How the Taliban Overran the Afghan Army, Built by the U.S. Over 20 Years
by Yaroslav Trofimov
Aug. 14, 2021 12:32 pm ET
KABUL—The Afghan government outpost in Imam Sahib, a district of northern Kunduz province, held out for two months after being surrounded by the Taliban. At first, elite commando units would come once a week on a resupply run. Then, these runs became more scarce, as did the supplies.
“In the last days, there was no food, no water and no weapons,” said trooper Taj Mohammad, 38. Fleeing in one armored personnel carrier and one Ford Ranger, the remaining men finally made a run to the relative safety of the provincial capital, which collapsed weeks later. They left behind another 11 APCs to the Taliban.
As district after district fell in this summer’s Taliban offensive, without much visible support from the Afghan national army and police forces, other soldiers simply made the calculation that it wasn’t worth fighting anymore—especially if the Taliban offered them safe passage home, as they usually did.
“Everyone just surrendered their guns and ran away,” said Rahimullah, a 25-year soldier who joined the army a year ago and served in the Shahr-e-Bozorg district of northeastern Badakhshan province. “We didn’t receive any help from the central government, and so the district fell without any fighting.”
Afghanistan’s national army and police forces, theoretically numbering 350,000 men and trained and equipped at huge cost by the U.S. and Western allies, were supposed to be a powerful deterrent to the Taliban. That is one reason why President Biden, when he announced in April his decision to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan, expressed confidence in the Afghan military’s ability to hold ground.
“They’ll continue to fight valiantly, on behalf of Afghans, at great cost,” he said at the time.
The Afghan security forces have since then experienced a humiliating collapse, losing most of the country and the major cities of Kandahar and Herat in recent days. The Taliban, with fewer fighters and until recently no armor or heavy weapons, are now on the doorstep of Kabul.
This spectacular failure stemmed from built-in flaws of the Afghan military compounded by strategic blundering of the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban, meanwhile, took advantage of the U.S.-sponsored peace talks to deceive Kabul about their intentions as they prepared and executed a lighting offensive.
The Afghan army fighting alongside American troops was molded to match the way the Americans operate. 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. The same happened with another failed American effort, the South Vietnamese army in the 1970s, said retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who commanded the U.S.-led coalition’s mission to train Afghan forces in 2011-2013.
Adil Khorasani, 25, a former Afghan Border Police officer, surrendered to the Taliban. He said the Taliban used weapons they confiscated from a neighboring district they had overrun.
PHOTO: VICTOR J. BLUE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“There is always a tendency to use the model you know, which is your own model,” said Gen. Bolger, who now teaches history at North Carolina State University. “When you build an army like that, and it’s meant to be a partner with a sophisticated force like the Americans, you can’t pull the Americans out all of a sudden, because then they lose the day-to-day assistance that they need,” he said.
Fears that the Afghan capital may succumb within days prompted Mr. Biden to send 3,000 American troops back to Afghanistan to secure the evacuation of U.S. and allied diplomatic missions.
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.
“Politically it was suicide to leave certain regions, and to concentrate on certain others, and that made the Afghan army overstretched and critically dependent on close air support for logistics, medevac and combat operations,” Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar, who previously served as national-security adviser and interior minister, said in an interview.
“We did not have enough transition time to move from that arrangement to a new arrangement, to bring back forces from areas that are difficult to defend and to concentrate on the main population centers,” he added.
Afghans Flee to Kabul as Taliban Advances
Tens of thousands of people escaping fighting in the provinces gather in the Afghan capital, sleeping in city parks and mosques
When the Taliban launched their offensive in May, they concentrated on overrunning those isolated outposts, massacring soldiers who were determined to resist but allowing safe conduct to those who surrendered, often via deals negotiated by local tribal elders. The Taliban gave pocket money to some of these troops, who had gone unpaid for months.
By the time the Taliban began their assault on major population centers this month, the Afghan military was so demoralized that it offered little resistance. Provincial leaders and senior commanders replicated surrender deals struck on the local level before. The elite commando units were one exception, but they were too few in number and lacked aircraft to move them around the country.
Mr. Ghani and his national-security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, were opposed to last year’s Doha agreement and expected the Biden administration to reverse course instead of doubling down on the deal struck by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Mohib, a British-educated former ambassador with no military experience, took direct control of military operations, calling unit commanders and issuing orders that bypassed the normal chain of command, according to several senior government officials and diplomats. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
For much of the past year, the Afghan minister of defense, replaced in June by veteran anti-Taliban commander Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, was out of the country, receiving medical treatment in the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Ghani routinely sacked commanders. The latest chief of the army lasted less than two months.
Aftermath of a suicide bombing in early August outside the home of the Acting Defense Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi.
PHOTO: PAULA BRONSTEIN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Doha allowed the Taliban to project themselves as a moderate, benevolent force just as Mr. Ghani’s political rivals in Kabul plotted to replace him with some sort of transitional administration that would facilitate a peace deal. Former President Hamid Karzai, in particular, tried to position himself as a neutral third force, frequently lashing out at Mr. Ghani and the U.S.
“The government ended up completely isolating many people,” said Hekmat Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister and a cousin of the former president. “It became a self-licking ice cream fantasy. It just talked to itself and had very senior positions led by very inexperienced people who hardly understood the reality,” he said.
“Do the troops have a reason to fight?” he asked. “I feel that the Taliban isn’t enormously strong. It’s that the government is in disarray.”
Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy organization, said that there was no evidence the Taliban had increased their manpower to launch this summer’s offensive, apart from tapping some of the 5,000 insurgent detainees who had been released under the Doha agreement.
Afghan National Army soldiers patrolling on a base in Mazar-eSharif in June. On Saturday, the Taliban entered the city, one of the last significant sources of resistance.
PHOTO: PAULA BRONSTEIN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
What changed between February 2020 and Mr. Biden’s withdrawal announcement was an end to American airstrikes that used to exact a heavy toll on insurgent fighters, he noted.
“The Doha agreement bought the Taliban a one year reprieve,” said Mr. Watkins. “They were able to regroup, plan, strengthen their supply lines, have freedom of movement, without fear of American bombardment.”
When the insurgents struck, after suggesting in public that they won’t attack big cities while peace talks continue, the blow was overwhelming.
“When the Kunduz province fell to the Taliban, so many soldiers were killed. We were surrounded,” said Abdul Qudus, a 29-year-old soldier who managed to make his way to Kabul this week. “There was no air support. In the last minutes, our commander told us that they cannot do anything for us and it’s just better to run away. Everyone left the war and escaped.”
—Saeed Shah contributed to this article