Over the course of two decades and at a price tag of over $88 billion, the United States and its NATO partners built a modern and well-equipped Afghan military—one that, like a Fabergé egg, boasted a glossy exterior but shattered under stress after US military advisors departed.
Confronted by a smaller, technologically outmatched military, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) rapidly disintegrated, in most cases avoiding major battles and negotiating their surrenders to Taliban commanders instead of fighting. Within weeks of the US withdrawal, the Taliban had seized the majority of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals with little to no bloodshed.
If the United States ever wants to build a partner military again, it had better learn the lessons of Afghanistan—and overhaul how it plans and implements US security assistance programs.
The Costs of Corruption
In the weeks since the ANDSF collapsed, it has become commonplace to blame corruption. But after interviewing over fifty military advisors since 2017, my research suggests that simply labeling a partner military as corrupt ignores structural and cultural realities, as well as the nuances of patronage politics. For instance, an Ethiopian minister joked with me in 2017 that the “Somalis don’t have a word for corruption,” implying that corruption is normalized into the political logic of any interaction in that society. Afghanistan was no different in 2013, as described by one sociologist. When he asked Americans to define corruption, their answers were typically along the lines of “when you give your cousin a job.” When he went to Afghanistan and asked Afghans the same question, the response was very different: “That’s when you have a job to give and you don’t give it to your cousin.”
In many cases, troops in such settings do not receive the pay or rations promised by their leadership; in response, many exercise their agency and find innovative ways of making up lost pay just to care for their families, as in the case of Afghan military personnel selling their equipment or renting it out to the Taliban. As Mobutu Sese Seko, Congo’s dictator for three decades, said, when explaining why he didn’t pay his soldiers: “You have guns. You don’t need a salary.” In other words, it is difficult to expect a soldier to act professionally in a state that does not treat its own people or army in a professional way.
To obtain jobs and promotions in the ANDSF generally required bribes and personal connections. Even as late as 2020, the ANDSF did not have the basics of personnel systems and the lack of administrative capabilities meant that Afghan personnel received no annual assessment. High performers had no way of moving up the ranks in a meritocratic way because there was no tracking of performance, which merely reinforced the patronage system of the Afghan military. The problem of “ghost troops” in the ANDSF was only finally addressed in 2019 through the use of biometric verification. And the high level of politicization meant the system in general was less focused on military effectiveness and more on patronage. Several Afghan troops I interviewed about how they received promotions and better jobs would respond with the simple hand gesture for money.
The Afghan government, meanwhile, felt threatened by the development of a professional military. When it came to stationing Afghan forces, most were placed in provinces away from their homes and families, as an ad hoc way of coup-proofing against any attempt by Afghan troops to ally with local warlords and militias and turn on Kabul. Moreover, the Afghan leadership in Kabul believed it would be easier to use ANDSF personnel to fight locals with whom they felt no kinship. But this tactic led to high desertion rates of Afghan troops who wanted to be with their families.
What’s more, the average Afghan soldier was not safe at home. An Afghan lieutenant told me that one of his maintenance NCOs had recently quit because the Taliban had made him an “offer” he could not refuse: leave the Afghan army and make twice his military pay maintaining vehicles at the Taliban motor pool, and his family would be allowed to live. Unfortunately, many Afghans did not get this sort of offer. Many US-trained Afghan pilots were assassinated because the Taliban knew it could not mass large forces for conventional assaults without the risk of airstrikes. It should have been no surprise that by 2017, many Afghan military trainees in the United States went AWOL or fled to Canada seeking asylum because they did not feel safe returning to Afghanistan.
Of course, some Afghan units proved highly capable—in particular the Air Force and special operations commando battalions, or kandaks. But over time, the Afghan military became too dependent on these units. Overreliance on the special operations kandaks was becoming obvious by 2016 as the Taliban’s own elite units, known as the Red Group (Sara Khitta), were handily defeating the Afghan army in assaults, including, by 2019, the commandos (even with American airpower at their disposal). The problem with creating a foreign military with an “enclave” of military competence and effectiveness is that it ends up becoming isolated from the politics of the corrupt state—it becomes an appendage of a foreign donor. Thus, while the United States created a highly effective commando force in Afghanistan, none of this translated into the country’s regular security forces, creating an island of competence in a sea of corruption and unprofessionalism.
