KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The surrenders appear to be as quick as the Taliban can travel.
Under the pressure of an advance by the Taliban that began in May, the Afghan security forces have collapsed in more than 15 cities in the past few days. Officials on Friday confirmed it included two of the country’s main provincial capitals: Kandahar and Herat.
The swift offensive has resulted in mass surrenders, captured helicopters and millions of dollars in American equipment displayed on grainy cellphone videos by the Taliban. Fierce fighting had been going on for weeks on the outskirts of some cities, but the Taliban eventually overtook their lines of defense and then invaded with little or no resistance.
This implosion comes despite the fact that the United States has poured more than $ 83 billion in weapons, equipment, and training into the country’s security forces over two decades.
Building the Afghan security apparatus was one of the key elements of the Obama administration’s strategy, which nearly a decade ago sought a way to surrender security and leave. Out of these efforts, an army modeled on the US military emerged, an Afghan institution that was to outlast the American war.
But it will likely be gone before the United States is.
As Afghanistan’s future seems increasingly uncertain, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: the United States’s 20-year effort to rebuild the Afghan military into a robust and independent force has failed, and the failure is now happening in real time as the country is under control the Taliban gets caught.
How the Afghan military fell apart for the first time was evident not last week but months ago in an accumulation of casualties that began before President Biden announced that the United States would withdraw by September 11th.
It began with individual outposts in rural areas, in which starving and ammunition-poor soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe transit if they surrender and leave their equipment behind, and the insurgents slowly gaining control over the roads and then the whole Districts existed. When the positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: there was no air support, or supplies and groceries had run out.
But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces were evident, which on paper numbered around 300,000 people, but in the last few days, according to US officials, only made up a sixth of them. These shortcomings can be traced back to numerous problems arising from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military, with all the necessary logistics and supply complexities, which have proven unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.
Soldiers and police officers have expressed deeper and deeper grudges against the Afghan leadership. Officials have often turned a blind eye knowing that the actual number of the Afghan armed forces was far lower than what was reported in the books, skewed by the corruption and secrecy they tacitly accepted.
And when the Taliban gained momentum after the announcement of the United States’ withdrawal, it only reinforced belief that it was not worth dying for the fighting within the security forces – for President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. In interview after interview, soldiers and police officers described moments of desperation and abandonment.
On a front line in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar last week, the Afghan security forces’ apparent inability to repel the Taliban’s devastating offensive was due to potatoes.
After weeks of fighting, a carton full of slimy potatoes should pass as a police unit’s daily ration. They had had nothing but tubers of various shapes for several days, and their hunger and tiredness wore them down.
“Those french fries won’t hold those front lines!” Yelled one policeman, disgusted by the lack of support they received in the second largest city in the country.
That front line collapsed on Thursday and Kandahar was under Taliban control by Friday morning.
In recent weeks, Afghan troops have been consolidated to defend Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as the Taliban focused on cities from attacks on rural areas. But this strategy proved pointless when the insurgent fighters overran city after city, captured around half of the provincial capitals of Afghanistan and encircled Kabul within a week.
“They are just trying to get us ready,” said Abdulhai, 45, a police chief who held the Kandahar Northern Front last week.
The Afghan security forces have suffered well over 60,000 deaths since 2001. But Abdulhai wasn’t talking about the Taliban, but about his own government, which he felt was so incapable that it had to be part of a larger plan to cede territory to the Taliban.
The months of defeats seemed to peak on Wednesday when the entire headquarters of an Afghan army corps – the 217th – at Kunduz airport in the north of the city fell to the Taliban. The insurgents captured a disused attack helicopter. Images of a US-supplied drone seized by the Taliban were circulating on the Internet along with images of rows of armored vehicles.
Brig. General Abbas Tawakoli, commander of the 217th Afghan Army Corps, who was in a nearby province when his base fell, echoed Abdulhai’s sentiments as reasons for his troops’ defeat on the battlefield.
“Unfortunately, a number of MPs and politicians have knowingly and unknowingly kindled the flame sparked by the enemy,” General Tawakoli said just hours after the Taliban released videos of their fighters raiding the general’s sprawling base.
“No region fell from the war, but from the psychological war,” he said.
This psychological war has taken place on different levels.
Afghan pilots say their leadership cares more about the condition of the planes than about the people who fly them: men and at least one woman burned out from countless evacuation missions – often under fire – while the Taliban conduct a brutal campaign of murder against them .
The remnants of the elite commandos, used to holding territory still under government control, are being transported from one province to another with no clear destination and very little sleep.
The ethnically-based militias, known as forces to reinforce the lines of government, have also been almost all overrun.
The second city to fall this week was Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, a capital defended by a formidable force commanded by Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious warlord and former Afghan vice president who has survived for the past 40 years should of war by cutting deals and changing sides.
Another prominent Afghan warlord and former governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, surrendered on Friday.
“We are drowning in corruption,” said Abdul Haleem, 38, a police officer on the Kandahar frontline earlier this month. His special unit was half strength – 15 out of 30 people – and several of his comrades who stayed at the front were there because their villages had been captured.
“How are we supposed to defeat the Taliban with so much ammunition?” He said. The heavy machine gun, for which his unit had very few bullets, broke later that night.
On Thursday it was unclear whether Mr. Haleem was still alive and what was left of his comrades.
As the Taliban ransack the country almost continuously, their strength is in doubt. Official estimates have long been between 50,000 and 100,000 fighters. Now that number is even darker as the international armed forces and intelligence capabilities retreat.
Some US officials say Taliban numbers have risen due to the influx of foreign fighters and an aggressive conscription campaign in captured areas. Other experts say the Taliban got much of their strength from Pakistan.
Yet even in the midst of a possible total surrender by the Afghan government and its armed forces, troops are still fighting.
As in any conflict since the dawn of time, soldiers and police officers mostly fight for each other and for the subordinate leaders who inspire them to fight in spite of the hell that lies before them.
When the Taliban broke through the outskirts of the southern city of Lashkar Gah in May, a hodgepodge of border guards held the line. The police officers who were supposed to defend the area had long since surrendered, withdrawn or been paid by the Taliban, as happened in many parts of the country last year.
Armed with rifles and machine guns, some in uniform, some not, the border guards beamed when their stubborn captain Ezzatullah Tofan arrived at their grenade-shattered position, a house abandoned during the fighting.
He always comes to the rescue, said one soldier.
When the Taliban advanced into Lashkar Gah, provincial capital of Helmand Province, late last month, an outpost called their headquarters elsewhere in the city and asked for reinforcements. In an audio recording obtained from the New York Times, the senior commanding officer on the other end urged them to stay and fight.
Captain Tofan bring reinforcements, he said, and should hold out a little longer. That was about two weeks ago.
On Friday, despite weary resistance from the Afghan military, repeated reinforcement flights and even American B-52 bombers, the city was in the hands of the Taliban.
Taimoor Shah and Jim Huylebroek contributed to coverage from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi contributed from Kabul. Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting.