On a normal morning, Asadullah Akbari, a colonel in the Afghan National Army, would arrive at his office in Kabul to coordinate online meetings between Afghan officials and their U.S. advisers based in Qatar. After years of fighting across Afghanistan, Akbari had helped set up his country’s special forces training program and risen through the ranks. He now worked near the highest levels of the military, side by side with Afghanistan’s political leaders. Morning teleconferences with Western partners were part of his daily routine.
He had grown accustomed to this relatively quiet life. But as the U.S.-backed Afghan government imploded last summer, a thick cloud of fear descended on the Afghan capital. Rumors spread that Taliban fighters were going house to house, hunting down Afghan military officials. Akbari stayed home, texting anxiously with his military and defense ministry colleagues, all of them trying to make sense of the sudden changes. Akbari’s future had seemed relatively predictable; now it was difficult to see even a few days ahead.
On August 20, 2021 — five days after Kabul fell to the Taliban — Akbari headed to a well-known mall with his kids. Walking the streets of Kabul, where he’d spent most of his life, he had the distinct feeling that these could be his last days on earth. When his children begged him for candy and ice cream from the vendors on the street, he bought everything they wanted.
Akbari knew in his heart that he and his colleagues had been left to their fate. Many of the senior Afghan officials they’d served under had already made their own arrangements and fled the city. People who had supervised Akbari for years suddenly stopped responding to his messages. It was the last betrayal, after years of corruption and double-dealing that he had personally witnessed from his perch in the Ministry of Defense. The Afghan government they’d spent two decades helping to build had collapsed. Now, its ruins were raining down on top of millions of ordinary Afghans like him.
The fall of the Afghan government triggered a tidal wave of anguish and soul searching among Afghans and Americans who had invested years of their lives in the U.S. mission there. It was also personal for me as an Afghan journalist. For seven years, I worked at Etilaatroz, one of Afghanistan’s leading investigative news outlets. I reported and wrote scores of articles on politics and security in Afghanistan, including more than a dozen major investigations. Across all this reporting one theme stood out above all the rest: corruption. The greed, self-interest, and amorality of Afghan elites was like an acid that ate away at the institutions ordinary Afghans had sacrificed so much to build. In the end, that corruption would prove fatal to our hopes for building a free and independent nation.
I was among tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated by the U.S. government when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last summer. Since then, during the nearly 10 months I spent with other refugees in a hotel in Albania and now in the United States, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to my country and why. Like everyone, I watched in horror as my Etilaatroz colleagues still in Kabul were beaten by the Taliban for the crime of covering a protest. How could the gains of the last 20 years have evaporated so quickly?
This remains an agonizing question for both Afghans and Americans. In April, the Senate Armed Services Committee announced the creation of an Afghanistan War Commission aimed at establishing why the U.S.-backed Afghan government and its security forces dissolved so spectacularly. The commission plans to provide a “comprehensive review of key decisions related to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan” and to deliver a final report to Congress within three years, around the time President Joe Biden will complete his term in office.
Eight months ago, I began calling Akbari and other sources in the former Afghan security forces. There were many questions about why the army did not fight that continued to bother me and other Afghans. Why, after years of grueling struggle, did soldiers in many parts of the country put down their guns in the face of the enemy? To find the answers, I started interviewing former military officers and government officials.
They told me that corrupt, inexperienced commanders as well as leaders who valued loyalty above capability had weakened the chain of command. Tens of thousands of Afghans had given their lives for their country. In the end, ordinary soldiers were betrayed by leaders who failed to give them the tools they needed to succeed against a brutal insurgency.
On August 20, the day Akbari walked to the mall, the Taliban were rushing to establish themselves across Kabul, flush with excitement over their victory. They had fought for years, suffering terrible losses themselves, and were now almost certain to take revenge on their enemies. Their knock on his door seemed inevitable. As Akbari walked into his home, he received an unexpected text message on his phone from a U.S. military adviser based in Qatar with whom he had regularly teleconferenced from Kabul.
“Asadullah, where are you?”
Within a few days, Akbari and his family were packed into the cargo hold of a plane with other Afghans who had been lucky or connected enough to make it out. The flight took him from Kabul to Qatar and then on to Jacksonville, Florida, where he and his family are the only Afghan residents in a rundown apartment complex. The speed with which his life had transformed gave it all an air of unreality.
Akbari had spent decades at war, lost many friends, and suffered scars that he will carry for the rest of his life. Looking at Afghanistan today, he cannot escape the feeling that it was all for nothing.
The Fall of the Three-Man Republic
The U.S. is believed to have spent upwards of $2 trillion in Afghanistan — money that was, in many cases, eaten up by graft or funneled back to politically connected U.S. government contractors. Afghan military officers like Akbari saw the rot up close. In the final years of his government, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a close circle of advisers were widely criticized for monopolizing decision-making and personnel appointments and gradually losing touch with the people they governed. Akbari regularly briefed Ghani, his senior advisers, and the Afghan defense minister; their constant changes to military leadership and their obsession with personal loyalty overshadowed efforts to prevent a Taliban takeover, he says.
