The Taliban didn’t have to take over. But Washington made sure they would.
The catastrophic collapse of the Afghan republic and the subsequent takeover of the country by a cabal of terrorists, drug runners, and misogynists were direct consequences of decisions made by successive U.S. presidents to deal directly with the Taliban and follow through on one-sided promises to withdraw military forces that were essential to the state’s survival. That is the devastating conclusion of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government’s main Afghanistan oversight body, in a report to two congressional committees.
Former President Donald Trump’s bilateral deal with the Taliban, and President Joe Biden’s decision to stick to it, caused the disintegration of Afghanistan’s security forces. Their collapse pushed senior members of the Afghan government, including President Ashraf Ghani and his national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, to flee the country as the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, to complete their rout and claim victory.
SIGAR concluded that the flawed Trump-Taliban deal, signed on Feb. 29, 2020, and Biden’s decision to follow through with its withdrawal conditions—despite the Taliban’s failure to honor their commitments, such as severing ties with al Qaeda—destroyed the morale of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
Afghanistan’s army, special forces, air force, and militarized police were supported with almost $90 billion in U.S. security assistance between 2002 and 2021. SIGAR says Afghans relied on U.S. forces and, crucially, airstrikes, which gave the republic its only real battlefield edge against the Taliban. Trump agreed to withdraw not only U.S. troops but the contractors who kept helicopters and fighter jets airborne. The rapid drawdown compounded low salaries in the Afghan army that often were not paid; poor logistics, which meant food and ammunition didn’t arrive; corrupt leadership that skimmed off weapons and fuel, which often ended up in Taliban hands; and Ghani’s paranoia that the deal was a way to oust him. The end was inevitable.
The findings come in an interim report on the collapse of the ANDSF, as well as weaknesses in its development over two decades, for the U.S. House Oversight and Reform and Armed Services committees; the full report is due to be delivered later this year. The conclusions so far dovetail with versions of events from many players in the Afghan government, including Mohib, the former Afghan national security advisor, who said the ANDSF’s collapse began in February 2020 with the Trump-Taliban deal.
Speaking this month at the Oxford Union, a debating society in Oxford, England, Mohib said the Trump deal and subsequent talks with insurgent leaders—many of whom are internationally sanctioned terrorists—had whitewashed the Taliban as a “government-in-waiting” by excluding the government supported by the Western alliance.
“The security forces fought bravely as far as they could, and then when it felt like it’s a losing battle, there was a morale decline, and they ended up having to stop,” Mohib said. “I think, as [in] any war, it’s important to know who the enemy is, and when that line … blurs, it becomes really difficult for any soldier to be able to continue to fight.”
The Biden administration blamed the Afghan army for the republic’s collapse; it lacked, as White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said, “the political will to fight back.” SIGAR found that Afghan forces could not survive once the U.S. backup that had allowed them to fend off a vicious insurgency for 20 years suddenly evaporated. Without that support, Afghan forces, and the citizen militias that fought alongside them, fled Taliban advances. Some provincial capitals “were captured with little or no fighting,” SIGAR noted in its report.
SIGAR identified six factors that contributed to the failure of Afghanistan’s defense and security forces, with the Trump and Biden decisions topping the list, followed by the loss of U.S. air and other support. Other factors included Ghani’s frequent changes to ANDSF leadership and his appointment of loyalists to key positions; lack of a national security plan; the unsustainability of the ANDSF due to high casualties and attrition rates; and the Taliban’s exploitation of those weaknesses.
The presence of U.S. forces had helped convince ANDSF troops that Kabul would continue to pay their salaries and, at least nominally, weed out corrupt officials. Likewise, as long as there was an American presence, the Afghan elite believed it was safe to stay. That confidence quickly ebbed as the Taliban’s legitimacy grew. Soon, all players to Afghanistan’s conflict, from regional governments to domestic power brokers and neighboring countries, began hedging their bets. Some ethnic warlords did deals directly with the Taliban leadership, sources said. Taliban leaders were feted in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Islamabad.
U.S. concessions to the Taliban—including freeing thousands of Taliban prisoners for nothing in return and without consulting the government in Kabul—helped tip the scales against the republic’s survival.
“The international community, noting the shift in US policy, adjusted its posture accordingly,” wrote Ahmad Shuja Jamal, the former director-general for international relations on the Afghan National Security Council, now in exile, and William Maley, an expert on Afghanistan at the Australian National University.
“Both the US concessions and the international community’s changing disposition operated increasingly to the detriment of the Afghan state. The new US administration promised, but did not deliver, a course correction,” they concluded.
Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.
This article was originally published on Foreign Policy. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.