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Afghanistan’s fall was inevitable once U.S. left, watchdog finds

A separate Pentagon report has found that U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan have deteriorated

Taliban forces secure the perimeter of Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 29, 2021, as U.S. forces departed.
Taliban forces secure the perimeter of Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 29, 2021, as U.S. forces departed. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file photo)

The collapse of the U.S.-backed government was assured once the United States telegraphed its plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, according to a scathing new report from the watchdog that Congress created to oversee the U.S. reconstruction effort there.

The most important factor leading to Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban was the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020, in which the Trump administration committed to withdrawing U.S. forces, and President Joe Biden’s subsequent announcement that he would honor that plan, says the report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released today.

Those pronouncements devastated morale among the U.S.-backed Afghan forces, which were heavily reliant on U.S. contractors and troops to keep the Taliban in check.

The Trump administration’s initial agreement would have withdrawn all U.S. forces by May 2021. The Biden administration delayed that until the end of August.

In the weeks before the deadline, Taliban forces seized most of Afghanistan. The U.S. airlifted more than 100,000 people out of Kabul during the final days, leading to chaotic conditions at Hamid Karzai International Airport and the death of 13 U.S. servicemembers when a terrorist detonated a suicide bomb just outside one of the airport’s crowded gates.

Even though U.S. troops had been on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years and dedicated more than $90 billion to arming and training Afghan forces, the U.S. was never able to create and train a self-sufficient Afghan military, the report notes. With substantial U.S. help, Afghan forces fought the Taliban to a stalemate but were not able to stop the Taliban from overrunning the country once U.S. troops were no longer supporting them.

Air superiority was a key advantage for the U.S. and Afghan forces, but immediately after the agreement inked by the Trump administration, airstrikes against the Taliban were reduced drastically.

In 2019, the U.S. conducted 7,423 airstrikes, the most in a decade, the report notes. But in 2020, that total fell to 1,631, and almost half of those occurred in the first two months before the U.S.-Taliban accord was struck.

And once U.S. contractors withdrew in the spring of 2021, following Biden’s decision to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the majority of Afghanistan’s fleet of Black Hawk helicopters was grounded for good.

“In a matter of months, 60 percent of the Black Hawks were grounded, with no Afghan or U.S. government plan to bring them back to life,” one Afghan general told the inspector general. “As a result, Afghan soldiers in isolated bases were running out of ammunition or dying for lack of medical evacuation capabilities.”

None of this came as a surprise to the Defense Department, which understood how reliant the Afghan forces were on U.S. support and tried to warn Washington and Kabul what would happen once that support was gone.

“We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can’t function. Game over. … When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up,” retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, told the inspector general.

Ongoing oversight

The new report comes as senators are considering whether to adopt an amendment proposed by Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul to a Ukraine aid bill that would give the current special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, power to also oversee U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Congress has already provided $13.6 billion to help Ukraine fight off a Russian invasion. The White House recently asked for another $33 billion, which Congress increased to almost $40 billion in legislation that the House passed 368-57 on May 10.

Paul blocked the Senate from fast-tracking the bill, forcing a series of votes on the measure this week before it can get to the president’s desk. There is broad bipartisan support for the aid bill, which got past procedural votes Monday and Tuesday and appears headed for passage soon.

Pentagon officials have warned that the inflow of military aid to Ukraine — which has helped stymie Russian attacks on Kyiv, the seat of Ukraine’s government, and the city of Kharkiv — will be interrupted if new authorizations are not enacted by Thursday.

Senate Democrats tried to appease Paul with a vote on an amendment to the bill that would create a special inspector general, but he insisted that his proposal be incorporated into the bill without a vote. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer declined.

The bill provides $4 million for oversight activity by the State Department inspector general, with an additional $1 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s inspector general. It also requires the Defense Department’s inspector general to provide a report on the aid within 120 days of the aid package’s enactment. In addition, the bill asks the secretary of Defense, together with the secretary of State, to report back to Congress on the measures being taken to account for the weapons provided to Ukraine within 45 days of the measure becoming law.

Washington Democrat Adam Smith, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN last week that Paul’s objections could interrupt military aid to Ukraine at a time when it is badly needed and there is no time to delay. Any changes to the House bill made by the Senate would require it to go back to the House for another vote.

Paul’s amendment is designed “to slow down the process,” Smith said. There’s bipartisan support for creating an inspector general, he added. “We just don’t want to stop the aid from getting to Ukraine while we try to figure that out.”

Still, other Democrats like Smith’s counterpart at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, have expressed substantive problems with Paul’s proposal to tap Sopko.

Reed argues Sopko’s office is set up to oversee direct U.S. involvement in a foreign country, and that overseeing the distribution of aid in Ukraine requires a different skill set.

Afghanistan aftermath

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Defense Department’s inspector general released a report on U.S. operations related to Afghanistan over the past three months that also calls into question withdrawal planning.

While the Pentagon said it could rely on “over the horizon” operations conducted from remote installations for its counterterrorism efforts after U.S. forces left the country, the U.S. has not conducted a single airstrike in Afghanistan since the August 2021 withdrawal, the report states.

Afghanistan is landlocked, and U.S. bases are far away. An MQ-9 Reaper drone would need 20 hours of its 30-hour flying time to get from its home base in Qatar to Afghanistan and back, leaving it only 10 hours to conduct surveillance in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the Islamic State terrorist group’s Afghanistan affiliate has conducted 41 attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past three months.

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