Corruption wasn’t the only flaw of the Afghan military. The United States and its allies compounded the ANDSF’s problems by imposing an unaffordable, unsustainable model. Congress, for example, planned to supply the Afghan military with 159 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters instead of providing Mi-17 helicopters, which Afghan pilots and maintainers preferred. In July 2021, the United States and NATO pledged to pay the requisite $4 billion a year to keep Afghan security forces afloat, knowing full well that the government—with just over $2 billion in annual revenues—could not afford to pay the estimated 200,000–350,000 military and security personnel.
When the February 2020 US-Taliban peace deal was signed, the decision required the withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. Unfortunately, the biggest oversight was Afghan dependence on contractors. Much of the equipment the United States had supplied, especially aircraft, required foreign contractors to provide most of the logistics and maintenance. But in my interviews with contractors, none of them were willing to work at Afghan bases unless uniformed NATO personnel were protecting them. Additionally, Western advisors would often joke that the fastest way to make money in the Afghan military was by doing logistics: Afghan logisticians would improvise ways to take a cut of any supplies going to a forward operating base. This led Afghan troops to complain they were not getting the weekly protein they had been promised because Afghan logisticians would provide beans instead of meat, or worse, take out a portion of the promised meat and add in dirt so the proper weight was delivered. The problem was so bad in 2020 that any fuels that went through an Afghan intermediary had to be tested for purity to ensure they would not damage military vehicles and aircraft.
Western advisors, meanwhile, often didn’t trust the Afghan troops they were training. Unlike in Iraq, where Iraqi security forces rarely attacked US and coalition advisors, the green-on-blue problem in Afghanistan hobbled US and coalition forces. By 2017, 157 US and coalition personnel and 557 ANDSF members had been killed by insider attacks, driving already risk-averse Western military forces to take extra precautions in their dealings with Afghan troops. For instance, most advisors were assigned “guardian” personnel to act as security overwatch when training the ANDSF. The consequences of this distrust deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when virtual advising replaced almost all face-to-face advising. Some advisors admitted to me that they knew their Afghan partners were deviating from rules and procedures and only “behaved” during these video calls.
Better Luck Next Time?
The collapse of the Afghan military should prompt hard questions for scholars and policymakers alike. Current scholarship, for example, argues that a larger security force assistance footprint may facilitate greater partner force effectiveness. Yet two decades of massive presence by US and allied forces in Afghanistan did not translate into a willingness on the part of the Afghan military to fight. Other scholarship, meanwhile, has tied ethnic inequality to higher rates of desertion and weaker battlefield performance. But the ANDSF were more ethnically diverse and inclusive than the all-male, primarily Pashtun Taliban (although initial reports following the group’s takeover of the country suggest that the Taliban won over some minorities in the north). Researchers need to think harder about warfighting cohesiveness and how to train and advise military units in a fragile state with a weak national identity and endemic low morale.
US policymakers, for their part, now have an opportunity to use this crisis to reform how they build partner militaries. From 2001 to 2020, the US government spent over $344 billion in foreign military aid; congressional and military leaders would do well to ask tough questions about security assistance programs.
They should begin by creating a functional combatant command dedicated to security assistance and cooperation with foreign militaries. This would ensure advising is treated as a pillar of influence in an era of strategic competition.
Just as important is developing dedicated advising jobs across the joint force, whereby an individual can rise in the ranks of the advising career field. Rewarding effective advisors, in a job that requires multiple deployments and high levels of linguistic and cultural understanding, should be a career path allowing those who excel to make it to the highest enlisted and officer ranks in the advisor career field.
In certain regions, meanwhile, the United States should institutionalize long-term advise-and-train missions of dedicated military and interagency personnel, with low turnover, ensuring unity of effort, and codifying important interpersonal relationships with host-nation government and military officials.
The next time the United States decides to build a foreign army, success will largely depend on avoiding the issues that afflicted the Afghan military. But in places like Mali and Somalia, armies built by Western forces exhibit many similar tendencies. Without serious reform, the United States will continue building expensive militaries—ones whose viability is only surface deep, contingent on advisors babysitting partner forces indefinitely.
Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek (@JaharaMatisek) is fellows director for the Irregular Warfare Initiative. He is an active duty US Air Force officer and senior pilot serving as associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department, senior fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute at the US Air Force Academy, and a US Department of Defense Minerva-funded researcher studying security assistance programs. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: ResoluteSupportMedia
From our article above:
"If the United States ever wants to build a partner military again, it had better learn the lessons of Afghanistan—and overhaul how it plans and implements US security assistance programs."
