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Why did the Afghan Army Collapse?

After twenty years of Western presence in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American forces led to a swift Taliban takeover in a matter of weeks.

Whilst the lambasting of President Biden is understandable given the tragic scenes of desperate people trying to flee Afghanistan, perhaps the 20 years of relative freedom cultivated by a NATO presence only ever existed under the conditions of perennial occupation and funding.

It would be inaccurate to say the Afghans never fought. Coalition losses amounted to 3,500 troops whilst Afghan forces paid the largest sacrifice with 69,000 soldiers and police giving their lives against the Taliban. Any inferences made from Biden’s comments on August, 17, 2021, “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?” should be tempered by the heart Afghan troops demonstrated with their collective sacrifice throughout the duration of the war.

Once coalition support was withdrawn, however, the Afghan army collapsed within 11 days against a renewed Taliban offensive, a fact made all the more intriguing considering the $88 billion injected into training, arming, and paying the force that was intended to preserve stability.

Endemic corruption and mismanagement in a country so poor hampered attempts to create a professional force. One of the primary financial institutions of Afghanistan, the Kabul bank, operated a pyramid scheme in which the political elite looted $935 million, around 6 percent of Afghan GDP. This was the corrupt backdrop the Americans tried to create an enduring army from and with American withdrawal confirmed at Doha, the seemingly limited financial oversight also dissolved.

In interviews conducted by the Washington Post, an Afghan police officer said, “Without the United States, there was no fear of being caught for corruption. It brought out the traitors from within our military.” It was revealed that he and his colleagues had not been paid for 6 to 9 months, and with the Taliban offering $150 for every soldier/police officer to join them, these offers became enticing.

Afghan soldiers training in 2018. (Sean Carnes/U.S. Air Force)

Even during the NATO occupation, there were insufficient staff at the American-led, Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan to ensure adherence to correct procedure by the Afghans, allowing corrupt officials to artificially inflate attendance data in the Afghan army and police to draw a fraudulent salary.

Indeed, a 2016 SIGAR report (Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction) found that “more than $300 million in annual, U.S. funded salary payments to the Afghan National Police were based on only partially verified or reconciled data, and there were no assurances that personnel and payroll data were accurate.” This further led to the false, inflated figure of 300,000 security personnel being recorded to repel future Taliban offensives, with the reality likely being much lower. The superiority in numbers the Afghan army had over the Taliban was hence overblown.

The Pentagon structured the Afghan army in a way that resembled its own structure. This did not account for the fact that in Afghanistan, allegiances to regional and tribal identities often trump loyalty to national identity. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Zacchea of the U.S. Marine Corps suggested, “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.”

Consequently, recruitment into the army was insensitive to these fault lines, a weakness that without NATO buttressing, undermined unit solidarity when facing a politically and ideologically motivated Taliban. The Taliban further benefited in this sense from being almost exclusively comprised of the Pashtun ethnic group, whilst the Afghan army had the ethnic fault lines of Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara to mitigate.

In a country so vast and lacking thorough transport networks, the Afghan army had relied upon NATO assistance throughout the duration of the war in order to maintain its air force, critical to supplying coalition forces throughout the country with food, ammunition, and other supplies. Upon the U.S. withdrawal, 18,000 civilian contractors that had helped to maintain the Afghan air force were also withdrawn. The lack of Afghan expertise in this area resulted in supply efforts faltering and incentivised the Afghan army to give up the fight.

The Doha 2020 agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban for the U.S. military to withdraw in its entirety, was perceived by many in Kabul as a signal that the war was over, rather than as a passing of the baton. The Afghans simply lacked the belief that they could win against the Taliban without American expertise.