key to the rationale for the US withdrawal from the country. Particularly after the US declared its combat operations completed in 2014, US policy hinged on demonstrating that the Afghans had the capacity to defend their country and provide security for their citizens.
The US and Nato worked to support a national army of as many as 300,000 soldiers, a border police force, a prison system based on international standards and a special operations force for counter-terrorism operations. Of these various institutions, the special operations forces, at 20,000-30,000 strong, was considered the most successful. US officials concede that training a modern police force largely failed, and many questioned whether the US set too high a bar for the national army, envisioning a large well-equipped force that would be a source of national pride and cohesion.
Yet president Biden’s commitment to ending the forever war has appeared to be washing the US’s hands of that project. He and his advisors insisted during the days before the fall of Kabul that the country’s civilian and military leaders needed to take charge; the US had completed its task of providing the means for a credible national defense. Biden showed impatience, if not disdain, for the poor performance of the Afghan forces in the face of the Taliban surge from the countryside to provincial capitals and then Kabul.
The collapse of the forces will be studied in the years ahead, but among the factors to be considered, here are five.
First is the political context, dating from the very beginning of the post-9/11 invasion. Because the US relied on the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power in 2001, the old warlord system of regional militia and power centers was never dismantled. This is significant because it undermined the basic political objective of creating a more democratic system, and made it harder to create a new security culture in which the Western-trained national security forces would really enjoy a monopoly of power and prestige.
Second is the reality of the human capital available to create a modern security sector. There are many capable and courageous career military officers in the country, to be sure, but recruiting suitable young men and women to the rank-and-file of the police and army was a daunting task. At the pivotal turning point in 2014, US experts estimated that half of the recruits to the armed forces were illiterate. The US had to launch a program to teach reading and writing to the troops before it could address other essential skills for the defense of the country. The goals of the remedial program were to have soldiers who could count, write their names and use a basic vocabulary at the third-grade level. Before the international force instituted an automated payment system, soldiers would routinely leave their posts after pay day and walk to their villages to provide their meager pay to their families, often disappearing for long periods before returning to their official duties.
Third are the shortcomings of the political system that evolved through contested elections and failures to confront corruption and mismanagement. Former president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on August 15, failed to inspire Afghans. They saw the perpetuation of the old system, with a leader and Kabul elites who embraced the World Bank and development theories, but who were not able to change the socio-economic fundamentals of this very poor country. It’s an old Afghan problem – governing from the capital has always been hard – but in a more connected age, Afghans in rural areas know more about what goes on in Kabul, and that has fostered deep resentment, creating opportunities for the Taliban.
A related fourth factor is captured in Biden’s exasperation with the Ghani administration and its military leaders – where is the political will to fight? The US had provided capacity in terms of equipment and training, but capabilities are only part of the equation. The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told CNN, “You can’t buy political will.” The fatalism of the government in Kabul, and the failure of civilian leaders to rally the country against the dangers of a resurgent Taliban, will need to be studied. Rather than focus only on the collapse of the armed forces, it will be critical to examine how the civilian leadership failed to mobilize the forces in an effective way.
And last but not least is the hubris of the outside players who believed their own rhetoric about the desire and the ability of the Afghans to emulate the models of a national, integrated military force that would be apolitical and loyal to the nation. To be fair, one can find plenty of Pentagon reports with sharp analysis about the shortcomings of US efforts in Afghanistan. But there is a tendency to create metrics of progress that in hindsight are often mindless, and miss the dynamics in play for young apolitical Afghans who will join the ANDSF, or the Taliban, if they think it’s the best way to survive.
Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council.