What Went Wrong With Afghanistan’s Defense Forces?


Foreign Policy magazine

Ten provincial capitals have fallen in a week, and Kabul is teetering.
Newly graduated Afghan National Army cadets march during their graduation ceremony at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul on Dec. 30, 2014.

Newly graduated Afghan National Army cadets march during their graduation ceremony at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul on Dec. 30, 2014. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

KABUL—Fighting forces dissolve in hot battle. The United States bombards insurgent positions to prevent the country from collapse. As the Taliban’s offensive risks becoming a rout, analysts and observers—as well as Afghans themselves—are asking, what went wrong with Afghanistan’s defense forces?

The United States and its allies have invested billions of dollars developing, arming and training Afghanistan’s Army, Air Force, Special Forces commandos and police. America alone has spent almost $83 billion on Afghanistan’s defense sector since 2001, when it led an invasion following the 9/11 attacks. NATO said it has donated more than $70 million in supplies to Afghanistan’s defense forces, including medical equipment and body armor, so far this year.

Yet in the past week, 10 provincial capitals have fallen in Afghanistan. According to security and regional sources, four of those capitals were effectively handed to the insurgents by national forces that refused to put up a fight. Experts are now predicting the national capital, Kabul, will come under attack as soon as next month.

There should have been plenty of time for the U.S.-funded political and military leadership to develop a strategy to defend the country. After all, international combat missions ended in 2014, after which much of the fighting was led by the Afghans.

As the speed and ferocity of the Taliban advance attests, though, that didn’t happen. Experts told Foreign Policy the fault lies not in the training or equipment provided to Afghanistan. Nor is it endemic: The country has long produced good fighting men and the special forces are as good as any. The reasons for the monumental failure, these experts say, stem from the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The Ministries of Defense and Interior are notoriously corrupt, and the experts also cite widespread ineptitude, lack of leadership, and self-interest.

For example, sources say the Afghan police—who are militarized and fight from front line bases—have not been paid for months by the Ministry of Interior. Other sources say the same is true for the Ministry of Defense, despite electronic payments systems meant to eliminate skimming. In many areas, soldiers and police are not supplied with adequate food, water, ammunition, or arms. Supply lines are pilfered, with arms, ammunition, and other equipment sold onto the black market, and much of it reaching the insurgency. Many soldiers and police are posted far from their homes, and abandon positions to return to defend their families and property.

A former senior official with the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, said attrition rates from the country’s security services were around 5,000 per month, against recruitment of 300 to 500, a ratio he said was “unsustainable.”

Ghani himself is a micro-manager and displays a paranoia that has led to poor decision-making aimed at centralizing and consolidating his control, sources close to him say. Officials as high up as the ministers of defense and interior, as well as district governors and police chiefs, are removed and changed at an alarming rate and are rarely localized, with no knowledge or roots in the regions. Massive sums are embezzled and laundered to the detriment of civic services, health, education, and security. The appointment Wednesday of Gen. Sami Sadat, who has been leading the fightback in Helmand province, to head the Afghan Army’s special operations command, was widely welcomed as a long-overdue and sensible move.

The president and his closest advisers are referred to as the “three-man republic” of Ghani, his national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, and the head of the presidential administrative office, Fazal Mahmood Fazli. All have spent long periods abroad and, like many senior bureaucrats, hold second passports. Some in the president’s circle are not fluent in either of Afghanistan’s two official languages, Dari and Pashtu.

“The issue of legitimacy is very important,” said Enayat Najafizada, founder of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. He noted the presidential elections that returned Ghani for a second term in 2020 were tainted with corruption, a point well made by Taliban propagandists.

“Legitimacy comes from the ballot, but then you have to deliver or people will turn on you. And that has not been done for five or six years. There has been a disconnect between the government and the Afghan people,” said Najafizada. “Policies and strategies are extremely discriminatory, divisive and narrow-minded. Ghani claims to know this country very well. Maybe in theory, but in practice he is a failure.”

Experts say Afghanistan’s forces have the capability but lack the will to fight. Across the country, soldiers, police, provincial and rural officials, and citizens have said they will not fight to defend the Ghani government. Those who do fight, including local militias, say they are defending their families and property, and safeguarding their children’s future as they cannot trust the government to do so.

That view—capability without willingness—was reflected in comments made Tuesday by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said the Biden administration believed the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have “the equipment, numbers, and training to fight back.” Gaining ground, Psaki said, will strengthen their position in peace talks with the Taliban, which resumed in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Wednesday. No progress has been made in a year of meetings. Pentagon spokesman Jack Kirby said Tuesday the issue is “leadership.”

Military operations analyst Jonathan Schroden said, “What we have seen so far from the conventional parts of the ANDSF, not the commandos, is largely a lack of will and or ability to fight for very long.” The crux, Schroden said, was “if they don’t believe in what they are being asked to fight for or don’t want to, they are not going to.” He pointed out there is no penalty for desertion in Afghanistan, unlike in the United States.

“Not all army units or check points have vanished,” Schroden said. “Many have tried to defend but they are running out of food and ammunition. [They’re] calling for resupply, reinforcements, and [] air strikes, and not getting them at all in some cases. So then they have to run.”

Large swaths of territory have fallen to the Taliban since May as the insurgents’ strategy has isolated the country by closing border crossings and encircling provincial capitals. The capital of Samangan province, Aybak; Farah, capital of the province of the same name; Pul-i-Khumri, capital of Baghlan; and Faizabad, capital of Badakhshan which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, all fell on Monday and Tuesday without a fight.

The Taliban entered Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh, on Sunday, and have been inside Herat city, capital of Herat province, for two weeks. The collapse of these cities would hand the north and west of the country to the insurgency, said Najafizada, the think tank founder. The capture of Kunduz in the north gives the insurgents a run down to Kabul.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump struck a bilateral deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to end 20 years of U.S. engagement by pledging the group to conditions, including no attacks on U.S. forces, cutting ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and a general reduction in violence. None of these conditions have been kept. Nevertheless, U.S. President Joe Biden stuck to the deal and has said all U.S. troops will be out by Aug. 31.

Weeda Mehran, a conflict specialist at the University of Exeter, said the departure of U.S. troops, especially their overnight disappearance from Bagram Airfield, which had been the hub of their operations in Afghanistan, had been a huge blow to security forces’ morale.

“Kabul has been rather vague in how it intends to manage the war and ward off the Taliban. This lack of clarity combined with political fragmentation has led to speculation and an absence of political will to fight the insurgency, particularly in the north and west, amongst majority non-Pashtun population,” Mehran said. “This inevitably reinforces the Taliban’s narrative of a powerful force with an imminent victory in Afghanistan.”

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

What Went Wrong With Afghanistan’s Defense Forces?