“I was 18 years old when I joined the army. I never saw happy days in Afghanistan, only war, blood, fighting, and clashes. And in the end, our leaders betrayed the country,” he told me. “I saw myself that we had no honest leaders and no one who was thinking of the national interest. They were only thinking of their own benefit and appointing those who were loyal to them.”
“I never saw happy days in Afghanistan, only war, blood, fighting, and clashes. And in the end, our leaders betrayed the country.”
Top former Afghan officials painted a picture of increasing paranoia on the part of Ghani and his aides, who feared not just disloyalty, but even a possible coup by officers of the Afghan military. Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat, the last commander of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, described Ghani to investigators for the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, as a “paranoid president … afraid of his own countrymen,” adding that Ghani was “changing commanders constantly [to] bring back some of the old-school Communist generals who [he] saw as loyal to him, instead of these American-trained young officers who he [mostly] feared.”
During the last two years of the Ghani government, power was held by a triumvirate: the Afghan president; his national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib; and his chief of administrative office of the president, Fazel Mahmood Fazly. Many Afghans referred derisively to this group of power brokers as the “three-man republic.” Neither Mohib nor Fazly had experience in security or national defense. Mohib had been the Afghan ambassador to the United States, and Fazly was a surgeon who had previously been a political adviser to Ghani. Both men played a critical role in the catastrophic decision-making that led to the collapse of the army, Akbari said.
“What I witnessed was that Hamdullah Mohib was given the widest authority in appointments. All the corps commanders were personally appointed by him and were doing whatever Mohib commanded,” Akbari said. “All orders were issued by Mohib and a group of officials in the presidential palace.” Mohib, meanwhile, has blamed Western countries for leaving their Afghan partners too abruptly, claiming that the sudden departure of American troops and contractors sapped the Afghan military’s morale and deprived it of the material support it needed to fight.
When reached to comment for this story, Mohib referred me to an interview from earlier this year, in which he attributed the collapse of the Afghan government to U.S. political concessions made to the Taliban and Biden’s decision, in the summer of 2021, to announce a final withdrawal. While denying that he had enriched himself with Afghan government funds, Mohib pointed to the corrupting impact on Afghan institutions of “exorbitant amounts of unmonitored money” dumped into the country by the international community since 2001.
The final Taliban offensive that toppled the government laid bare this corruption, which my colleagues and I had documented for years at Etilaatroz. At the moment of their country’s greatest crisis, many top officials and commanders simply abandoned Afghan soldiers and civilians, focusing instead on their own safety and grabbing whatever resources they could as they fled the country.
By the end, the people in charge had given up on other factors and were making personnel appointments based entirely on what they thought would be their own interests, said Saleh Jahesh, a former head of the strategic planning office within Afghanistan’s National Security Council. “The major corps commanders were all known to have luxury houses in Dubai,” Jahesh told me.
A Great Crime
Accusations from Biden and others that Afghans failed to fight the Taliban stung Akbari, whose job for years involved maintaining accurate statistics on Afghan security force casualties. The numbers of dead and wounded were sobering. Many of the elite commando units he’d worked with took heavy casualties in the last days of the war; in total, at least 66,000 Afghan police and military service members are estimated to have been killed since 2001.
The U.S. had built an Afghan security infrastructure that was almost entirely dependent on foreign military and contractor support for its own maintenance and logistics. When the U.S. withdrawal began, Afghan soldiers found that they were suddenly unable to call in airstrikes or receive resupply by air, although their U.S.-led combat training had included these as critical components of their style of fighting.
By the end, many Afghan soldiers were stuck holding positions that were impossible to defend and lacked even basic logistical support. The U.S. withdrawal only highlighted the unsustainable nature of the giant Afghan military apparatus that had been built over 20 years.
“It was a myth that the Afghan security forces didn’t fight in the weeks before the collapse of the government. A lot of them stood and fought, and they died in huge numbers,” said Jonathan Schroden, an Afghanistan expert with the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit military research and analysis center in Virginia. “But once word started getting around that if you stood and fought the Taliban there would be no cavalry to come save you, defections and surrenders began. The Taliban were then able to highlight these instances of security forces surrendering as part of a very successful psychological warfare campaign.”
Long before the final collapse of the government, the Afghan security forces had already been struggling under the weight of high casualty rates, corrupt leadership, and low morale.
“The number of new recruits became very low because people were not ready to send their sons to the Afghan National Army. They were aware of the situation and knew that if they send their sons, then they won’t go back home alive,” Akbari said. “Some soldiers were not able to go to their homes and see their families for more than a year.”
Those Afghan soldiers and police who stayed in the fight had to deal with chronic shortages of food, fuel, warm clothing, and ammunition. Corruption in the procurement process steadily ate away at the military’s capacity, a systemic problem that SIGAR documented in real time throughout the war but which was never fixed. A 2017 SIGAR report on efforts to reform the procurement process said that the creation of a National Procurement Authority, which centralized contracts under Ghani’s office, was “one bright spot” in a system otherwise rife with corruption and graft. But according to Jahesh, the centralized authority slowed resupply missions, reducing transparency and creating more opportunities for corruption.
Contracts sometimes took more than six months to be approved, Jahesh said, and prices were wildly inflated. In one instance, he recalled that the procurement authority approved a contract to buy watermelon for the Afghan army at 70 Afghanis per kilogram, while watermelons in the market cost about 1.4 Afghanis per kilogram, meaning the army paid 50 times more than the going rate.
“The soldiers did not receive anything on time and they had no energy to fight simply because they had no vegetables, fruit, or meat to eat to meet their basic needs for calories,” Jahesh told me. “Commanders were being forced to sell military equipment from bases because they were receiving nothing from the government on time. Despite these shortages, on paper senior officials were making it look like everything was being provided for the soldiers.”
“Once word started getting around that if you stood and fought the Taliban there would be no cavalry to come save you, defections and surrenders began.”
I had witnessed supply shortages and other problems for years in my own reporting on the Afghan military. In October 2018, I visited a military base in a suburb of the city of Ghazni, which had recently been the site of fierce clashes between the Afghan military and the Taliban. Instead of training to fight, the Afghan soldiers I met were forced to spend their time gathering firewood to cook their meals as the government had failed to deliver propane and other vital supplies. A 2020 video shared on social media showed a group of wounded Afghan soldiers surrounded by the Taliban in Wardak Province, just south of Kabul. “We don’t have water, we don’t have food,” one of the soldiers said, addressing Ghani. “We have morals to fight if we receive support.”
On top of the brazen economic inequality between themselves and top officials in the Afghan government, the sense of abandonment that many soldiers felt made it seem logical to return to their families rather than die for leaders who they expected would flee to safety in Dubai or Turkey in case of a Taliban victory. Afghan soldiers had been fighting and dying pointlessly for years. Those who perished in what had become a futile effort to stop the Taliban received little dignity, even in death.
“We had many wounded personnel on our bases with wounds that became infected and who later died as a result,” Akbari said. “Some of these soldiers were temporarily buried inside the bases and dug up again when transport planes arrived to take them.”
In some cases, the bodies of Afghans who died on the battlefield were even returned to the wrong families. “The family held a funeral ceremony for them,” Akbari recalled. “But after a while they were found to be alive and returned home.”
While some families were mistakenly told that their sons, brothers, and cousins were dead, the bodies of others who had actually died were sometimes simply lost. Akbari says this ate at his conscience, even as he continued serving a government that he saw as the only hope of saving his country from the Taliban. “It was a great crime committed against them and their families,” Akbari told me.
Haunted by the Past
Though we came from different walks of life and served Afghanistan in different ways, Akbari and I are now both refugees in the United States. His days are spent looking for work and running through the bureaucratic gauntlet necessary to build a new life for his family. Like many other refugees, he spends his free time on WhatsApp, trying to learn about developments back in Afghanistan. Many nights he can’t sleep for thinking about the war.
“Many of my colleagues from special forces units have been persecuted, tortured, and martyred by the Taliban. Their families have been tortured. A number of them are alive in Afghanistan and cannot leave the country; neither can they work nor can they stay in their homes,” Akbari told me. “They have a lot of financial and security problems. None of the defense ministry authorities worked for their evacuation to a safe place. These authorities are thinking about how and where to buy a house or car, and they do not think about soldiers, lieutenants, and officers who were on the front lines.”
In Akbari’s mind, the failure of the war was not due primarily to the Americans, who could have withdrawn in any year since 2001 and seen the Afghan government collapse just as quickly. Instead, it was a product of a corrupt Afghan political class that has still not been held accountable for its failures. Recent news reports of former Afghan officials driving expensive luxury cars and living lavishly in Gulf Arab countries, Turkey, and the West do not surprise him. They are only the crowning insult to the efforts of ordinary Afghans who gave their lives in a tragic two-decade attempt to rebuild their country with international support.
The corruption and mismanagement of Afghanistan by its own elites, enabled, in many cases, by their U.S. partners, has plunged the country into a new era of suffering under the Taliban. One day, Akbari and I both dream of returning. For now, we can only try to learn from what went wrong.
“If I say that Afghanistan was a country during the Ashraf Ghani government, it would not be fair,” Akbari said. “Afghanistan was like a joint stock business company, in that every partner exercised as much authority as their share.”