The U.S. Constructed Afghanistan’s Army Over 20 Years. Will It Final One Extra?

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The Taliban assault on a police outpost on the fringe of the town started at nightfall, with the muted chatter of machine-gun fireplace and the thud of explosions. The boys below assault radioed Capt. Mohammed Fawad Saleh at his headquarters, a number of miles away, determined for assist.

The police captain replied that he would ship extra males, together with one can of machine-gun ammunition — 200 rounds, not sufficient for even a minute of intensive fireplace.

“One can?” the voice on the opposite finish of the radio responded, incredulously.

Ammunition shortages are simply one of many critical and systemic points plaguing troopers and cops who will quickly must defend Afghanistan — and themselves — with out U.S. plane overhead or American troops on the bottom.

“We’re holding the burden of the struggle,” Captain Saleh stated because the assault unfolded in January. But one ammunition can was all he may spare.

President Biden’s choice to withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist assaults that first propelled the US into battle, has prompted deep fears concerning the Afghan safety forces’ means to defend what territory stays below authorities management.

The assault on Captain Saleh’s forces foretells a possible reckoning for the complete nation.

For practically 20 years, the US and NATO have engaged within the nation-building pursuit of coaching, increasing and equipping Afghanistan’s police, military and air forces, spending tens of billions of {dollars} in an try and construct authorities safety forces that may safeguard their very own nation.

However interviews with two dozen safety and authorities officers, navy and cops and militia commanders throughout the nation describe a bleak outcome: Regardless of this monumental effort, the endeavor has solely produced a troubled set of forces that are woefully unprepared for dealing with the Taliban, or some other risk, on their very own.

What comes subsequent is something however sure.

Some U.S. and Afghan officers assert that if the Taliban strive any main offensives on cities, the navy may defeat them. The Biden administration insists that the Afghan navy and police will endure. “We’re going to be persevering with to help the Afghan safety forces,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stated this month on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s a robust pressure.”

However the Taliban already management huge quantities of the nation, even with American navy energy current. Afghan models are rife with corruption, have misplaced monitor of the weapons as soon as showered on them by the Pentagon, and in lots of areas are below fixed assault. Some troopers haven’t been residence in years as a result of their villages have been overtaken by the Taliban.

Prospects for enchancment are slim, given slumping recruitment, excessive casualty charges and a Taliban insurgency that’s savvy, skilled and nicely outfitted — together with with weapons initially offered to the Afghan authorities by the US.

It’s straightforward to painting the Afghan navy and police as corrupt, predatory, ineffective, as they at occasions are. However those self same forces have suffered terribly, way over Westerners, in what usually seems like a dropping struggle of attrition. Roughly 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed since 2001, together with greater than 3,500 from the U.S.-led coalition and a a lot larger variety of civilians. Many extra troops have been wounded. Years earlier than Mr. Biden introduced his plan to go away, U.S. officers had been already warning of unsustainable Afghan casualty charges.

On paper, the Afghan safety forces have greater than 300,000 troops, however the precise determine is probably going considerably much less. Some police models hold their ranks decrease than their rosters so commanders can pocket the salaries of lifeless or absent officers. One vital military corps meant to have 16,000 women and men has round half that.

Recruiting, too, has been affected, particularly within the nation’s north, officers say. The area was as soon as a hub for recruits who’re anti-Taliban, usually due to their ethnic background. However the variety of recruits has dropped there from about 3,000 to 500 a month in a 12 months’s time, officers say.

Unsurprisingly, morale has suffered.

Second Lt. Khalil Ahmad Atash, a police commander in Afghanistan’s western Herat Province, was so fed up with the job that he tried to resign earlier this month earlier than being talked out of his choice by authorities officers. “I’ve been on this job for eight months, throughout this time we solely bought air help as soon as,” Lieutenant Atash stated. “Nobody is offering help for us, our forces are hopeless and they’re giving up on their jobs.”

Till not too long ago, Lieutenant Atash was accountable for a number of police outposts. One bought out to the Taliban. One other was overrun. No less than 30 of his officers have deserted their posts, he stated.

American officers as soon as heralded commanders like Lieutenant Atash as the longer term stewards of Afghan safety — individuals who rose to defend a rebuilding nation after greater than a era of struggle. The Pentagon hoped to stabilize rural Afghanistan, usher newly minted Afghan forces into the countryside to work alongside Western models after which steadily withdraw. To take action, it recruited and educated tons of of 1000’s of Afghan males, and a small contingent of girls, all whereas distributing funds inconsistently and infrequently haphazardly.

