When the Afghan military and government collapsed in the summer of 2021, it was the worst failure of the U.S. defense establishment since the fall of Saigon. The U.S. today has moved on — providing the Ukrainian military with weapons and tactical support in its fight against Russia — but the question of why the world’s most powerful nation failed to build a capable Afghan military has not yet been fully answered.
A new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, issued this week sheds critical light on what went so terribly wrong in America’s longest war — and how tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans were set up by their leaders and foreign partners to fight and die for a doomed cause.
“The real damning thing about what is in the report is that people had been telling the U.S. military this for years.”
The SIGAR report, “Why the Afghan Security Forces Collapsed,” paints a picture of the U.S. government’s effort to construct an Afghan military from scratch over two decades. As in many other U.S. conflicts, this enterprise relied heavily on contractors and advisers who themselves were “poorly trained and experienced for their mission,” according to the report. Among other tasks, contractors would often run logistics systems and direct airstrikes on the Afghans’ behalf.
The American mission in Afghanistan had been to build an army that could stand on its own feet to resist the Taliban. In the end, however, the Afghan military was not only riddled with corruption, but also designed to function properly only so long as the foreign contractors and soldiers remained around to manage it.
In effect, similar to its disastrous experience in South Vietnam, the United States had attempted to build an army suitable for a modern, industrialized country like itself, rather than one that would fit the realities of a poor and agrarian state.
“The types of security forces that we were trying to build, which were relatively sophisticated and relied on advanced technology and electronics logistics systems, were just not within the general capacity of what Afghanistan would be able to use in sustainable ways,” said Jonathan Schroden, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit military research and analysis center in Virginia. “The real damning thing about what is in the report is that people had been telling the U.S. military this for years.”
Afghans were not blameless in this debacle. Ethnic and political divisions within the government resulted in competent commanders being shuffled out of roles in favor of individuals connected to Kabul-based powerbrokers. Corruption at elite levels was endemic. The notorious issue of “ghost soldiers,” conscripts who existed only as budget-line items but not as flesh-and-blood service members in the field, continued to dog the Afghan military to its last days.
Yet the oft-repeated claim that the Afghan military itself did not fight the Taliban proved untrue. Tens of thousands of Afghans died fighting the Taliban, continuing the war until the fight became futile.
The SIGAR report outlined another reason for U.S. failure in Afghanistan that will be relevant to any future foreign conflicts or nation-building enterprises that the U.S. embarks upon: The war went on too long.
The report says that “the length of the U.S. commitment was disconnected from a realistic understanding of the time required to build a self-sustaining security sector.” For a period lasting more than a decade up until the final withdrawal, U.S. political leaders — recognizing how unpopular the war was at home, as casualties mounted and little battlefield progress was made — began drawing up timelines for when they would head for the exits.
What’s more, Schroden, the Center for Naval Analyses expert, pointed to the issue, highlighted in the SIGAR report, of U.S. government personnel and contractors rotating in and out of the country on short stints, leading them to repeat the same mistakes as their predecessors every few years. Despite the length, then, the U.S. continued its long commitment, without any realistic prospect of success on the horizon.
The half-in, half-out approach to the war was inconducive to a lasting victory over the Taliban. It pushed neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran to hedge their bets and bide their time. And, most importantly, the short timeframes involved made it almost certain that the Afghan security forces would not have time to develop the solid institutional structure they would need to survive indefinitely, even if their training had been effective.
Given the fundamentally flawed approach that the U.S. had taken to building up the Afghan military, spending another two decades occupying Afghanistan and then withdrawing on the same terms would have been unlikely to lead to a very different outcome.
As tragically as the war ended for many Afghans, including tens of thousands who were sent to fight and die in a military that was unequipped for the task of securing the country, the withdrawal agreement negotiated in Qatar by the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020 did finally put an end to an endeavor that had already been failing for many years.
“The Taliban and D.C. ultimately wanted the same thing, which was for U.S. troops to leave,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and former U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. “The conditions of the final agreement were not as important as leaving the country as soon as possible.”