US-Taliban deal pushed Afghanistan to collapse, watchdog finds

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 19, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - The US deal with the Taliban - forged under former US President Donald Trump and implemented under President Joe Biden - was "the single most important factor" in the rapid collapse of Afghanistan's forces as American troops withdrew last year.

As in Vietnam decades earlier, the US "spent years and billions of dollars training and equipping" the Afghan National Security Forces "only to see them quickly collapse in the face of far less-equipped insurgencies once US logistical, equipment enabler and air support were withdrawn," Mr John Sopko, the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in an "interim" lessons-learned report released Wednesday (May 18).

The US appropriated US$146 billion (S$202.41 billion) for Afghanistan reconstruction, with about US$90 billion spent building the country's 300,000-member security force.

Over 20 years, the conflict killed 2,443 US troops and 1,144 allied troops. SMr opko previously said it's likely that far more than the estimated 66,000 Afghan troops and 48,000 civilians also died.

The US-Taliban agreement -which pledged that US troops would withdraw if the Taliban promised to prevent terrorist operations by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - "introduced tremendous uncertainty into the US-Afghan relationship," Mr Sopko wrote.

Many of its provisions are still not public, he said, "but are believed to be contained in secret written and verbal agreements between US and Taliban envoys."

Even without access to the secret provisions, "many Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country," Mr Sopko wrote.

"Its immediate effect was that the agreement degraded" security force morale. After the agreement was signed, the US military's level of support declined, including a major drop in airstrikes in 2020 after the highest level ever the previous year, Mr Sopko said.

The mission to build a viable Afghanistan force spanned four US presidents, seven secretaries of State, eight secretaries of defence and an equal number of Central Command chiefs, according to the report.

Among other conditions undermining Afghanistan's government, Mr Sopko said, were President Ashraf Ghani's appointment of unqualified loyalists, "sidelining the young generation" of military officers with close ties to the US.

Another was the Ghani government's failure to establish a workable strategy that could assume responsibility for nationwide security after the withdrawal of US forces.

Afghan troops "had not only lost US support for offensive operations, they no longer knew if or when US forces would come to their defence" as "US inaction fuelled mistrust" among the security forces "toward the United States and their own government."

The Taliban "did not capture most districts and provinces through military victory," Mr Sopko wrote. "Instead, local government officials, tribal elders, and ANSF commanders negotiated surrenders."

For some Afghan soldiers, Mr Sopko wrote, "fighting the Taliban was a paycheck, not a cause worth losing one's life over."

Asked Tuesday about criticism of the US withdrawal, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that "it was time for that war to end, time to bring the rest of those troops home," adding that there has been no Sept 11-type attack on the US since then.

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