The only surprise about the swift collapse of the Afghan army is that anyone should be surprised about it. Once U.S. and NATO troops pulled out entirely, the collapse was inevitable.
Still, many are startled, and not without reason. They assumed that, after 20 years of being armed and trained by U.S. troops and contractors, Afghan soldiers would have learned enough to stave off Taliban militias on their own, or at least slow them down. But the Taliban’s onslaught has been fierce, whole provinces are rapidly changing hands (three in one day earlier this week), and Kabul is all but certain to fall soon. When the Taliban’s assaults first began in late June, U.S. intelligence analysts worried that the Taliban might take over in six to 12 months; now they’re saying it could happen in 90 days. That estimate too may prove overly optimistic.
The problem is not the Afghan soldiers, many of whom are fighting valiantly. The problem is that the complete U.S. withdrawal has made it impossible for them to fight coherently. It has meant not just the disappearance of American troops, who, in any case, hadn’t engaged in direct combat for quite a while. (No U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since early February 2020.) More crucially, it has meant the disappearance of close air support, logistics, intelligence and surveillance, repair and maintenance of weapons and vehicles, medevac units for the wounded, and rapid helicopter transport from one part of the country to another.
Several senior U.S. military officers (active duty and retired) have told me that American ground troops couldn’t fight effectively without these enablers. It is no wonder that Afghan ground troops can’t either.
True, the Taliban don’t have this sort of support network, but insurgents have less need for it. Their advantage is that they can attack at places and times of their choosing. The disadvantage of the Afghan national security forces—or any army waging a counterinsurgency campaign—is that they have to defeat the insurgency wherever it attacks. This is a difficult but feasible task with integrated intelligence networks, close air support, helicopter transport, and all the rest. It’s nearly impossible without those things.
And so the Taliban have almost effortlessly exploited their natural advantage, capturing remote provinces, then building on their successes—and recruiting more militiamen—to advance closer to larger cities. In turn, the regular Afghan troops, hearing of these routs and knowing that they’re on their own, have become increasingly demoralized. It’s likely that many of them—sensing which way the wind is blowing—have deserted or flipped. Taliban militias have been seen parading Afghan army vehicles and U.S.-supplied weapons in the wake of the American withdrawal. In fact, they’ve been capturing our weapons, sometimes provided for cash by our allies, throughout this war.
This leads to another factor: The Taliban are more passionate and determined about fighting for their cause. Many Afghans, including many Afghan soldiers, hate and fear the Taliban, but they don’t feel much love or loyalty toward their government. Back in 2010, when President Barack Obama escalated involvement in the war, top U.S. military officers publicly warned that more troops would have little effect if the Afghan government didn’t clean up its corruption. The cleanup never really took place. The Taliban exploited that fact as well, preying on the Afghan people’s resentment of their leaders.
Did Biden make a mistake in pulling out the troops so completely and so suddenly? When he announced the move in April, he reasoned that we’ve been there long enough; that the original mission—to kill Osama bin Laden and defeat al-Qaida—had been accomplished long ago; that other goals, such as nation building, were pipe dreams; that if the Afghan army wasn’t ready to fight on its own, it never would be, so let’s leave now rather than stay there forever.
He was right on all those points, but he left out one consideration. Obama too became flustered over Afghanistan. Eighteen months after ordering a troop surge and adopting a counterinsurgency strategy, he realized it wasn’t working, reversed his decisions, and pulled out some more troops as well. But he stopped short of withdrawing all of them—he kept in 5,500—for a couple of quite separate reasons. The then-new Afghan president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, had just signed a bilateral security agreement giving U.S. forces legal protection (something his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had never done).* Meanwhile, terrorist groups still flourished across the Pakistan border; there were plenty of reasons to keep a close eye on nuclear-armed Pakistan in any case, and here was Ghani, offering three military bases to do so for as long as we wanted. So Obama maintained a limited presence of troops, ratcheting down their involvement in combat considerably.
The mere presence of these troops—and their continued involvement in training and assisting the Afghan army—kept the Taliban at bay and preserved women’s rights and other wisps of a civil society. (The flow of American dollars also preserved the corruption of the power cliques, which has been a problem from the beginning, but that’s another story.)
Biden could have done the same, with far fewer troops and still less involvement in fighting. President Donald Trump restricted the Biden team’s options by signing a “peace accord” with the Taliban, pledging to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 2021. The Taliban warned that if the U.S. reneged on the deal, they would resume attacking American troops. So if Biden had kept in a few thousand troops, they might have wound up fighting and dying again after all—and that would have been unsustainable.
It was clear, though, that Biden welcomed Trump’s treaty as another rationale for getting out, which he had long wanted to do. But he didn’t put his decision in those terms. Instead, he pledged to prevent the reemergence of terrorists, guarantee the Afghan government’s security, and protect Afghan women’s rights. He said we would do all this “from over the horizon”—i.e., from sensors and fighter aircraft on nearby military bases. This was wishful thinking or perhaps the product of a misinformed briefing. The closest U.S. military bases, in and around Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are more than 1,000 miles from Afghanistan—too far to monitor what’s going on, much less respond to events in full force or quickly.
At a news conference just this past Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki kept up the fiction. “Our view,” she said, “is that the Afghan National Security Defense Forces has the equipment, numbers, and training to fight back, which will strengthen their position at the negotiating table.”
The optimism here is Panglossian. As any military officer could have told her, the Afghan army’s equipment, numbers, and training are irrelevant in any measure of its strength, given the absence of combat support. In any case, there is no negotiating table; to the extent peace talks with the Taliban were ever serious, they haven’t been for a while.
It would have been more honest for Biden to say that Afghanistan’s fate is no longer a vital interest, so we’re leaving. It damages our interests to say, as he did in April, that we will still secure the government, protect women’s rights, hold the Taliban accountable, and all the rest—knowing that, after the withdrawal, we would have no ability to do so. And if Biden didn’t know that, he should fire whoever assured him that we could.
Correction, Aug. 18, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Hamid Karzai’s first name.