Aug 16, 2021 - World

How Kabul fell so fast

Taliban fighters in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty

As images of desperation emerged from Kabul on Monday, President Biden contended that Afghan capital had fallen to the Taliban because the country's leaders and troops lacked "the will to fight."

Why it matters: The U.S. was utterly unprepared for Kabul to fall as quickly as it did, leaving American troops struggling to secure the airport and evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan civilians who aided the U.S. war effort.

Even the most pessimistic forecasts had anticipated a months- or years-long struggle after the U.S. exit before the Taliban advanced on Kabul. Instead, it fell before the U.S. could even complete its withdrawal.

  • “The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated," Biden conceded, blaming Afghan leaders who "gave up and fled the country" and Afghan forces who "collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight."
  • “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future," Biden said during an address Monday.

"I never believed we’d see this kind of frenzied evacuation," says Annie Pforzheimer, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul from 2017-18.

  • “I never thought I’d see the day that our embassy would have to leave alongside the troops.”

Breaking it down: Pforzheimer attributes the rapid collapse first and foremost to Biden's decision to accept Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban — albeit with a four-month extension — while making it clear that the U.S. timeline was set in stone, no matter what happened.

  • The administration underestimated the psychological impact of Biden's statements essentially washing his hands of the war, she says. "That was heard by the people, by the Afghan military, which lost heart, and by the Taliban, which gained strength and dominance."

Just five weeks ago, Biden had insisted that Afghan forces were "as well-equipped as any army in the world." That equipment has now largely fallen into Taliban hands.

  • Even after a U.S. investment of $86 billion, the weaknesses of the Afghan forces were glaringly obvious, despite claims to the contrary from U.S. generals, Craig Whitlock reports in the Washington Post.
  • Some U.S. trainers spent their time teaching recruits not to fight, but to read and write. Desertion was rampant. Some "soldiers" only existed on paper. Highly trained special forces proved effective but insufficient.
  • The often brutal warlords the U.S. accepted as partners out of a belief they could mobilize thousands of fighters looked equally toothless in the face of the Taliban surge, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Michael McKinley writes in Foreign Affairs.

The U.S. also appears to have underestimated the Taliban, which prepared extensively for the devastating offensive, positioning its forces and weaponry near cities and building a sense of inevitability as it advanced, notes the Wilson Center's Michael Kugelman.

  • President Ashraf Ghani’s government engendered little loyalty from the troops or the population and failed to effectively rally opposition to the Taliban.
  • Without the level of U.S. air support and technical assistance they'd come to expect, and aware of swift Taliban victories in other cities, many soldiers laid down their arms and fled or attempted to blend into the population.

The bottom line: "In the end, the military that we constructed was not the one that could fight this kind of fight against the Taliban," Pforzheimer says.

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