Lessons from the Collapse of Afghanistan's Security Forces.

AuthorSchroden, Jonathan

On August 15, 2021, Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani boarded an aircraft bound for Tajikistan, effectively abdicating his position as the country's president and cementing the Taliban's victory over his Western-backed government. (1) The preceding four months, between President Joe Biden's announcement on April 14 that the United States would withdraw all of its military forces from Afghanistan (2) and Ghani's fight from the country, saw the Taliban conduct a nationwide campaign that quickly overwhelmed the country's security forces and forced their total collapse.

Since August 15, the United States--and indeed, the world-has tried to understand what happened in Afghanistan that led to this stunning turn of events. A plethora of forensic articles have already been published by news agencies and analysts, (3) and U.S. government officials up to and including President Biden have

Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program, and the Special Operations Program, at the CNA Corporation, a non-proft, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, including numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Twitter: @jjschroden

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense. offered explanations as well. (4) From these initial oferings, three thematic narratives have emerged that are specific to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The first is that Afghanistan's army--and therefore, the country--collapsed in less than two weeks. The most cogent rendering of this theme came in a remark from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staf General Mark Milley, who said, "There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army, and this government, in 11 days." (5)

The second is that the United States and its international partners gave the ANDSF everything they needed to be independently successful. (6) And the third is that these forces simply did not fight. (7) The most signifcant advancement of the second and third themes came from President Biden, who has remarked on them several times. For example, in his August 16 speech to the nation, he stated:

American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong... a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force... We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future. (8)

But are these themes accurate? And do they represent the primary takeaways from the events that unfolded in Afghanistan over the summer of 2021? In this article, the author will argue that these themes are incorrect--or at least, signifcantly incomplete. The article will present this case by first providing a reconstruction of events in Afghanistan from mid-April to mid-August 2021. The author will then identify a more complete and accurate set of key themes that fow from these events. And those themes will be used to ofer a more salient set of lessons from the collapse of Afghanistan's security forces.

The author ofers this article fully acknowledging that even though he was heavily critical of the ANDSF's capabilities for many years (9) and had called for signifcant reforms to address the issues he identifed, (10) he was still one of many analysts who assessed that these forces would fare better on their own against the Taliban than they ultimately did. Indeed, he tweeted on August 12:

I am legitimately shocked at how quickly the cities of #Afghanistan have fallen. I knew the #ANDSF weren't as strong as advertised in rural areas, but I genuinely believed they'd stand & fight to defend the cities. I was wrong. (11)

If lessons are to be learned from events as they unfolded in Afghanistan, it is imperative for all to revisit the details of what happened and why--and to use the understanding gained through historical analysis to identify what about the approaches and assessments were wrong. This article was written in that spirit and is an attempt to spark a broader conversation along these lines.

Before proceeding, a caveat: It is still too early to have defnitive and comprehensive accounts of what happened in Afghanistan this past summer. For example, there is very little reporting from Taliban sources regarding the logic and extent of their actions, and accounts of the political dealings among Afghan elites and between them and Taliban interlocutors are missing. In addition, many Western sources uncritically promulgated the themes advanced by Western officials in real time (e.g., that the ANDSF collapsed in 11 days). As such, the author will primarily rely here on reporting from Afghan news sources, reputable Afghan journalists, and Western journalists and analysts who were based in Afghanistan.

Recap of the Collapse

Early 2021

In order to properly understand the events of this past summer, it is necessary to first illustrate the situation in Afghanistan as it existed just prior to President Biden's decision to withdraw from the country. Since the end of the U.S. and NATO combat mission in 2015, the government of Afghanistan steadily lost control of territory in the country. For example, according to FDD's Long War Journal (LWJ), in November 2017, the government controlled 217 of Afghanistan's 407 districts. (12) By April 2021, it controlled only 129--a decrease of about 40 percent. (13)

At a macro level, in early 2021, the author used LWJ's district assessments in conjunction with reporting from local sources (e.g., Afghan journalists) to identify 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals as being effectively surrounded by Taliban-controlled areas. (a) Thus, even before President Biden's announcement in midApril, the Taliban had heavily infltrated areas immediately adjacent to major cities all across Afghanistan. This posture included the Taliban having severed many secondary roads--and even portions of Highway 1 (the primary "ring road" around the country)--in what The New York Times described in mid-2020 as a "slow creeping siege" of Afghanistan's cities. (14) In these efforts, the Taliban were likely aided by the release of 5,000 of the group's prisoners by the Afghan government (completed in early September 2020), which was heavily pressured to do so by the United States in order to meet one of the terms of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. (15) And the group was substantially assisted by financial, material, or diplomatic support that it had received for years from a variety of external actors (e.g., Russia, Iran, Gulf states). (16) The most signifcant source of such support came from Pakistan, which also provided sanctuary and strategic advice for the group's leaders as well as support to the recruitment, training, deployment, and recuperation of its fighters. (17)

In the immediate wake of the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement in February 2020, (18) the ANDSF entered into an "active defense posture," which limited their actions "to impairing a hostile attack while the enemy is in the process of forming for, assembling for, or executing an attack on Afghan government elements." (19) While President Ghani ordered his security forces to go back on the offensive in a televised address in May 2020, (20) the Afghan National Army (ANA) Chief of General Staf issued an order in June 2020 codifying the active defense strategy (21) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) noted several months later that the ANDSF had maintained a defensive stance. (22) The effects of the active defense posture could be seen in a decreased number of total operations involving Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF; primarily the Commandos), (23) increased operational tempo of the Afghan Air Force (AAF), (b) consolidation of hundreds of ANDSF checkpoints into a smaller number of patrol bases, (24) and levels of Talibaninitiated attacks that were 45 percent higher than in 2019. (c)

Even with this slightly consolidated and defensive posture, the ANDSF were still arrayed across hundreds (if not thousands) of checkpoints and installations across the country, and the force consistently struggled with logistics and resupply of its positions. (25) As a result, by 2020, the ANDSF had transitioned from a "pull" logistics system in which regional Army corps were responsible for requesting necessary supplies from Kabul and then providing them to the point of need for their assigned forces, to one in which the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD) utilized "strategic national convoys" to push logistics packages on routine timelines to regional units. By the end of 2020, however, even these convoys had become unreliable due to the Taliban's disruption of the country's road networks, so the ANDSF were increasingly reliant on the AAF conducting weekly logistics fights to regional locations. (26)

The ANDSF were also heavily reliant on contractors to maintain their equipment. With the exception of its Mi-17 helicopter feet, the AAF was almost completely dependent on contract maintenance. (27) In January 2021, the U.S. military entity advising the AAF stated that none of its aircraft were likely to be sustained as combat effective beyond a few months after the withdrawal of contracted maintainers. (28) During 2020, the percentage of Afghan army vehicle repairs being conducted by Afghans (as opposed to contractors) was 19 percent, far below the goal of 70-80 percent. (29) For the police...

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