On July 29, the Pentagon’s independent inspector general for Afghanistan told a group of reporters that with 20 years in and trillions dollars spent, Afghan security forces were not confident enough to do basic route clearance or checkpoint management.
Two weeks later, the Taliban had taken nearly all of Afghanistan and was preparing to launch its campaign into Kabul, the capital. Video would show Afghan forces laying down their weapons as the insurgents rolled into city after city, shocking many, but certainly not everyone.
“You know, you really shouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been reading our reports for at least the nine years ... that I’ve been there,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in late July. “We’ve been highlighting problems with our train, advise and assist mission with the Afghan military.”
After the Taliban took Kabul on Aug. 15, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stood in the Pentagon briefing room and said that no one saw the country unraveling in that way.
“... the timeframe of a rapid collapse, that was widely estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure,” Army Gen. Mark Milley said. “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”
Milley, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, will be forced to revisit that assessment this week, as the two take questions from both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
While they may not have seen it taking a week and a half, there is a long trail of public reporting that Afghanistan was making little, if any, progress as a self-sustaining, democratic nation, despite public assurances that the U.S. was winning the War on Terror and that Afghanistan was a key front.
“The administration firmly believes that we’re about to turn the corner, and that we just need to give our policy a chance to work,” now-President Joe Biden, then a senator not yet selected as a running mate from Barack Obama, said during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing in January 2008. “I am curious as to what that policy is, because, quite frankly, I tell you, I’m somewhat ― I’m ― it’s not clear to me.”
In the Navy, they call it gundecking ― when your people or equipment aren’t up to snuff but you have to keep things moving, so you write up reports as if everything is going swimmingly.
The strategy was on the verge of success again several years later, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the National Press Club in 2012.
“That has been, in my book, the significant turning point,” Panetta said. “For the first time, we saw the transition working, the Afghan army able to do its job, and violence going down.”
But dozens of SIGAR reports detail the underwhelming prowess of the Afghan National Army and National Police, despite the growing competence of its pilots and special operations forces. The most recent came out July 30, the first to be released after President Joe Biden’s April announcement of a full withdrawal.
With that in mind, the SIGAR focused on how the Afghan forces would handle their own logistics, especially fuel. It didn’t look great.
“Fuel remains a major area for theft and corruption in Afghanistan,” according to the report.
Rank-and-file troops weren’t properly trained on fuel handling and quality testing, the report continued, and there was no oversight in place to require the defense or interior ministries to accurately report how much fuel they used ― necessary to make sure security forces received the fuel that they needed, rather than getting extra that could be stolen or sold.
The corruption of Afghan government and military officials was well-documented by the SIGAR, as was the slow progress in building and maintaining a force that could fight off the Taliban, though the Pentagon did not adopt any of the reports’ findings into its own messaging.
“It really depends on the kind of political and military leadership that the Afghans can muster, to turn this around,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Aug. 11. “They have the capability, have the capacity, and now it’s really time to use those things.”
To that end, the U.S. was prepared to continue helping the Afghan National Security Forces from afar, both by footing their payroll and procurement bills, but also through logistics and maintenance.
What went wrong
Backlash throughout the drawdown pointed to the chasm between years of rosy public assessments and the situation that played out in mid-August, but to call the whole thing a charade doesn’t quite describe the situation.
You might think “one of two things is true. They’re either stupid, or they’re dishonest. They’re either too stupid to understand what’s happening, or they’re dishonest in their reporting,” retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the NATO mission in Afghanistan from between 2009 and 2010, told Military Times in a Sept. 7 interview. “I didn’t see either of those. What I saw was people given tasks. They are trying to get those tasks done.”
The nature of military action is to break down a mission into pieces and work through them one by one, with oversight to ensure that each objective feeds into the larger mission. That’s tough when the mission changes.
“I think that the goalpost shifting is typical in any war, any conflict,” he said. “The reality is, nations enter a war with certain goals in mind. And often, very quickly into the war, their goals shift, because those original goals may not be achievable.”
And, often, in the course of executing a military mission, non-military issues come up, but commanders don’t always have the knowledge or wherewithal to follow up with them.
“The reality is, you’ve got somebody focused on a narrow task,” he said. “And the bigger reality are the weaknesses, that either aren’t in their lane, or they don’t feel like they are the right person to report that.”
So military leaders give the civilians above them the best advice they have, McChrystal said. But the chain of command being what it is, they have no choice but to carry out what the administration prescribes. And then, they have to consider the messaging, and that showing any dissent in public could not only jeopardize their jobs, but could inform how much faith their troops have in the mission.
“If you go to that leader and say, ‘Can you take that hill?’ and the leader goes, ‘You know, 50/50, I don’t know,’ the troops behind that leader are going, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? You’re asking me to assault the hill, and you’re saying you don’t think we can do it,’ " he said.
