After nearly two decades of war, more than 6,000 American lives lost, over 100,000 Afghans killed and more than $2 trillion spent by the U.S., the speed of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has shocked the world.
This is so because the Taliban have 80,000 troops in comparison with a nominal 300,699 serving the Afghan government, yet the whole country has been effectively overrun in a matter of weeks as military commanders surrendered without a fight in a matter of hours.
Previously, U.S. defense officials reportedly expected Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, to fall in 90 days. It took less than 10 days. This is after the US had concluded plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
“While the end result and bloodletting once we left was never in doubt, the speed of collapse is unreal,” one former intelligence official and U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan told CNBC, requesting anonymity due to professional restrictions.
Also, Michael Zacchea, a retired U.S. Marine who led an American-trained Iraqi Army battalion during the Iraq War, told CNBC, “Why were the Taliban able to so quickly take over? This is a masterpiece, frankly, operationally,
“Why were they able to take the country faster than we did in 2001?”
The question has been asked by Americans, Afghans, military veterans and international observers alike — and the answer, much like the Afghanistan conflict itself, is complex, multilayered and tragic.
The US aid spending watchdog for Afghanistan warned last month that the US military had little or no means of knowing the capability of the Afghan National Defense and Security forces (ANDSF) when required to operate independently of the US forces, despite spending $88.3bn (£64bn) on security-related reconstruction in Afghanistan up to March 2021.
It found the US military to be persistently overoptimistic about Afghan military capability, even though it had no reliable evidence to make that assessment, and said the departure of thousands of US contractors, agreed by the US with the Taliban in 2020, “could significantly impact the sustainability of the ANDSF, in particular their ability to maintain aircraft and vehicles”.
It also raises the question of why the Biden administration ever thought it was safe to leave Afghan forces on their own after decades of dependence on the US for key skills, including air cover, logistics, maintenance, and training support for ANDSF ground vehicles and aircraft; security; base support; and transportation services.
The US president said as recently as 8 July that there was no likelihood of Afghanistan being overrun.
At the same time, the level of Taliban attacks was increasing. In each three-month period since 29 February 2020, the date of the US-Taliban agreement, there were significantly more enemy-initiated attacks than in their corresponding quarters the previous year.
Yet a week before Biden said Afghanistan would not be overrun, it was reported by the independent Afghan Analysts Network that the Taliban had captured 127 of the 420 district centres, about 25% of the total, and by 21 July, Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the figure was more than half.
In June, he said, it had been only 81. It was noticeable that some of the districts falling were in traditionally anti-Taliban areas.
Meanwhile, analysts have come up with some of the likely causes of the utter collapse of ANDSF in the face of Taliban onslaught, which included intelligence failures, a more powerful Taliban, corruption, money, cultural differences, fear, desertion, illicit deals and simple willpower.
1. Corruption, military weakness and illiteracy
One of the potent factors that led to the crumbling of the Afghan forces was corruption in both the high and low places. The watchdog had, it said, repeatedly warned about “the corrosive effects of corruption” within the force. With its reliance on advanced equipment, and with widespread illiteracy in its ranks, the force could not reliably maintain its strength and combat readiness.
Of the $88.3bn spent, the watchdog said: “The question of whether that money was well spent will ultimately be answered by the outcome of the fighting on the ground, perhaps the purest monitoring and evaluation exercise.”
The report’s clear warnings are likely to be reviewed by US Congress as it seeks to understand why such vast spending on training the Afghan military has led to a collapse to the Taliban in a matter of weeks, leaving western politicians shocked and bemused.
Had the Taliban engaged in a full military onslaught and faced resistance, the blitz of the country would have taken longer — but it still would have happened, Jack Watling, a research fellow for Land Warfare and Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, believes.
“I think the Taliban would have still won,” he said. “And this is because the Afghan National Army is comprised of lots of units that are systemically corrupt, have no effective command and control, they don’t know how many people are in their own units, most of their equipment has been taken apart, stolen and sold off, and so they were a completely dysfunctional force.”
