Absent ‘friends’: What Ukraine could learn from a new report about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan
In the spirit of better late than never, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has published an extensive investigation into the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) following the US withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021. The report not only offers, at-times shocking, detail on the level of Washington’s betrayal, but important lessons for America’s international allies today.
If only you knew how bad things really are
The ANDSF’s collapse was quite a sight to behold. The vast fighting force, constructed at a cost of $90 billion over 20 years, seemed to vanish even faster than the American aircraft escaping Kabul airport. This is despite US officials endlessly claiming in the leadup to the West’s wholesale pullout from Afghanistan that the government was more than capable of defending itself without foreign support.
However, SIGAR’s appraisal makes clear this disintegration was a long-time in the making. The February 2020 Dohar agreement between former President Donald Trump's administration and the Taliban meant that the ANDSF could no longer rely on the US military’s presence in Afghanistan to protect against losses, move weaponry and other supplies around the country on its behalf, or even for their salaries to be paid by the government in Kabul.
As a result, the often unpaid army units stationed around the country lacked ammunition, food, water, and other basic necessities to “sustain military engagements against the Taliban” - and any will whatsoever to fight.
“The Taliban’s military campaign exploited the ANDSF’s logistical, tactical, and leadership weaknesses. Direct attacks and negotiated surrenders set up a domino effect of one district after another falling to the Taliban,” SIGAR records. “The Taliban’s media and psychological warfare campaign, magnified by real-time reporting, further undermined the Afghan forces’ determination to fight.”
Even before the Dohar agreement though, “underlying and systemic factors…made the ANSDF vulnerable to collapse in the first place.” Chief among them, US plans to build the Afghan armed forces were “disconnected from a realistic understanding of the time required” to do so. This is despite Washington taking decades to achieve a similar result in South Korea.
Advisors themselves were also judged by SIGAR to be “often poorly trained and inexperienced for their mission.” Key challenges were “limited or no pre-deployment and in-theater training, and frequent rotational deployments that lacked proper handovers.” These shortcomings meant the US could neither build relationships with nor improve the capacity of the ANDSF.
Despite the report’s inventory of savage indictments, it concludes by stating SIGAR is “not making any recommendations” for future US action, or policy, as a result of its findings. Pentagon officials probably wouldn’t listen even if any were offered. An annex of the document notes that the Department of Defense’s engagement with SIGAR’s investigation was minimal, with virtually none of the information requested turned over.
The Pentagon “only provided limited responses to SIGAR’s request for information and missed every deadline for responding to SIGAR’s questions or for providing feedback to vetting drafts of this report,” the appraisal notes. For example in November 2021, SIGAR submitted 21 separate questions to the Department of Defense, asking for replies by 21 December 2021. It wasn’t until eight months later “limited records” were given.
Lessons to learn
Still, the lessons of SIGAR’s report are very clear. First and foremost, its disclosures stand as a stark warning of the fate that could await close US allies, should Washington’s “interests” be served by abandoning them at a given moment.
For example, ANDSF members who did not manage to flee Afghanistan following the US withdrawal have either been killed or joined “extremist groups”. Either way, they’ve been completely forgotten about, an obvious outcome of Washington showing little interest in ensuring safe passage out of the country for its former proxy fighters, before, during or after its own escape.
Likewise, much of the military equipment provided by the US is now used by the Taliban for both training and operations, including armored vehicles and military aircraft. They have been detected in videos of military parades, and training sessions.
It was even difficult for Washington to know which weaponry and ammunition had been sent to Afghanistan by the Department of Defense. SIGAR found officials failed to provide accurate accounting of shipments, and fell far short of oversight requirements “for monitoring sensitive equipment transferred to the Afghan government and the ANDSF,” making it likely that equipment could be lost or stolen. Internal controls failed to offer protection against fictitious records being logged in internal monitoring systems.
Nonetheless, the US did scramble to rescue some of the gear it provided to the ANDSF, in particular aircraft intended for the ill-fated Afghan Air Force.
Some of the salvaged planes were moved into storage in the US, while “others have already been repurposed and sent to other countries, such as Ukraine.”
The reference to these jets reaching Ukraine is particularly fitting, given it was not long after its hasty retreat from Afghanistan – following 20 years of failure – that Kiev became the primary foreign policy focus for the White House. With weapons, ammunition, political will and public support all nearly spent across Europe and North America, the current proxy war with Russia probably can't be sustained for two decades, and maybe not even two years.
Ukrainian leaders might want to to consult the testimony of an anonymous State Department official, quoted in the SIGAR report.
“For a long time [the Afghan government] did not take seriously that we were serious about withdrawal, and total withdrawal. They would tell me, Afghanistan is the most important piece of real estate in the world, how could you leave a territory as important geopolitically?” the official revealed. “I tried to plead with [the Afghan President], saying I know he’s very well-connected but, in our system, the President ultimately decides, and he should take this seriously not to miscalculate.”