Why Afghanistan’s Security Forces Suddenly Collapsed

Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul in an Afghan police pickup truck on Monday, August 16, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Photo: -/AFP via Getty Images

After 20 years and more than $80 billion of training and support from the United States, Afghanistan’s well-equipped security forces were unable to prevent a rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban. Kabul, the home of Afghanistan’s now-overthrown U.S.-backed government, fell with barely a shot fired, just as dozens of major cities had across the country in less than ten days. The disintegration was so rapid that even President Biden was forced to admit during a White House address that he and his administration were caught off guard — and the U.S. is now scrambling to evacuate thousands of refugees from Kabul as a result.

How did it happen? How did a force with superior numbers and firepower fall to a force believed to be less than a third of its size? Biden and others have sought to reduce the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces and government to a simple unwillingness to fight, but it was actually the result of a combination of factors, including fundamental flaws in how the security forces were constructed and managed, poor military planning, successful Taliban strategies, Afghan government incompetence, and a cascading series of events set off by the U.S. withdrawal from the country. Below is a look at some of the reports, analysis, and commentary explaining Afghanistan’s sudden downfall.

The Taliban’s rapid advance

The collapse of Afghanistan’s armed forces was precipitated by the U.S. withdrawal from the country after a two-decade intervention. The Taliban began expanding its grip on the country after agreeing to a peace deal with the Trump administration early last year. As the New York Times noted last week, the Taliban kept some of the commitments it made to the U.S. in that deal — but essentially only the ones that allowed the U.S. to avoid casualties among its own forces as it withdrew. The Afghans were, almost from the beginning, already on their own:

The Taliban had agreed, in a February 2020 deal with the United States, to negotiate with the Afghan government over the shape of a power-sharing government and a lasting ceasefire. It also broadly pledged to reduce violence, suspend mass-casualty attacks in cities and not attack American troops as they withdrew. But there was no real mechanism to ensure that the Taliban honored those commitments. While the Taliban did refrain from attacking U.S. troops and greatly reduced mass-casualty attacks, most of the other pledges have not been met, according to American intelligence and Pentagon assessments.

The Taliban consolidated its control of major highways, levying taxes on motorists. It seized several border crossings and appropriated custom duties. And it intensified an assassination campaign, killing government officials, human-rights and civil-society activists, police officers, journalists, and religious scholars.

In April, President Biden announced that the U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by August 31, and the Taliban ramped up their offensive after the U.S. began pulling out in May. It made significant gains in rural areas and cut off supply lines for Afghan military bases, while mostly avoiding more heavily defended urban areas. By the middle of June, Afghan security forces in remote areas, operating without support from the distant Afghan government, had begun abandoning their posts, with many complaining that they had run out of food.

The Taliban’s momentum began to build. It took control of even more rural territory in July, and by the beginning of August, had begun to target urban areas as well. Then it began a stunning advance on Afghanistan’s major cities and provincial power centers. The militant group captured its first provincial capital on August 6 with next to no fighting. Nine days later, it had control of every major city in the country, including Kabul, and had only met resistance from Afghan forces in a handful of them.

A disillusioned, demoralized fighting force, rife with corruption

The U.S. has said that there were more than 300,000 members of Afghan security forces, but the real number may have been as little as half that, as the official numbers were undoubtedly inflated due to longstanding corruption, CNN’s Daniel Dale reports:

Figures on the size of the Afghan forces were consistently marred by the problem of so-called “ghost” fighters: no-show soldiers and police officers who were listed on the employee rolls only so corrupt people could collect their salaries. … The “ghost” fighters weren’t the only hole in the 300,000 figure. Persistently high turnover in the Afghan ranks meant that, at any given time, many military and police positions were either vacant or filled by legitimate employees who were not ready for battle.

As Vanda Felbab-Brown explains at Foreign Affairs, Afghanistan’s security forces also suffered years of rot from government incompetence and corruption, as well:

Perhaps no one predicted that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces would fold so quickly. But for several years, there had been signs that the Taliban were becoming militarily ascendant and that the ANDSF suffered from critical deficiencies that the Afghan government ignored and was itself exacerbating. …

Over the past decade, as the United States gradually withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the job of running the country increasingly fell to the Afghan government, the ruling class in Kabul chose not to fix the military or improve governance. Instead, political leaders focused on acquiring power and money for themselves and patronage for their cliques. They constantly sought to generate political crises or administrative paralysis in order to extract more patronage and rents from the central government.

Rank-and-file Afghan soldiers and police officers were apparently well aware of this corruption, both in the government and within the ANDSF, and it did not do wonders for morale. When the U.S. began to pull out and the Taliban began to advance — reportedly offering amnesty and even cash for poorly fed security forces, some of whom hadn’t been paid in months, to lay down their arms and go home — it’s not surprising what happened next.

“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,” Stephen Biddle, who teaches international affairs at Columbia University, told CNBC this week. “Once the signal was sent, contagion dynamics thus took over and the collapse snowballed with increasing speed and virtually no actual fighting.”