Lying doesn’t really describe it, he said, though that’s the conclusion many people draw.
“The leader who is going to succeed at something hard, has to believe, has to lean forward, has to enthusiastically bring his people along,” he said. “So the idea that that that is dishonesty is not what I saw. I didn’t see everything, but but in my sense, there were people trying to get it done, who believed that it was possible. And whether they were right or wrong ... you’re going to have to judge it over time.”
The final days of the Afghan government might have been foreshadowed by the release of the so-called “Afghanistan Papers,” a Washington Post exposé, based on previously unreleased “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the SIGAR, that dropped Dec. 9.
Documents obtained after a lengthy lawsuit showed that despite cheery assessments in briefings and congressional hearings, the generals leading the effort there had a grim impression of their progress.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a former “Afghan war czar” told interviewers in 2015, according to the Post. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
McChrystal echoed that sentiment.
“Well, I think that we learned it as we went along,” he said. “But the reality was, al-Qaida and other threats were significant. But they weren’t huge. And they were pretty limited in size and their ability to hurt us. And yet, our weakness came from being disconnected.”
The Pentagon regularly touted the ANSF’s 300,000-plus troops, though multiple reports over the years explained that much of that was attributed to “ghost soldiers.” Essentially, they completed training and were possibly assigned to a unit before taking off, though their names were still on the rolls.
The U.S. was, of course, still footing the bill to pay and equip them, money that has not been accounted for.
“And it really is going to come down to their leadership, they have, as you rightly said, they have the advantage in numbers, in operational structure, in air forces, and in modern weaponry, and it’s really about having the will and the leadership to use those advantages to their own benefit,” Kirby said in August.
But leadership had long been the Afghans’ biggest issue.
“Poor leadership at the civil level, from the top of the government down, that began almost immediately after the new Afghan government took over from the Taliban, did as much to weaken the efforts to create effective Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as any military mistakes,” Anthony Cordesman, strategy chair at the Center for Strategic and International studies, wrote in a report published Aug. 17, two days after the Taliban took Kabul.
“In many ways, the politics, corruption, and incompetence of both the civil and military side of the Afghan government was at least as serious of an enemy to that government as the Taliban,” he wrote.
The report reflects much of what the SIGAR found throughout its tenure: that Afghanistan was still effectively run by warlords, and government officials would prioritize efforts based on their economic interests.
Though the Biden administration, at the end, declared victory in Afghanistan because al-Qaida had been and remained degraded, that messaging did not account for the the years in between when a democratically-elected government, advances in women’s right and subduing the Taliban all took their turns as the “goal” in Afghanistan.
“...the goals did migrate over time,” Kirby said.
In 2010, the goal was to building an Afghan National Army and National Police that could maintain security in the country.
“Earlier this year, SIGAR issued an audit that analyzed the Capabilities Milestone system, which had been used since 2005 to measure the capabilities—the outcome objectives—of the ANSF,” according to the quarterly report published Oct. 30 that year. “SIGAR found that the system could not provide a reliable or consistent assessment of the capabilities of the ANSF and made 13 recommendations to improve it.”
That’s likely because when one set of metrics didn’t find success, the metrics changed.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, a former military counterinsurgency adviser said in a 2016 interview, the Post reported. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Five years later, after a Taliban offensive captured the city of Kunduz, the SIGAR was no more confident that Afghanistan’s security forces could handle security on their own.
“... much of what SIGAR tracks is quantitative and does not address intangible factors such as leadership and the will to fight,” according to the Oct. 30, 2015 report. “The [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] has more tools at their disposal than their enemies, but that fact by itself does not guarantee success.”
That update included a list of concerns, including:
- In 2012, the success metric changed from “independent,” to “independent with advisors,” thus making more units “successful,” but with a lower bar.
- Two audits in 2015 that found there was no way to confirm that security forces personnel and payroll counts were accurate
- And that military leaders told SIGAR that their success metrics were not meant to be applied to every unit in the security forces, raising “questions about the U.S. ability to determine ANDSF effectiveness at an operational level.”
In that July 2021 interview with reporters, Sopko warned that the U.S. “will do this again,” having not learned enough from its missteps in Vietnam and unlikely to learn much from Afghanistan either.
“Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again,” he said. “That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam: we’re never going to do this again. Lo and behold, we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again.”
Asked the same question, McChrystal didn’t rule it out, though current Pentagon leadership has pledged a lengthy project to explore what went wrong and how to prevent it happening again.
“It’s up to us. I’m quite sure we won’t do anything like this in the very near term,” he said, as the U.S. managed to take a break after Vietnam.
But it’s going to require leaders to throw out the old playbook.
“We certainly haven’t fixed it yet,” McChrystal said. “And so the answer is, well, to just look in the mirror and decide whether we want to do that.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.