Soldiers in many cases have not been fed very well, very rarely been paid and been on duty for a long time away from home… and were not well-led.
It’s also because the Afghan military is woefully underpaid, underfed and undercompensated by the leadership in Kabul.
The “soldiers in many cases have not been fed very well, very rarely been paid and been on duty for a long time away from home … and were not well led,” Watling added, a tactical failure that resulted in heavy casualties to the tune of about 40 soldiers a day for the past several years.
Many army units would sell their equipment to the Taliban for cash, and there were frequent desertions that went unaccounted for, leaving inflated troop numbers on the books.
Several officers with the Kandahar police force said corruption was more to blame for the collapse than incompetence. “Honestly, I don’t think it can be fixed. I think they need something completely new,” said Ahmadullah Kandahari, an officer in Kandahar’s police force.
In the days leading up to Kandahar’s capture this month, the toll on the police had become visible. Bacha, a 34-year-old police commander, had been steadily retreating for more than three months. He had grown hunched and his attire more ragged.
In an interview, he said the repeated retreats had bruised his pride — but it was going without pay that made him feel desperate.
“Last time I saw you, the Taliban was offering $150 for anyone from the government to surrender and join them,” he told a reporter as the interview drew to a close. “Do you know, what is the price now?”
He didn’t laugh, and several of his men leaned forward, eager to hear the answer.
2. Fiscal crisis
The additional problem was a central government facing a severe fiscal crisis precipitated by the loss of customs revenues and declining aid flows. Many officials complained that they had not been paid for months. This is all against the background of widespread corruption.
3. Fear and effective use of social media
Fear was a further factor. As momentum swung towards the Taliban, fostered by Taliban social media, the speed of events became fuelled by fear of revenge and personal scores being settled under cover of a takeover, particularly in a large city like Kabul.
The Afghan government provided no counter-narrative.
By then the US retreat was well under way and near irreversible; its withdrawal was more than 90% complete by 5 July.
The process included 984 C-17 aircraft loads being transported out of Afghanistan, more than 17,000 pieces of equipment being turned over, and 10 facilities, including Bagram airfield, being handed over to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence.
4. False claims/reports
Many other US generals made similarly optimistic claims. But other reports indicated “the absence of success on virtually every level”.
In a 2012 Armed Forces Journal article, Lt Col Daniel Davis, who spent a year in Afghanistan speaking with US troops and their Afghan counterparts, wrote that his observations “bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by US military leaders about conditions on the ground”.
The Sigar report also lambasted the tendency for politicians and senior military to look for good news. It says there is a “natural desire for good news to pass on up the chain of command”.
“In the words of one former senior military official: ‘As intelligence makes its way up higher, it gets consolidated and watered down; it gets politicised. It gets politicked because once policymakers get their hands on it, and frankly, once operational commanders get their hands on it, they put their twist on it.
“Operational commanders, state department policymakers and Department of Defense policymakers are going to be inherently rosy in their assessments. They will be unaccepting of hard-hitting intelligence.’”
Sigar said $88.3bn had been allocated up to March for security-related reconstruction, compared with $36bn for governance and development, yet it discovered the Pentagon had always found it “extremely challenging” to evaluate the fighting and administrative capacity of the ANDSF.
It started its multibillion-dollar training of Afghan forces in 2002 and three years later took control of training both the police and military, so US military trainers have had nearly two decades to ready the Afghan forces for a Taliban insurgency.
At the outset, the US began transforming the Afghan National Army from a light-infantry force to a combined-arms service with army, air force, and special forces element.
The Sigar report found that from 2005 the US military had been seeking to evaluate the battle-readiness of the troops they had been training, but by 2010 acknowledged that its monitoring and evaluation procedures “failed to measure more intangible readiness factors, such as leadership, corruption and motivation – all factors that could affect a unit’s ability to put its staffing and equipment to use during actual war-fighting”.
