The Afghan government in Kabul will be fighting for its life and could well fall to the Taliban after the United States completes its military withdrawal from the country in August, according to a U.S. government watchdog charged with monitoring events on the ground.
Despite a series of cautiously optimistic assessments by high-ranking U.S. military officials and Afghan leaders, a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) describes the situation as “bleak” and echoes concerns that Afghan security forces are not ready to mount any meaningful resistance.
"The overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed," Special Inspector General John Sopko wrote in the report, released Wednesday.
“The ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] has retaken some districts and the Afghan government still controls all 34 provincial capitals, including Kabul,” he added. “But from public reporting, the ANDSF appeared surprised and unready, and is now on its back foot.”
Ever since U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that American combat troops would leave Afghanistan, U.S. officials have been careful not to minimize the challenge facing the Afghan government.
Just this past Sunday, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, told reporters in Kabul that the Afghan government “faces a stern test.”
But he added that despite attempts by the Taliban to create a sense of inevitability, “there is no preordained conclusion to this fight.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also promised better results as well, saying that the Afghan military will be able to regain momentum by focusing its efforts on defending urban areas.
Help has also come in the form of U.S. airstrikes in support of Afghan forces, despite the U.S. no longer having aircraft based in Afghanistan. Officials have promised the strikes will continue unless the Taliban scale back their military offensive.
Wednesday’s report, however, has led to consternation by some senior Afghan officials.
“We do not face ‘Existential crisis,’” Waheed Omer, an Afghan presidential adviser, wrote on Twitter Thursday. “We’ve existed for thousands of years, and we’ll exist for thousands more.”
“Taliban offer nothing but atrocity, misery and poverty,” he added. “They’ve been driven out of some districts already. They will be driven out of the rest either by ANDSF, or by people who are not ready to go through another dark era of terrorist rule in Afghanistan.”
During a call with the Defense Writers Group early Thursday, John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General, agreed there is still a chance for the Afghan government to turn things around.
“Even though there are serious problems, and I have serious concerns, and I think our military does, and most observers have serious concerns, the story isn't over,” he said, adding “they can't continue with the status quo.”
“it's important for them to change their behavior, but they can do it,” Sopko said. “We have given them the hardware We are funding them.”
The SIGAR report warns, though, it will not be easy, and that the Taliban have provided no reason to believe they will ease off on their attacks.
“Despite continued calls from U.S. officials for the Taliban to reduce its levels of violence in line with their commitments in the U.S.-Taliban agreement … the Taliban have not done so,” the report said. “Each three-month period since the February 29, 2020, U.S.-Taliban agreement has had significantly more EIAs (enemy-initiated attacks) than their corresponding quarters the previous year.”
The report also suggests that the Taliban, beyond having momentum, appear to have a definitive psychological edge.
NATO military officials told SIGAR that Afghan National Army units routinely refused to conduct operations without the presence of Afghan special operations forces.
Additionally, SIGAR said that when special forces have been brought in, “they are misused to perform tasks intended for conventional forces such as route clearance.”
The SIGAR report also repeated earlier warnings that the Afghan air force is “overtaxed” and will not likely be able to sustain its current pace of operation.
“All airframes are flying at least 25% over their recommended scheduled-maintenance intervals,” the report said. “This is exacerbating supply-chain issues and delaying scheduled maintenance and battle-damage repair.”
Four key airframes — the A-29 Super Tucano light attack plane, the C-208 Caravan light airlift plane, the MD 530 Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopter and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter — “failed to meet readiness benchmarks,” the SIGAR report added.
The Afghan air force, in particular, has been dependent on U.S. government contractors for maintenance and logistics. But as of last month, SIGAR reported that the number of contractors had been cut in half because of the ongoing U.S. withdrawal.