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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
In a post-facto justification of his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden on Monday said he felt vindicated by the capitulation of the country’s security forces to the Taliban. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” he said. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. 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.”
Biden’s argument is both disingenuous and dishonorable.
Leave aside for a moment the ignoble suggestion that a country deserves to be abandoned if its soldiers don’t stand up to an aggressor. The fact is that Afghanistan’s police and security forces have been fighting and dying to protect their people — as well as the American soldiers and civilians living and working among them — for two decades.
More than 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police have paid the ultimate price. Hundreds of thousands have been injured, many of them for life. There is no accounting for how many of these casualties are a direct consequence of decisions made by the U.S. military and political leadership. In roughly the same period, coalition forces suffered about 3,500 deaths.
No less important is the American culpability in the failures of the Afghan security forces. It was the U.S. military, in the main, that recruited and trained the police and soldiery, which on paper number around 350,000. The Afghan military, cast in the American mold, was set up to fail, as Adm. James Stravidis has persuasively argued. Little thought was given to local conditions or the nature of the enemy.
This was a fundamental mistake, but hardly the only one. As a comprehensive 2017 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted, the George W. Bush administration didn’t give serious thought to the creation of an Afghan military after the rout of the Taliban in 2001. Only after U.S. forces were needed in Iraq did Bush commit to standing up the Afghan police and military forces. Even then the effort was sluggish at best.
The Barack Obama administration, eager to further reduce the U.S. footprint in the country, took the process a little more seriously. But the recruiting and training of Afghan forces was done in haste and poorly — often by contractors operating under little scrutiny from, and accountability to, the Pentagon. The priority was to make up the numbers, allowing American generals to boast that hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police were taking up the burden of defending the country. In turn, this allowed the American political leadership to justify further drawdowns of U.S. forces.
This was a repetition of what happened in Iraq, where I witnessed the haphazard recruitment and training of security forces on a vast scale. The inevitable result was that, apart from a handful of exceptional brigades, the military was in poor order when the Islamic State swept into the north and west of the country in 2013-2014, even as the U.S. drawdown accelerated.
The Iraqi experience should have prompted a thoroughgoing rethink of recruitment and training policies and practices in Afghanistan. This did not happen. Worse, American officials for the most part ignored or shrugged off reports of widespread corruption in the Afghan security establishment and demoralization among the fighting forces.
The next president, Donald Trump, only made matters worse by signaling a haste to disengage from Afghanistan, no matter the consequences for Afghans. Trump’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban, to the exclusion of the Afghan government, signaled to the security forces that they would soon be answering to the very enemy they had been fighting.
Biden applied the final blow to Afghan morale by setting an arbitrary deadline for the final American pullout. It was bad enough that he chose to make the announcement at the start of the fighting season, effectively blowing a favorable wind into the Taliban’s sails even as he deflated the hopes of the Afghan military forces. But worse, in the scramble toward the exits, the U.S. undermined the most potent weapon against the Taliban: the Afghan air force.
American contractors who had been crucial to keeping the jets and helicopters flying were withdrawn. Deprived of air cover, the Afghan security forces were denied any hope of success.
It may have been too much to expect Biden to dwell on these embarrassing American failures in his speech. But putting the blame squarely on the Afghan security forces was a low blow. He should instead be demanding a full accounting from the Pentagon of how and why the Afghans were unable to hold out against the Taliban.