The assessment mechanism changed again in 2013, but in 2014, with few signs of progress emerging, it was decided that the assessment reports should become classified. The focus shifted from battalions to command headquarters.
The report also found a disjunction between what generals told Congress and what lower level officers reported.
Sigar reports, for instance, that in March 2011 testimony to Congress, Gen David Petraeus – then the commander of the International Security Assistance Force – claimed that “investments in leader development, literacy and institutions have yielded significant dividends” for the ANDSF, that Afghan forces were taking on significant combat roles against the Taliban, and that Afghan local police units were increasingly limiting the Taliban’s ability to intimidate communities”.
All these have proved to be false, thus when the reality dawned the ANDSF fell like a pack of cards.
5. Intelligence failure of the highest order
Another key factor is intelligence failure. The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, including its capital and the presidential palace, suggests that U.S. military intelligence failed in its assessment of the situation, according to Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“This is an intelligence failure of the highest order,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday, adding that it’s the “biggest intelligence failure” since the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, a campaign of devastating surprise attacks on the U.S. and its allies in 1968.
Roggio said the Taliban pre-positioned equipment and materials, organized, planned and executed a “massive offensive” since early May before beginning its “final assault,” while U.S. officials said the local government and military forces should be able to hold out for six months to a year.
Last week, Reuters reported that a U.S. defense official saw Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, falling in 90 days. Instead, that happened on Sunday, less than 10 days after the first provincial capital of Zaranj was taken by the Taliban.
‘A collapse in the will to fight’
What’s key to note is that the Taliban did not have to fight their way into Afghanistan’s provincial capitals but rather brokered a series of surrenders, also says Jack Watling. Over the last few years of fighting, the group managed to gain control of some 50% of the country by seizing rural areas.
We did not understand the tribal dynamics, we never did. We think everybody wants what we have. It’s cultural obtuseness, obliviousness to their reality. Michael Zacchea, a U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. (RET) also notes.
And when they began making headway in cities, many Afghan forces gave in to them, convinced that the government in Kabul would not back them up.
Watling added, “The Taliban would infiltrate urban areas, assassinating key people like pilots, threatening the families of commanders, saying if you capitulate, you’ll save your family.
“A lot of people, because they lacked confidence that Kabul would be able to save them, capitulated.” More and more people chose this route, “so there was very little fighting, which is why it suddenly happened so fast.
“The speed is not a reflection of military capability, it is a reflection of a collapse in will to fight.”
The news from the Biden administration of the full U.S. withdrawal sped this up, said Stephen Biddle, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University.
“When the U.S. announced a total withdrawal, that sent a signal to Afghan soldiers and police that the end was near, and converted chronically poor motivation into acute collapse as nobody wanted to be the last man standing after the others gave up,” he explained.
“Once the signal was sent, contagion dynamics thus took over and the collapse snowballed with increasing speed and virtually no actual fighting,” Biddle added.
In April, Biden ordered the Pentagon to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, a decision he said was made in lockstep with NATO coalition forces. On Monday, the president defended his decision to leave the country and placed the blame squarely on the Afghan national government.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future,” he added.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself fled the country on Sunday evening as the Taliban entered the presidential palace and declared the war “over.” Ghani said he fled to prevent “a flood of bloodshed.”
“The Taliban have won with the judgment of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honor, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” Ghani said.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Afghan military, which has long been assisted by U.S. and NATO coalition forces, the Taliban carried out a succession of shocking battlefield gains in recent weeks.
On Sunday, the Taliban arrived at their last destination and seized the presidential palace in Kabul.
“The swift Taliban takeover shows how utterly dependent the Afghan state was on the U.S.-led coalition, materially and psychologically. Even before the U.S. withdrawal, the Afghan government and security forces were fraying at the seams,” said John Ciorciari, director of the International Policy and Weiser Diplomacy Center at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy.
