Why The Afghan Military Collapsed

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Soldiers from the Afghan Security Forces travel on a armed vehicle along a road in Panjshir province in Afghanistan on August 15. (AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Soldiers from the Afghan Security Forces travel on a armed vehicle along a road in Panjshir province in Afghanistan on August 15. (AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

After 20 years of war, thousands dead and billions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan, the government collapsed and is back under Taliban control.

President Biden stands by his move to withdraw U.S. troops.

We're going to focus on one part of this seemingly sudden collapse: the Afghanistan Army.

Why did it crumble away? And what does it reveal about the failures of American and Afghan efforts?

Today, On Point: Ground truth and the Afghanistan National Army.


Azmat Khan, investigative reporter. She is working on a book for Random House investigating America's air wars. (@AzmatZahra)

Craig Whitlock, investigative reporter focusing on national security for the Washington Post. (@CraigMWhitlock)

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Ali Rasouly, he worked as a translator for the U.S. Marine Special Operations Command.

Interview Highlights

We've read about mass surrenders, corruption, and how easily the Taliban walked right into several Afghanistan cities. Can you verify what happened in the past couple of days?

Craig Whitlock: "It was very surprising, I think, to most of the world just how quickly the Taliban was able to really take over the entire country, city by city, province by province, over the space of just over a week. That said, the Biden administration should not have been surprised that there were major structural flaws with the Afghan security forces. And the security forces consist really of an army, your traditional standing army, but also what they call the Afghan police. And in Afghanistan, the police are more paramilitary police.

"And the United States has trained and equipped both of those forces for the last 20 years. The U.S. government has known since the outset, since the early 2000s, that the structure set up to build the Afghan army and the Afghan police has been plagued by all sorts of problems that we could talk all day about them. And they've known that the reliability of those forces was very suspect. That said, I think they were caught by just how quickly things turned. I think they thought they had several weeks or maybe a few months before the Taliban could take over. But instead, it turned out to be about one week."

On why the Afghan military collapsed

Azmat Khan: "This has been a long recurring problem in Afghanistan. This idea of ghost soldiers, ghost institutions. So people who are officially marked as on the books and there's a payment coming in, but that person may not actually be there, and that money may be taken. In recent years, Afghan national security forces have been saying that they weren't necessarily receiving their payments. So they were being asked to fight a war without a lot of those kinds of promises that they were made.

"But in addition to that, I think it's really hard not to look at their incentive. So just consider the losses that Afghan national security forces have faced throughout this war. The estimates range ... in the tens of thousands. Brown University estimates 65,000 Afghan security forces have died between 2001 and now. And just to give you some context, in the last year since Operation Freedom Sentinel started, which was when the United States started to pull its troops away and function more around an air campaign. 64 Americans have died in hostile deaths in Afghanistan. Now Afghan national security forces have suffered anywhere between 40,000 and 65,000 deaths.

"And they've been paying that price even with American air support. So the United States has been providing air support to those soldiers so that when they try to go retake a place, this is a quintessential American strategy. ... Partner forces ... will send those partner forces in with drones and aircraft that are supporting them. So if somebody attacks them, they hit them, right? So now, even with massive air support in 2019, United States dropped more bombs in Afghanistan than in any year, previous year in the history of that war. Even with that incredible level of air support, Afghan soldiers were dying in large numbers.


"So now consider this from the perspective of an Afghan soldier. You now know that America is going to be withdrawing its air support, or at least curtailing it and reducing it significantly. Why would you continue to fight what would be a near certain death if you know that that support isn't going to be there? You may not even get paid. And there might be many people who are now, because of that air support, there have been so many civilian casualties in rural areas.

"Casualties that have never been counted properly because the areas were inaccessible. Casualties that never were publicly reported anywhere. But I would wake up to my WhatsApp full of videos of children, dead children from airstrikes and bombings. You know, these numbers are much higher. And many of the people in the communities who were affected by those will blame Afghan national security forces. And the Taliban certainly would. So I'm sure many people were fearful of revenge. Why not strike a deal? I think from the incentive of some of the people in these positions, it would make a lot of sense given that context."

