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Taliban forces stand guard in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 2 2021. Picture: REUTERS
Taliban forces stand guard in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 2 2021. Picture: REUTERS

The US deal with the Taliban — forged under President Donald Trump and implemented under President Joe Biden — was “the single most important factor” in the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s forces as American troops withdrew last year.

As in Vietnam decades earlier, the US “spent years and billions of dollars training and equipping” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) “only to see them quickly collapse in the face of far less-equipped insurgencies once US logistical, equipment-enabler and air support were withdrawn,” John Sopko, the special inspector-general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in an “interim” lessons-learnt report released Wednesday.

The US appropriated $146bn for Afghanistan reconstruction, with about $90bn spent building the country’s 300,000-member security force. Over 20 years, the conflict killed 2,443 US troops and 1,144 allied troops. Sopko previously said it’s likely that far more than the estimated 66,000 Afghan troops and 48,000 civilians also died.

The US-Taliban agreement — which pledged that US troops would withdraw if the Taliban promised to prevent terrorist operations by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) — “introduced tremendous uncertainty into the US-Afghan relationship,” Sopko wrote. Many of its provisions are still not public, he said, “but are believed to be contained in secret written and verbal agreements between US and Taliban envoys.”

Collapse was ‘foreseen and evident’

Even without access to the secret provisions, “many Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country,” Sopko wrote. “Its immediate effect was that the agreement degraded” security force morale. 

After the agreement was signed, the US military’s level of support declined, including a major drop in air strikes in 2020 after the highest level ever the previous year, Sopko said.

“The collapse of the previous government was foreseen and evident” after the agreement “because the administration was entirely dependent on the presence of foreign forces,” Inamullah Samangani, a deputy Taliban spokesperson, said by phone. The militant group recaptured Afghanistan in August 2021 after two decades of war and in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal of the US and its allied troops.

[M]any Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country.
John Sopko, special inspector-general for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Ousted President Ashraf Ghani and his inner circle, including former national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, fled the country as the Taliban were advancing towards the capital Kabul. Ghani later said he left to stop more bloodshed or another civil war that would destroy everything the country has built or achieved during the span of 20 years.

The mission to build a viable Afghanistan force spanned four US presidents, seven secretaries of state, eight secretaries of defence and an equal number of Central Command chiefs, according to the report. 

Unqualified loyalists

Among other conditions undermining Afghanistan’s government, Sopko said, were Ghani’s appointment of unqualified loyalists, “sidelining the young generation” of military officers with close ties to the US. Another was the Ghani government’s failure to establish a workable strategy that could assume responsibility for nationwide security after the withdrawal of US forces.

Afghan troops “had not only lost US support for offensive operations, they no longer knew if or when US forces would come to their defence” as “US inaction fuelled mistrust” among the security forces “towards the US and their own government.”

The Taliban “did not capture most districts and provinces through military victory,” Sopko wrote. “Instead, local government officials, tribal elders, and ANSF commanders negotiated surrenders.”

For some Afghan soldiers, Sopko wrote, “fighting the Taliban was a pay cheque, not a cause worth losing one’s life over.” 

Asked Tuesday about criticism of the US withdrawal, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that “it was time for that war to end, time to bring the rest of those troops home,” adding that there has been no September-11-type attack on the US since 2001.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
Bloomberg

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