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Who Is to Blame for the Collapse of Afghanistan’s Security Forces?

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15 of last year cemented the complete collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces, which the United States and its partners built over twenty years at a cost of nearly $90 billion. Last week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction placed primary blame for that collapse on the shoulders of the United States, saying that the “single most important factor” behind it “was the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under [President Donald Trump], followed by President [Joe] Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021.”

This finding aligns with views espoused by some U.S. military leaders, such as the former commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie. He similarly traced the collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces to the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. But this runs squarely against statements by Biden, who placed the blame on Afghan security forces themselves, saying, “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Who is really, or mostly, to blame? Is it Trump? Biden? U.S. military leaders? Afghanistan’s security forces? Or, as some Afghans have alleged, was it mostly the fault of Afghanistan’s former President Ashraf Ghani? Contrary to the special inspector general’s conclusion, I contend that the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” And only by acknowledging the responsibility of all these actors (and more) can we properly learn and heal by holding them accountable.

Factors of Collapse

The special inspector general’s report was requested by Congress and directed to address two issues regarding the failure of Afghanistan’s security forces: What factors contributed directly to their collapse last fall, and what factors led to that collapse over the course of the past 20 years? Regarding the former, the special inspector general identified the U.S. withdrawal as the primary factor, mainly because it caused devastating degradations in Afghan security forces’ morale and led many Afghans to conclude that the United States was abandoning Afghanistan — or worse, that Washington had negotiated a deal to hand the country over to the Taliban. But the special inspector general identified five other factors that also played critical roles in the collapse.

The first of these was the marked reduction of U.S. support to Afghan security forces in the wake of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. In support of this factor, the special inspector general points to the post-agreement decline in airstrikes conducted by the United States in support of Afghan forces. In total, the United States conducted about 800 airstrikes in the 10 months of 2020 following the agreement, compared to over 8,000 strikes in the 14 months that preceded it. In addition to the decline in the total number of strikes, the special inspector general points to changes in U.S. rules of engagement that accompanied the agreement and enabled the Taliban to attack Afghan positions more easily. As described by Afghan Gen. Sami Sadat, “Taliban fighters had to be actively shooting within 150 meters of a checkpoint in order for U.S. aircraft to engage. If Taliban forces were 300 meters away, or stopped shooting when U.S. aircraft arrived, [Afghan security forces] were on their own.”

The second factor was that the United States never built Afghanistan’s security forces to be self-sustaining. The special inspector general points out that the United States and its allies built these forces largely in their own image, conferring upon them sophisticated equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters and C-130 transport planes, and complicated systems for maintenance, logistics, and personnel management that were mostly run by contractors. These dependencies were most notable for the Afghan Air Force, but they extended to the other military and security forces as well. The special inspector general noted additional dependencies for the Afghan Commandos, widely regarded as the most capable force that Afghanistan had: reliance on U.S. advisors for planning, personnel and unit management, and combat enablers such as intelligence. While Afghan forces had been doing the bulk of the fighting for years before the U.S. withdrawal, the United States had been performing nearly all of the behind-the-scenes management and support of those forces.

The third factor was Ghani’s frequent rotation of Afghan security force leaders and his marginalization of competent U.S.-trained officers in favor of loyalists who frequently lacked knowledge of the security sector. According to a former Afghan general and a security minister, Ghani became increasingly paranoid after the U.S.-Taliban agreement that the United States would push him from power. Accordingly, he increasingly viewed the cadre of U.S.-trained Afghan generals as a potential coup source and sought to limit their influence relative to others that he deemed more loyal to himself.

Fourth, the special inspector general pointed to the failure of the Afghan government to develop a national security plan for the era after the U.S. withdrawal. The reasons for this stemmed in part from Ghani’s marginalization of competent security leaders and in part from his and other Afghan leaders’ persistent belief that Biden would buck the terms of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and not fulfill its obligation to withdraw. Not until July 26, 2021 did Ghani announce a plan to defend the country from the Taliban onslaught. Even then, the plan called for stabilization of the situation over the next six months, which was dangerously out of touch with the pace of Taliban advance across the country.

The last major factor that the special inspector general identified was the effectiveness of the Taliban’s military campaign, which “isolated — both physically and psychologically — [Afghan] forces and undermined their willingness to fight.” The decrease in American airstrikes following the U.S.-Taliban agreement and small size of the Afghan Air Force, combined with the U.S.-imposed requirement for Afghan security forces to stop conducting military offensives and adopt an “active defense” posture, granted the Taliban considerable freedom of movement and ability to mass forces. The Taliban used this ability to isolate and overrun Afghan security force positions. The Taliban would then advertise these victories via social media, in support of psychological operations designed to pressure or entice Afghan security forces into surrendering. As the number and sharing of these advertised victories expanded, the Taliban increasingly reached out to local Afghan security force leaders with a combination of incentives for surrender (e.g., amnesty, money) and threats for not doing so (e.g., against their families). This pressure, combined with the lack of strategy, guidance, logistics, and air support from Kabul led many local commanders to take the Taliban’s offer. Once this dynamic started, it snowballed quickly.