However whereas the Pentagon crafted slogans presenting the Afghan forces as companions, there was little belief in both route — partly a byproduct of the insider killings of American service members by their Afghan counterparts that peaked in 2012.

Afghan troopers and police had been seen as second-tier, and handled as such. They obtained wages so small that the rifles they carried had been price a number of months’ pay. Even from the identical firefights and roadside bombs, after which Westerners obtained world-class trauma care, Afghans had been taken to thoroughly completely different medical services the place their remedy was substandard.

When the US ended its fight mission in 2014, it left Afghan forces to carry a sprawling and infrequently distant community of outposts and bases that the US had constructed over greater than a decade. However these forces principally lacked the logistical capability, fireplace help and morale for the job.

The Taliban and its allies went on the offensive, and seized territory throughout the nation.

What stays within the nation is a safety equipment propped up by worldwide funds and, as in years previous, U.S. help. The US has poured greater than $70 billion in weapons, tools and coaching into the Afghan forces. However from the look of many models, it’s unclear the place the cash went.

Commanders report having to purchase their very own sniper rifles on the black market. They’ve a fraction of the Humvees they’ve been promised. Some are operating out of ammunition (although troopers and police typically fireplace an extreme variety of bullets to allow them to promote the discarded brass casings for scrap). A small outpost exterior Kandahar depends on decrepit Soviet-era armored automobiles to defend its place.

And an expert corps of officers and noncommissioned officers has barely emerged, partly as a result of wages are low, dangers excessive and lots of commanders dishonest.

“Solely the sons of poor persons are right here to point out off that now we have forces within the district,” military Maj. Abdul Nasir Haqmal stated this winter from his hilltop publish in Kandahar. “The wage of the remainder of the troopers goes to the pocket of corps commanders and other people within the ministry of protection.”

The place authorities and Taliban territory meet, police outposts are sometimes battered nightly, regularly by fighters with night-vision gear. Common Afghan troopers and police, missing the identical functionality, have resorted to purchasing their very own or typically even lighting particles or brush on fireplace to intervene with the Taliban’s gadgets. The Pentagon tried to equip sure models with evening imaginative and prescient, however stopped after a lot of the gear was misplaced, stolen or bought.

With police outposts collapsing, the commandos, a pressure educated for temporary raids, are regularly used as holding forces in contested territory.

Some essential Afghan military bases within the nation’s south are surrounded by Taliban fighters, and may solely be equipped by helicopter. Troopers in Helmand Province not too long ago tried to barter with the Taliban, in hopes of abandoning their base with out being attacked. The Taliban refused to allow them to go unhurt until they left behind their tools and weapons.

On the identical time, the Afghan forces are taking horrific casualties. By conservative estimates, at the least 287 safety pressure members are killed and 185 wounded per thirty days in roadside and suicide bombings, ambushes, fireplace fights, insider killings and assassinations, based on The Occasions’ casualty report information. Official figures are not often disclosed by officers. Some forces are additionally taken prisoner and others defect.

The void left by dwindling safety forces has given rise to extra militias — utilized by the federal government or by regional factions — that many concern will activate the federal government or recruit straight from the navy and police, fracturing these organizations alongside ethnic and political strains.

Within the air pressure, there are sufficient pilots however not sufficient plane, due to overuse, battlefield attrition and upkeep cycles, stated one Afghan helicopter pilot, who was not permitted to talk to the media. What plane can be found, one other pilot stated, normally solely go to assist the particular operations forces.

Whereas the Afghan authorities makes use of small drones to look at the battlefield, one in every of its few benefits over the Taliban, it solely has sufficient to cowl sizzling spots.

However even with operational planes and armed helicopters, Afghan troops regularly complain of the air forces’ gradual response: By the point an plane is overhead, troopers or police want their wounded and lifeless evacuated, they are saying, not an airstrike.

Col. Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, who instructions a commando regiment within the south, stated that will probably be close to unimaginable to depend on the air pressure after the U.S. withdraws. “We will need to have the air help of foreigners,” he stated.

Talking from the U.S.-backed Ministry of Protection in Kabul, the capital, Gen. Yasin Zia, the military chief of employees and appearing minister of protection, acknowledged the logistical and navy challenges his forces face as soon as the US and NATO withdraw.

However, he stated, “we are going to discover a solution to survive.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Mazar-i-Sharif, Najim Rahim from Kabul and C. J. Chivers from Binghamton, N.Y. Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Mazar-i-Sharif, Asadullah Timory from Herat, Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost and Zabihullah Ghazi from Nangarhar.

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