Let's change this statement a little bit and, thereby, gain a better perspective as to what is actually going on. Here goes:
"If the United States ever wants to "modernize"/to alter the ways of life, the ways of governance, the values, etc., of less-modern states and societies in the future — these, more along modern western political, economic, social and/or value lines — then it had better learn "the lessons of Afghanistan" — and overhaul how it plans and implements US security assistance programs accordingly."
Note here how I intentionally (a) link such things as U.S. security assistance programs to (b) the goal of the U.S./the West to "modernize"/to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and/or value lines; this, much as our very own Joint Publication 3-22, Foreign Internal Defense, does below:
"a. An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development) program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place." (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)
(See Joint Publication 3-22 "Foreign Internal Defense;" therein, see Chapter II, "Internal Defense and Development" (IDAD), and Paragraph 2, "Construct.")
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
The basis for the U.S./the West's building partner military, police and intelligence forces — in states and societies such as those in Afghanistan and but also elsewhere throughout the less-modern world — this is to provide that:
a. The more-conservative/the more-traditional/the more-no change elements of these states and societies (and/or the reverse positive/modernization change elements of these states and societies); that these such elements might be "held down;" this,
b. While the U.S./the West helps the more-modern/the more-progressive/the more-pro-change elements of these states and societies "transform" the political, economic, social and/or value order of their states and societies — and the institutions relating to same — more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.
This is the "forever mission" (which, thus, makes the "forever war" more understandable) and, thus, this is the mission that we must learn to do better.
"If the United States ever wants to build a partner military again, it had better learn the lessons of Afghanistan—and overhaul how it plans and implements US security assistance programs."
Actually, it had better learn the lessons of Vietnam first.
Any war that has the hallmarks of "Gung-Ho Bravado" in the beginning and the belief in a "Just War" may start off strong, but the DoD, military commanders, the public, and US politicians need to listen to the soldiers who have lost faith and belief in this war. Many published books about Afghanistan from US Marines, soldiers, pilots, Private Military Contractors (PMCs), etc. grumbled about the justification for fighting and staying in this war—they wanted to go home from deployment.
If one talks to those people who actually served in Afghanistan, those people actually did want to leave and let the Afghans fend for themselves because they believed that the Afghans were given many chances to defend themselves and failed. One cannot fight a war if the Marines, PMCs, and GIs know that the Afghan Army (ANA) doesn't fight and fear more about Green-on-Blue kills. Many published nonfiction accounts said that the ANA abandoned their posts and let the Americans fight solo. Yes, many ANA did fight and die for their country, but this article is very true in highlighting the problems that plagued Afghanistan and money, corruption, lack of food, jobs, education, infrastructure, loyalty, and command were paramount problems in Afghanistan.
Thus, one has to wonder if women warriors and women logistical support would have made for a better ANA. The DoD failed to see the "Tribal Aspects" of Afghanistan governance, and yet when GIs were there, the country held together with no provincial capital under Taliban control. After 20 years, if a nation cannot thrive, defend itself, prosper, and solve the problems that plague it…and soldiers who weren't born before 9/11 just want to go home when out in the field, then the DoD had to listen because one can't have soldiers patrolling halfheartedly in such a dangerous country or risk injury and death. That reflects back to Vietnam and trying to sustain a nation that doesn't defend itself well with domestic troops.
If the ANA fought on empty stomachs and weren't properly paid, then obviously their effort in fighting wouldn't last very well. And the US and ANA can't fight a war that depended on expensive, timely, and harsh air support all the time. Without air support for the ANA, the war was lost because the Taliban traveled fast on motorcycles, foot, vehicles, and from many directions in mass waves of offense.
The lack of ANA command and control was evident as video footage of Afghans at Baghram Air Base showed hardly any perimeter security as the ANA inspected the contents the Americans left behind. If after 20 years of war, the ANA lack the basic tactics of offense and defense, then it's hard to say if and when the ANA will ever grow competent to stand up against any foe. The fact that the ANA left thousands of M1114s, M1117s, ammo, small arms, explosives, body armor, pickups, NVGs, and supplies to be captured shows the lack of adequate tactical training and fighting spirit even after two decades of US training and partnering.
