Pinpointing What Went Wrong in the Collapse of Afghanistan

Barely seven months into his administration, President Joe Biden stood at a lectern before cameras and journalists, defending what appeared to be one of the most chaotic foreign policy decisions in decades.

“Remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place?” Biden said on August 31, 2021, a day after the final U.S. troops departed Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. “Because we were attacked by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, and they were based in Afghanistan. We delivered justice to bin Laden on May 2, 2011—over a decade ago. Al-Qaeda was decimated. We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago.”

While the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse had taken the U.S. by surprise, the president conceded, its rout had been the fault of the inept and unmotivated Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Though the Taliban, the same group offering refuge to al-Qaeda operatives, had retaken the country, the terror threat emanating from Afghanistan had been sufficiently degraded and could be managed from abroad, Biden argued.

The administration’s hasty pullout was never popular with wide swaths of Americans, but two new investigations by U.S. government watchdogs call both of Biden’s rationalizations into question.

On Tuesday, the Defense Department (DOD) inspector general’s office released an 86-page report detailing the challenges the U.S. faces in conducting remote counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Despite the persistent threat posed by jihadist fighters seeking to use Afghanistan as a staging ground for global attacks, including al-Qaeda, the U.S. military has not conducted a single strike against terrorism targets since August’s withdrawal. 

On Wednesday, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR)—an oversight agency tasked with compiling periodic, congressionally mandated audits—determined that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan had been the “single most important factor” in the Afghan forces’ collapse. From the Trump administration’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to Biden’s final reduction in forces, the U.S. retreat dashed morale and ended—largely without warning—critical air and maintenance support.

Neither of the reports’ conclusions came as much of a surprise to Afghanistan watchers, who have long warned about the limitations of continued U.S. influence in the country’s security environment post-withdrawal. 

The Biden administration’s new reliance on “over-the-horizon” military and surveillance missions, for example, has been plagued with intelligence limitations and logistical issues. According to the Pentagon watchdog’s assessment, an unmanned aircraft carrying out such an operation spends roughly two-thirds of its available flight time just getting from the launch point in Qatar to Afghanistan and back. The remote counterterrorism effort—known as “Operation Enduring Sentinel”—is expected to cost $19.5 billion in 2022 alone. Given the mission’s surveillance and kinetic limitations, the return on investment is unclear.

Testifying before Congress in February, then-Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla—Biden’s pick for CENTCOM commander—described the strategy as “extremely difficult, but not impossible.” Kurilla, who in his role oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, signaled his willingness to share intelligence with the Taliban “on a case-by-case basis.” 

The DOD audit also outlined the renewed sense of impunity among extremist groups based in Afghanistan, listing the local branch of the Islamic State as the country’s top terrorist threat. As it swept through Afghanistan last year, the Taliban’s release of an estimated 1,000 Islamic State fighters from prisons reportedly brought the group’s ranks up to around 2,000. The Islamic State claimed to have carried out more than 40 attacks in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan between January and March of this year, and “retains a desire to attack the U.S. homeland,” per the watchdog’s report. 

But some experts think that the government’s fixation on the Islamic State in Afghanistan misses the larger, more pressing threat: al-Qaeda, which remains closely aligned with the Taliban. 

“The Islamic State is isolated in Afghanistan. They don’t control territory, they don’t have state sponsors, they don’t have allies in the region, they don’t play well with others, they have limited numbers,” Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, told The Dispatch. “The Taliban control the whole country. They have $7.1 billion in U.S. weaponry. They have their Islamic Emirate—they have a propaganda victory there, both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda played a role in that takeover and they have safe haven again.” 

According to the Defense Department watchdog’s report, al-Qaeda has largely refrained from large-scale attacks this year to spare the Taliban international backlash, but is unlikely to halt operations for long: “[CENTCOM] assessed that the Taliban will likely loosen these restrictions over the next 12 to 24 months, allowing al-Qaeda greater freedom of movement and the ability to train, travel, and potentially re-establish an external operations capability.”

This on-the-ground reality violates the Trump-era Doha Agreement, which required the Taliban to relinquish ties to its longtime partners in al-Qaeda. But, as experts warned at the time of its finalization, the conditions-based deal largely lacked the enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure that the Taliban held up its end of the bargain.

In its latest report, SIGAR detailed another major shortcoming of the agreement: Washington’s perceived abandonment of the Afghan government, military, and people writ large. “Many Afghans thought the U.S.-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the U.S. was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country; its immediate effect was a dramatic loss in ANDSF morale,” the watchdog found. 

Secrecy surrounding the deal’s contents further contributed to the sense of U.S. retreat. SIGAR concluded that it likely contained “secret written and verbal agreements,” though the provisions were withheld from the oversight group during its investigation.

“There were certain stipulations that we have been told that may have been included in that agreement, in which the Afghans were not provided access to at any time,” a U.S. government official with special knowledge of the report said in an interview with The Dispatch. “The Taliban, at the tactical level, exploited that kind of gray area to their advantage by communicating—correctly or incorrectly—to the Afghan security forces: The Americans are not going to help … And it’s just better for you to surrender now.”

Experts and ex-Afghan government officials agree. “The moment the United States opened talks with the Taliban, it telegraphed to the average Afghan villager that we are about to leave your country and abandon it, and the guys who are going to be in charge are the ones we are talking to,” Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and current director for South & Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, told The Dispatch. “That had a psychological effect that nobody had anticipated.”

“The very act of negotiating with the Taliban signaled to the people of Afghanistan, as well as people within the Afghan government, that the United States was reconciled to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the future,” Haqqani added. “People could not understand why the withdrawal had to be negotiated with the Taliban. After all, the U.S. government also withdrew from Iraq, and that withdrawal was negotiated with the Iraqi government, not with ISIS.” 

According to Naheed Farid—a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament—the deal endowed the Taliban with a “sense of pride, a sense of confidence.” 

“The U.S. could have played a much more constructive role in the peace process by not sidelining Afghanistan’s government,” she told The Dispatch in an interview last year. “Afghanistan’s government tried to play a role, but unfortunately because the U.S. already signed a deal with the Taliban, Afghanistan’s government did not have any choice.”

At the same time that the State Department finalized the deal, the U.S. military dramatically reduced its airstrikes on Taliban targets from nearly 7,500 in 2019 to less than 1,600 in 2020, crippling the ANDSF’s battlefield advantage. It also began to pull out American contractors filling crucial maintenance roles, reducing the number of usable aircraft available to the Afghan Air Force to conduct strikes themselves. According to the U.S. government official, Afghan maintenance workers were forced to hold Zoom calls with American contractors abroad. 

 “We built that army to run on contractor support,” retired Gen. David Barno said in an interview with SIGAR. “Without it, it can’t function. Game over … When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up.” 

Ultimately, experts argue, negotiating and cooperating with the Taliban while expecting it to change its behavior proved to be a major miscalculation of both the Trump and Biden administrations. 

“They convinced themselves that the Taliban was a partner in peace—that it would have an inclusive government, would be an effective counter-terrorism partner, that it would respect women’s rights,” Roggio said. “All of that was a lie, but that was the lie they needed to tell themselves in order to withdraw from Afghanistan.”

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