“Soon after the U.S. pullout began, Afghan troops and officials began jumping ship, either to appease the Taliban or to retreat into old ethnic militias. The Taliban takeover will not bring peace. As the dust settles, many U.S.-trained fighters will likely regroup along ethnic lines to fight again,” he added.
Taliban ‘much more adept’ militarily
Not everyone believes the U.S. troop withdrawal is to blame for the chaos in Afghanistan today.
Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the Taliban has become more effective since the 1990s.
“They’ve become much more adept … militarily and non-militarily in terms of pursuing the same objective they have — which is establishing an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan,” she told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Monday.
“The U.S. withdrawal is not the reason the Afghan government was outmaneuvered,” she added.
Fontenrose said the Taliban surrounded the capital of Kabul, cut off supply lines that government forces needed, and have also have grown in numbers while developing new strategies.
“They use social media as lethally as they do sniper rifles. They’ve used coercion to pressure local tribal leaders, they’ve used pretty simple but effective text message campaigns to threaten local Afghans working with the U.S. and with other foreign efforts,” she described.
The Taliban also let ground commanders make decisions, and brings people into captured territories to provide small-scale social services to the residents.
That has allowed the group to “outmaneuver” Afghan and foreign forces in terms of effectively appealing, co-opting or coercing the local population into supporting — or not opposing — them, she added.
How little Americans ‘understand Afghanistan’
Central to understanding America’s failure in Afghanistan also comes down to understanding the country’s history and its culture — and how drastically it differs from any Western nation.
“There’s never been a central government in Afghanistan. To think we could establish one was a fool’s errand,” said the former U.S. intelligence officer and Afghan War veteran. “The ‘surprise’ at the Taliban regaining power shows just how little Americans, from top to bottom, understand Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan is a country of numerous tribes, languages, ethnicities and religious sects, and Washington and its NATO allies were attempting to turn it into a unified democracy premised on largely Western values.
“There was a fundamental failure to understand what the Afghans wanted,” Zacchea, who trained an Iraqi battalion in 2004, said. “We assumed they wanted what we had — liberal democracy, Judeo-Christian values … And think they’d just automatically convert. And that is not the case.”
Tribal alliances in Afghanistan very often supersede national ones, or loyalties follow money and power. And part of the Taliban’s strength lay in the fact that as Pashtuns, they belonged to the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
“Meanwhile,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, “we basically supported a hodgepodge of ethnic minorities, who never had the capability of unifying the country.
“We did not understand the tribal dynamics, we never did,” Zacchea said. “We think everybody wants what we have. It’s cultural obtuseness, obliviousness to their reality and their lived experience.”
The nature of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire with the Taliban in early 2020 also further weakened the Afghan government’s image: Negotiations led by the Trump administration left out the elected leadership in Kabul, which “destroyed the Afghan government’s legitimacy” at a time when it already had little respect from local communities, said Watling.
The spectacular collapse of Afghanistan’s military that allowed Taliban fighters to walk into the Afghan capital Sunday despite 20 years of training and billions of dollars in American aid began with a series of deals brokered in rural villages between the militant group and some of the Afghan government’s lowest-ranking officials.
The deals, initially offered early last year, were often described by Afghan officials as cease-fires, but Taliban leaders were in fact offering money in exchange for government forces to hand over their weapons, according to an Afghan officer and a U.S. official.
Over the next year and a half, the meetings advanced to the district level and then rapidly on to provincial capitals, culminating in a breathtaking series of negotiated surrenders by government forces, according to interviews with more than a dozen Afghan officers, police, special operations troops and other soldiers.
Within a little more than a week, Taliban fighters overran more than a dozen provincial capitals and entered Kabul with no resistance, triggering the departure of Afghanistan’s president and the collapse of his government. Afghan security forces in the districts ringing Kabul and in the city itself simply melted away. By nightfall, police checkpoints were left abandoned and the militants roamed the streets freely.