On the creation of the Afghan military  

Craig Whitlock: "If I can take you back, it [would help] to sort of sketch out how things looked in Afghanistan in 2001, 2002. The United States goes in. As you point out, the goal back then wasn't to eliminate al-Qaida. The goal of the objective of the war was to eliminate al-Qaida and find Osama bin Laden. And that worked out within six months, al-Qaida was gone. The Taliban government was removed from power. A lot of the Taliban fighters went back to their villages or crossed the border to Pakistan. But what you have there is a real vacuum, a security vacuum in a country that was just absolutely destitute. Afghanistan had already been through 20 plus years of war, Soviet occupation, a brutal civil war.

"There were real fears that a famine was about to hit. The country needed humanitarian aid. But the Bush administration at first did not want to stand up an Afghan army. Didn't want to have anything to do with it. It was hoping the allies would take care of it or maybe the United Nations. But it became clear there was this real security vacuum. It had to do something. So at first they tried to build an Afghan army and police force with NATO allies, but they farmed out the job to contractors. They fund it out to some NATO allies who weren't really well equipped for it.

"And so the first few years it was valuable time loss, when the United States was actually very weary of doing an expensive modern army. It didn't want to do that. But at the same time, what they were trying wasn't working. So then it kind of flipped the switch in the other direction. And it realized belatedly that the Taliban wasn't going away. That there was an insurgency it had to deal with. So it very rapidly tried to build up the Afghan military in the latter part of the Bush administration and certainly Obama's first term. But by then, it might have been too late.

"They were trying to move too quickly and they did what they knew how to do, which was to fashion an army in the image of the United States. We really didn't have the capacity to build a standing army or police force from scratch at the levels that Afghanistan needed to secure itself. So I don't want to minimize this, it wasn't an easy problem to solve. There was no guidebook for how to do this. ... The United States tried different approaches, but none of them really worked. But as you point out, what they kept telling the public was that it was working, that they were making progress, that the Afghans would be able to defend their own country. They said this year after year after year, even though they knew this just wasn't panning out."

What are the Afghanistan Papers?

Craig Whitlock: "The Afghanistan Papers are hundreds of interviews, they're notes and transcripts of interviews that an obscure U.S. government agency, an inspector general for Afghanistan, had conducted with people who are key players in the war. These were generals, ambassadors, White House officials, but also lower level officials, aid workers, Afghan officials for a program called Lessons Learned, where the government was trying to learn lessons of what went wrong in Afghanistan. So that if we were ever involved in another protracted conflict like this, we could learn from it.

"This agency had published a few sanitized public reports with their findings, but they really kept almost all of their interviews under wraps and hadn't identified any of the people they had interviewed. The Washington Post wanted to know what those people had said. These were people who were in charge of the war, who played key roles throughout 20 years of conflict. So we asked for copies of them as public records. The agency denied them to us. We ended up having to sue twice in federal court under the Freedom of Information Act. It took us three years to get our hands on these documents.

"And in short, what they showed was that the narrative being fed to the American people, that the war was always making progress, that the American military was turning the corner, that the Afghan security forces were constantly improving. That narrative, that rosy, happy talk was completely at odds with what U.S. commanders and diplomats really thought. In their interviews for the Afghanistan Papers, they were very blunt. They said we didn't know what we were doing in Afghanistan. We didn't have a strategy. None of this made any sense. And that contrast between the public and private narrative is really at the heart of the Afghanistan Papers."

Was the Afghan military doomed to fail from the start?

Azmat Khan: "It's such a complicated history Afghanistan has. And this is a country with so many different provinces and large rural populations. And it's really hard to underscore the extent to which they didn't understand those local contexts, really had no idea what they're getting into. And so it's very hard to to say that this could have gone correctly when there was such a gap and such, really, these sprawling goals. But with counterterrorism always baked into the mission, it's really hard to say."

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "At War With The Truth" — "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."

This program aired on August 18, 2021.


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Hilary McQuilkin is a producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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