While America can't have stayed forever, having the UN and other nations patrol Afghanistan for more years or even decades might have been a better alternative than to abandon it wholesale. The USA cannot afford a COIN war and prepare against a peer nation conflict simultaneously without outside support. But this was a war on Terror, and it behooves the West to have invited the UN Peacekeeping Force in to keep the peace and prevent terror from happening again in the major areas. But this didn't happen and Afghanistan was lost.
The question now remains on if Afghanistan is crippled enough to prevent flights and movement out of it that might spread terror worldwide. The Taliban believes that they can quash terror in Afghanistan, but that remains to be seen. If the heavy hand of Taliban governance is what holds the peace, then once again the AK-47 and RPG will prevail over the M-16 and M-4 when logic dictates that it shouldn't. It's the fighting spirit, experience, training, beliefs, values, and the warrior behind those weapons that will ultimately determine who wins in the end.
As an USAF SIGINT eavesdropping crewman reported online, the Taliban always believed that they were winning and would hype-up their comrades with this belief even if they were losing. The Taliban always talked positively about winning the battle and the war. The ANA probably did the opposite or just remained silent. PSYOPS had a major role to play and in any future war, the US DoD better learn to perform better PSYOPS aboard and at home for all those involved.
The North where the Taliban gained support is particularly contaminated with depleted uranium and this in general is the main issue behind the defeat. Including of course the attempt to organize a trained Afghan army. As for south Vietnam. Whatever the motives of DU use, including destruction of poppy fields. Whatever.
Pacification started late in the Vietnam War, but by 1971 over 90% of the country was considered pacified.
The lessons of Vietnam were apparently not known or thought out because it was obvious that even the word “Vietnam” was virtually forbidden in our military schools beginning right before the war ended.
Corruption in Vietnam was also widespread – ghost soldiers were but one form. Patronage politics was how many became generals and commanded certain units. Often this depended on family influences in government, who may have used horoscopes, numerology, etc., to conduct military operations. Selling military equipment, such as tactical radios, were used against U.S. forces too. Jeeps were often stolen, as well.
“Elite” units included ARVN paratroopers and South Vietnamese Marines which were normally formed a “Palace Guard” based near Saigon to protect the government against coups.
In Vietnam, the desertion rate was always high, often coincidentally near harvest times. The average soldier was drafted and then sent to country-wide units, without regard to where the soldier came from. Family and where they lived were very important. So too were communist underground railroads which helped a soldier to make his way back to his home area (the 3rd ARVN Division was such a unit affected by high desertion rates).
USMC Combined Action Platoons and the US Army’s Mobile Advisor Teams worked among the villages’ populace and should have been emulated.
These things and more should have been taught and absorbed in our military institutions. Things did not begin anew with Iraq nor even with Vietnam – though it is no reason to think it never existed either. “Additionally, we fought the war in Iraq with a professional force, not a largely draftee force as in Vietnam,” said a well-known, West Point-educated general (one of many who also commanded in Afghanistan and couldn’t bring it to a successful conclusion). You would think that he should have known that “2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. Approximately 70% of those killed in Vietnam were volunteers (a professional force).”
Quislings always fold. No “program” is going to change that and to think otherwise is a fool’s errand and money pit. Patriotism fuels motivation and always beats collaborators.
A fine piece of word salad – much of it somewhat or mostly true – thrown around the meat in the middle of the plate. All the word salad problems existed every day of the seven years the ANA did all the fighting after we turned it over to them. So what changed that the ANA/ANP/AAF suddenly collapsed in weeks, coincidental with Biden coming into office? Just coincidence?
1. No mention that, after demanding and training Afghan forces to to fight using our ISR model, Biden suddenly jerked all support required to fight using that ISR model out from under the Afghans? That had so little effect it wasn't worth the author's mention in his analysis of the sudden collapse? Nah, I don't think so.
2. No mention of abandoning fighting war, to instead use military power to advance NGO agendas, "democracy projects", etc? The core mission and effort of deploying combat troops is to close with and destroy the enemy in all phases of combat. Period. Manpower, effort, and blood put into NGO agendas and democracy projects is, at best, a serious distraction.
After the first couple of years, Coalition forces led by us, started focusing on the equivalent of the WWII Allies putting their major focus and effort into getting the Marshall Plan in place and working prior to the Axis powers surrender. You can't win a war by not fighting a war, but instead posing as a gracious builder of democratic nations.