The Taliban capitalized on the uncertainty caused by the February 2020 agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, between the militant group and the United States calling for a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some Afghan forces realized they would soon no longer be able to count on American air power and other crucial battlefield support and grew receptive to the Taliban’s approaches.
“Some just wanted the money,” an Afghan Special Forces officer said of those who first agreed to meet with the Taliban. But others saw the U.S. commitment to a full withdrawal as an “assurance” that the militants would return to power in Afghanistan and wanted to secure their place on the winning side, he said. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he, like others in this report, was not authorized to disclose information to the press.
The Doha agreement, designed to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, instead left many Afghan forces demoralized, bringing into stark relief the corrupt impulses of many Afghan officials and their tenuous loyalty to the country’s central government. Some police officers complained that they had not been paid in six months or more.
“They saw that document as the end,” the officer said, referring to the majority of Afghans aligned with the government. “The day the deal was signed we saw the change. Everyone was just looking out for himself. It was like [the United States] left us to fail.”
The negotiated surrenders to the Taliban slowly gained pace in the months following the Doha deal, according to a U.S. official and an Afghan officer. Then, after President Biden announced in April that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan this summer without conditions, the capitulations began to snowball.
As the militants expanded their control, government-held districts increasingly fell without a fight. Kunduz, the first key city overrun by the militants, was captured a week ago. Days of negotiations mediated by tribal elders resulted in a surrender deal that handed over the last government-controlled base to the Taliban.
Soon after, negotiations in the western province of Herat yielded the resignation of the governor, top Interior Ministry and intelligence officials and hundreds of troops. The deal was concluded in a single night.
“I was so ashamed,” said a Kabul-based Interior Ministry officer, referring to the surrender of senior ministry official Abdul Rahman Rahman in Herat. “I’m just a small person, I’m not that big. If he does that, what should I do?”
Over the past month, the southern province of Helmand also witnessed a mass surrender. And as Taliban fighters closed in on the southeastern province of Ghazni, its governor fled under Taliban protection only to be arrested by the Afghan government on his way back to Kabul.
The Afghan military’s fight against the Taliban involved several capable and motivated elite units. But they were often dispatched to provide backup for less-well-trained army and police units that repeatedly folded under Taliban pressure.
An Afghan special forces officer stationed in Kandahar who had been assigned to protect a critical border crossing recalled being ordered by a commander to surrender. “We want to fight! If we surrender, the Taliban will kill us,” the Special Forces officer said.
“Don’t fire a single shot,” the unit’s commander told them as the Taliban swarmed the area, the officer later recounted. The border police surrendered immediately, leaving the special forces unit on its own. A second officer confirmed his colleague’s recollection of the events.
Unwilling to surrender or fight outmatched, the members of the unit put down their weapons, changed into civilian clothing and fled their post.
“I feel ashamed of what I’ve done,” said the first officer. But, he said, if he hadn’t fled, “I would have been sold to the Taliban by my own government.”
When an Afghan police officer was asked about his force’s apparent lack of motivation, he explained that they hadn’t been getting their salaries. Several Afghan police officers on the front lines in Kandahar before the city fell said they hadn’t been paid in six to nine months. Taliban payoffs became ever more enticing.
“Without the United States, there was no fear of being caught for corruption. It brought out the traitors from within our military,” said one Afghan police officer.
Fear for the country’s future
Afghans across the country of 39 million have expressed acute fear for their country’s future — especially women, who following the U.S. invasion in 2001 were able to go to school for the first time since the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996. For many Afghan War veterans, bringing some of these basic freedoms to Afghans made their sacrifices worth it.
Now, those achievements are set to vanish, lamented one American veteran who served as an infantryman in the country in 2011.
“I have no regrets about what I did in Afghanistan,” the former Marine told CNBC, requesting his name be withheld due to job restrictions on speaking to the press.
“I just feel devastated for the people I saw over my time there when they were kids. Now they’re teens, and I can only imagine what they are going through.”