These six factors were identified by the special inspector general as being the most critical to the final collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces. But the speed of their collapse strongly suggests that they were built on a precariously shaky foundation. Looking back at the previous 20 years, the special inspector general identified an additional nine factors that contributed over time to the collapse. These included strategic shortfalls (e.g., struggles to balance a desire to “get after the enemy” and “transition the mission” with developing sustainable Afghan security forces, giving Afghans ownership of military strategies), bureaucratic problems (e.g., no single country being in charge, not taking a long-term view of the problem, persistent frequent rotations of personnel), and cultural issues (e.g., not prioritizing the advisory mission, constantly doing things for Afghans because Americans could do them better, Afghan political corruption). As the special inspector general states, “These nine factors were intertwined and worked together to create inefficiencies in the U.S. government’s approach, resulting in [security forces] dependent upon long-term international support.” It is also worth noting that these factors were called out repeatedly by the special inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, the intelligence community, analysts, and the media over the course of those 20 years.

Reviewing the Review

Given the complexity of the issues associated with the collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces, the special inspector general deserves significant credit for teasing out a set of critical factors that came together to generate that collapse. The analysts behind the report also deserve our thanks for uncovering fascinating new details, such as the ways in which the Taliban exploited changes to American rules of engagement in the wake of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Overall, the six “end game” factors and the nine preceding ones identified by the special inspector general paint a comprehensive and damning picture of the activities of American, coalition, and Afghan political and military leaders. The institutional — and sometimes personal — failings of actors on those sides of the conflict are in sharp contrast to the organizational, political, and military effectiveness of the Taliban.

Yet, for all the strengths of the report, its overall framing is analytically unjustified and risks undermining the learning and change that should accrue from it. The report’s opening statement that the primary factor for the collapse was the agreement and decision, respectively, of Trump and Biden to withdraw generated predictable headlines. The argument behind it appears to be a relatively simple one: Had the United States decided to stay in Afghanistan and continue supporting the Afghan security forces as it had for years, those forces would not have collapsed. The simplicity of this argument renders it logically appealing, but easily picked apart.

For starters, it fails to consider the details of the alternative universe in which the United States made choices to stay. For example, if Trump had refused to withdraw, presumably Washington and the Taliban would have never reached an agreement and the war would still be on, much as it was in 2020. But as I have discussed elsewhere, the Afghan security forces had been slowly failing as an institution for years and the Afghan government had been steadily losing ground to the Taliban. Between November 2017 and November 2019, for example, the government lost control of 38 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. To conclude that staying the course would have prevented the eventual collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces requires providing an argument that these trends would have somehow turned around — an argument that seems implausible unless one further assumes the injection of additional U.S. resources or institutional and cultural changes, which renders the argument even more implausible.

Perhaps more analytically, though, a similar line of logic could be used to argue the primary importance of any of the other factors that the special inspector general identified. As one example, had the Taliban fought an incompetent campaign instead of a brilliant one, Afghan security forces may have prevailed even after the United States withdrew its forces. Thus, perhaps the Taliban’s highly effective political-military campaign was the most important factor. As another, if Ghani had accepted the likelihood of U.S. withdrawal, engaged in appropriate strategic planning, empowered competent military leaders, and shown courage in the face of Taliban aggression, perhaps the Afghan security forces would have rallied to the cause of their national defense, like what we’ve observed with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts in Ukraine. Thus, perhaps Ghani’s poor choices and cowardly behavior was the most important factor.

These arguments can be picked apart, too, which leads back to a different conclusion than that drawn by the special inspector general: There is no “single most important” factor behind the collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces. All six factors that the special inspector general identified are critically important to the story of what occurred, as are all nine of the supporting factors that contributed over time. As I have stated in my own analysis of lessons from the collapse, the failure of Afghanistan’s forces had many fathers, spanning the political and military leaders of the United States, its coalition partners, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.

Why It Matters

I was asked in a recent Lawfare podcast why the report is important and why its framing matters. I responded that it is important for two reasons, learning and healing — both of which hinge on accountability. And its framing can either enable or hinder that accountability.

First, to truly learn from the American experience in Afghanistan not only requires identifying what happened, how it happened, and why — it also requires identifying who made critical decisions along the way and what information, processes, and institutional cultures and biases led to them. In short, it requires accountability for those decisions. This need not be in the form of personal shaming of specific leaders, as I still believe that the vast majority of actors in Afghanistan were doing their best under the conditions and constraints in which they acted, but rather in the form of identified and implemented changes to the organization, cultures, and processes of U.S. and other institutions that generated these outcomes.

Second, for those involved in the Afghan war to truly heal and move on with their lives, they must also see accountability. These people have made sacrifices that range from lost time with loved ones, to scars and wounds that may never heal, to the loss of their own lives or those they loved. Accountability of, and substantial changes to, critical institutions that might prevent similar sacrifices from having to be made under similar conditions in the future are the least we owe these people to help them heal.

This report — and others that will follow, such as those from the Afghanistan War Commission — have the ability to drive that accountability. But to do that effectively, their framing is critical. The special inspector general and his team deserve credit for the work that went into this report. But its identification of the U.S. withdrawal decision as the “single most important factor” behind the Afghan security forces’ collapse enables the blame for that disaster to be placed singularly on Trump and Biden instead of forcing us to grapple with the more complicated reality that a whole web of people and institutions were responsible.

The answer to “who is to blame” for what happened with Afghanistan’s security forces is complex. Framing six factors as equally important avoids oversimplifying that complexity and is more likely to enable the type of accountability we really need: not just of presidents, but of critical leaders and institutions at all levels. As the special inspector general concludes, “Unless the U.S. government understands and accounts for what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how it went wrong in Afghanistan, it will likely repeat the same mistakes in the next conflict.” On that at least, the special inspector general is absolutely correct.

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Jonathan Schroden, Ph.D., directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Departments of the Navy or Army, or the Department of Defense. You can find him on Twitter at @jjschroden.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla

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