3. With all the problems we saw on tours working with the ANA, Afghan governments, etc., we wonder how much of the problems we saw came as a result of Afghans watching us, the Allies they were supposed to follow and obey. How we were "fighting" the war, our preference for supporting NGOs instead of fighting the war (how could anything go wrong doing that), promoting grifting Afghan politicians as we have our grifter politicians at home they can see, etc.
Why would we expect them to watch our performance, and then have any confidence and trust in us? Rather than decide the message to be taken from watching us is that it was an every man for himself situation.
The biggest problems we have is we do not understand the places we go. When we occupied Germany we had a somewhat good of the understanding of the culture. In Japan we had to support of the Emperor to "tell the people to behave". In places like the middle east and especially Afghanistan we can in totally clueless. Then you had the Obamaites raising the "Pride Flag" over out embassy!
What should have been done in Afghanistan was the establishment of some form of Dictatorship or better yet a Saudi style monarchy with traditional Islamic values. This would have made the average person feel they were not being thrown into some "western Woke experiment"
Then over 2 or maybe 3 generations re-educate the people to form some true national identity, something that really doesn't exist in Afghanistan. This would have meant a longer term commitment by the US. But the International Whiner Class would not have been happy about his. With their track record we should not have cared.
If this sounds to much like Imperialism for your taste, well then, too bad! The reason the Pax Romana lasted for 200 years was because of very similar practices. Allow the locals to govern themselves while Rome kept the peace! We could have done this in Afghanistan with an eventual Afghan army that would have been willing to protect the country because they had a true love of their country.
As a Vietnam Era Navy vet I can say the previous comments include many concise points and excellent historical context.
For a good example of explaining the regions mindset, read Kipling or better yet watch “The Man Who Would Be King” starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Shifting loyalties under duress is deeply ingrained in Afghanistan.
Our military can accomplish great things. Our politicians lack the will to win. There was a moment early in the conflict that UBL was corralled on the Afghan side of the border. Somebody (probably the UN) talked Bush 43 into a 2 week ceasefire. At that moment we could have inserted a couple of theater nukes and everyone could have come home. It wouldn’t have changed the landscape and it was sparsely populated. The world would know we avenge attacks on our sovereignty.
The Western governments failed because they tried to template a Western military and values on a culture that can't receive it.
I served in Afghanistan 15 months. I worked daily with Afghan men. We talked for thousands of hours, about many things, including their government and military service.
Afghan men serve their families, and local community. Not a federalized, national construct. In order to change this, the West should have controlled the religion, education system and media, and been prepared to spend 40 years to reprogram the culture. The Western world, particularly the US, didn't want to do it.
The Afghan doesn't recognize, or wish to serve, anyone who is weak and who cannot immediately impact or affect his and his families life. Which is why 200,000 soldiers walked away – they were far from home bleeding for something with which they had no connection.
To have been successful, what should have been developed were thousands of local units that managed geographical areas they could manage, as local militia.But you'd still have to program them to reject the Taliban ideology. And that is the kicker.
The Taliban are conservative Muslims. Mostly, the Afghan guys had no argument with their principles, which were black and white Quran interpretation. In that, the dependability and willingness of an Anti-Taliban National Afghan Army was already a failure. We had no way to convince the average Afghan that the Taliban were evil. The average Afghan believed the Taliban were committed and sincere, if strict. One thing the Taliban promised was that there would be justice in accordance to the Quran, something that the Afghan man understood and didn't have under the British, Russians, and Warlords… and then also under the Western supported new Afghan federal government.
Further, the Western media and governments spent nearly two decades demonizing the Taliban – when their beliefs are mainstream for Islam. Saudi Arabia is a perfect example of an Islamic theocracy dominated government that believes as the Taliban. Mauritania. Morocco. Bahrain. NIgeria, Iran. Iraq. And more, with different flavors. Sad to say, many of the Afghans already believe that Sharia is the right way to conduct business, and that much of the Western culture is indeed haram… although they want to indulge secretly.
To this end, what was our failure? Our war, our battle, our justice was with bin Laden and Al Queada. The West lost sight of that. Rather than dominating in a vast manner over decades to insure victory, the West tried in a half-vast way to build Afghanistan into a half-vast Western nation. And got the half-assed result they earned – an embarrassing defeat.
That western construct had an Islamic foundation. The two don't match.
The people that decided goals and measures in Afghanistan had little or no clue of the Afghan culture. And those decision makers refused to listen, spending billions of dollars, soldier's lives, and nearly two decades trying to put a square Western peg into a round Afghanistan hole.
This is a necessary read to include comments.