Jack Watling, a research fellow for land warfare and military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute in London noted to CNBC that the speed with which the Taliban captured the country “is not a reflection of military capability, it is a reflection of a collapse in will to fight”:

“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,” Watling said. “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,” he added. 

And how much will to fight there was among Afghan security forces, even to begin with, is an open question, particularly when facing an adversary with militant devotion to their own cause. Carter Malkasian, a former civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan and author of the new book The American War in Afghanistan emphasized that point in a Politico essay last month:

“The Taliban fight for belief, for janat (heaven) and ghazi (killing infidels). … The army and police fight for money,” a Taliban religious scholar from Kandahar told me in 2019. “The Taliban are willing to lose their head to fight. … How can the army and police compete?” …

The explanation of how religion, resistance to occupation and Afghan identity intertwined to the advantage of the Taliban and disadvantage of the government helps us make sense of America’s 20-year war. This is not the singular explanation for the outcome of the Afghan war. But it is a necessary one. Its impact is resounding: Any Afghan government, however good and however democratic, could be imperiled as long as it was aligned with the United States. The Taliban were consistently inspired to fight harder and to go to greater lengths than the Afghan army and police.

A Taliban commander who spoke with Reuters claimed that Afghan security forces collapsed immediately after the U.S. withdrawal “as they didn’t have any ideology except fleecing the Americans.”

The Taliban’s soft-power offensive

The Washington Post’s Susannah George reports that one of the main reasons the Taliban was able to take over the country so fast with so little fighting was because it had a well-executed plan to negotiate with or coerce security forces and provincial leaders to get them to desert, surrender, or switch sides:

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.

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. …

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.

At Defense One, retired brigadier general and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy Mark Kimmitt also emphasized the Taliban’s “deft use of information operations”:

While many of the world’s armies struggle with this concept, the Taliban have mastered the core elements of public relations, psychological operations, and propaganda. Its brilliant public-relations campaigners created sophisticated propaganda for its own forces, talking about inevitable victory, focusing on “messages to its soldiers and … maintaining unity among them by reminding them of their continuous series of conquests.” For the broader world, they have conducted an “image offensive” to convince the world of a more moderate “Taliban 2.0.” And against the ANDSF, they have been running an equally successful psyops operation to persuade a large number of Afghan units to surrender or withdraw from the battlefield. Many commanders “just surrendered in return for amnesty, which the Taliban granted them and let them go home.” 

Afghanistan’s security forces were flawed by (U.S.) design

Standing up an effective, independent, Western-style national security force in Afghanistan — a large, impoverished country with a far-flung majority-rural population and where tribal, ethnic, and regional allegiances far outweigh any semblance of a national identity — was always going to be an extremely difficult task, and it’s now abundantly clear that the U.S. and its coalition allies failed in that effort.

The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov explains that the Afghan military was essentially designed to be over-reliant on the U.S. — and thus designed to fail without it:

The U.S. military, the world’s most advanced, relies heavily on combining ground operations with air power, using aircraft to resupply outposts, strike targets, ferry the wounded, and collect reconnaissance and intelligence. In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.

Without U.S. forces for a backstop, American contractors had largely pulled out of Afghanistan weeks ago, reports Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch, depriving Afghan forces of essential intelligence and maintenance services, some of which were critical for undergirding Afghan air assets.

In addition, as the Journal’s Trofimov points out, Afghan forces remained overextended across the country after the U.S. announced and began its withdrawal:

When U.S. forces were still operating here, the Afghan government sought to maximize its presence through the country’s far-flung countryside, maintaining more than 200 bases and outposts that could be resupplied only by air. Extending government operations to the most of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts has long been the main pillar of America’s counterinsurgency strategy.

Mr. Ghani had ample warning of the American departure after the Trump administration signed the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban that called on all U.S. forces and contractors to leave by May 2021. Yet, the Afghan government failed to adjust its military footprint to match the new reality. Many officials didn’t believe in their hearts that the Americans would actually leave.

Retired U.S. Army colonel Mike Jason, who was one of countless officers who worked to train security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, highlights at The Atlantic how those forces had no institutional backbone:

We did not successfully build the Iraqi and Afghan forces as institutions. We failed to establish the necessary infrastructure that dealt effectively with military education, training, pay systems, career progression, personnel, accountability — all the things that make a professional security force. Rotating teams through tours of six months to a year, we could not resolve the vexing problems facing Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s armies and police: endemic corruption, plummeting morale, rampant drug use, abysmal maintenance, and inept logistics. We got really good at preparing platoons and companies to conduct raids and operate checkpoints, but little worked behind them. It is telling that today, the best forces in Afghanistan are the special-forces commandos, small teams that perform courageously and magnificently — but despite a supporting institution, not because of one.

Jason adds that the U.S. military “can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan” and that what has happened to the Afghan forces keeps him up at night. “For more than 20 years,” he writes, “no matter what was reported, what we read in the headlines, efforts to build and train large-scale conventional security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have mostly been an aimless, ham-fisted acronym soup of trial and error that never became the true main effort, and we are to blame for that.”

Why Afghanistan’s Security Forces Suddenly Collapsed