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Repeated watchdog, intel warnings undercut Biden’s public assurances on Afghan army

U.S. knew Afghan soldiers couldn’t even handle refueling operations, and were prone to defections and poor readiness, internal memos show. But still the Biden administration expressed confidence.

Updated: August 17, 2021 - 10:44pm

Fresh from the Fourth of July holiday, President Biden confidently assured the American people last month that the Afghan army was up to holding the line against the Taliban as the U.S. withdrew it forces after 20 years of warfare. “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war,” the president declared from the White House’s ornate East Room on July 8.

A few days later, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a less rosy assurance, but disputed claims a Taliban takeover was inevitable. “A negative outcome – a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan – is not a foregone conclusion," Army Gen. Mark Milley told reporters. “…I don’t think an end game is yet written.”

But inside U.S. intelligence agencies, the Pentagon and the independent U.S. watchdog for Afghanistan, the warning lights were blinking red that the Afghan Army that the United States spent 20 years training and tens of billions of dollars equipping had a glass jaw that could be crushed easily, according to Just the News interviews with a dozen U.S. officials and a review of several hundreds of pages of memos and reports.

John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and a lifelong Democrat, explicitly warned that Afghans couldn’t even handle their own re-fueling operations, their soldiers were prone to defections and allegiances to tribes over command structure, and their fighter jets were far less ready than the American military commanders had portrayed.

“Five of the seven airframes experienced decreases in readiness in the last month of the quarter [June],” Sopko wrote in one warning report days after Biden and Milley made their assurances. “This coincided with the Taliban offensive and the withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces, including aircraft-maintenance contractors. The combined effect of the two appeared to reduce aircraft readiness rates.”

You can read that report here:

Sopko’s warnings were open source and public for all, including Biden’s inner circle, to see. Behind the scenes, U.S. intelligence officials began to reduce their classified confidence assessments in the Afghan army, reducing from months to weeks the possibility that Afghanistan might fall to the Taliban, according to interviews with several officials.

“There was no secret that the Afghan army was crumbling, and there was little adjustment on our part, just resignation,” one official told Just the News, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss private deliberations.

Former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who spent nearly a decade working on Afghanistan as an Army general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Just the News that the Biden administration misled Americans because the U.S. was well aware that Afghan forces could not defeat an enemy, and might collapse quickly.

"It was all well known," Flynn told the John Solomon Reports podcast. "This is not something that suddenly snuck up on us. It might have snuck up on Joe Biden, and maybe some of our senior military leaders, although it would be I think, they would be lying through their teeth. If they were put in front of an open hearing in Congress. They would be lying through their teeth, if they were to say anything. ... And this business about not not sensing that it could happen this fast is ridiculous."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, D-N.J. offered similar sentiments Tuesday. "The American and Afghan people clearly have not been told the truth about the ANDSF's capacity and deserve answers," he said. 

Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared to confirm Tuesday that the White House was aware of the dangers of a quick collapse. "We were clear-eyed going in when we made this decision that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of Afghanistan," Sullivan said. "We were clear-eyed about that. Now, as the President said in his remarks yesterday, we did not anticipate that it would happen at this speed. Though, we were planning for these potential contingencies."

Officials told Just the News that Biden and his security team turned down military commanders’ requests to keep U.S. troops in place temporarily, and they gave back the Bagram air base in the dead of a summer night even though it could have provided an alternate location for evacuating American personnel should Kabul’s civilian airport fall to the enemy.

Private deliberations aside, the most stunning aspect of the president’s declarations to the public a month ago were how squarely contradicted they were by open-source intelligence, particularly a slew of reports and memos from Sopko, who was appointed by President Obama to be America’s independent watchdog of the Afghan war after decades as a bulldog investigator for Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Sopko’s reports on the Afghan forces dating to 2015 at times read like a bad sit-rep from a slapstick military comedy, like Stripes or Hot Shots. Except, they were deadly serious and consequential.

The same month Biden doubled down on the Afghan army, Sopko’s team sent an urgent memo saying the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) still were incapable of handling the basic function of fueling their equipment and electricity grid, and as much as half of the military’s fuel was being stolen.

The Pentagon’s troop withdrawal transition office “did not develop a transition plan that included ensuring adequate controls and systems are in place so the Afghan government can effectively manage and oversee the ANDSF’s fuel activities,” Sopko warned.

“Also, all assumptions on which CSTC-A (transition office) relied for transition success—increased economic growth in Afghanistan leading to the Afghan government spending more on its national defense, connectivity to the national electrical grid, and ANDSF processes to protect against fuel corruption and mismanagement-—have not materialized as envisioned, and if not addressed, will likely keep DOD from meeting its goal of transitioning fuel responsibilities to the Afghan government by 2025.”

You can’t fight if you can’t fuel, Sopko noted. “Without fuel, ANDSF operations will come to a grinding halt,” he wrote. You can read that report here.

Eight days after Biden’s comments, Sopko directly disputed that United States could assess the ability of the Afghan military to defeat the Taliban.

“The question of how to accurately project how the ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) would perform against an adversary in the absence of direct U.S. combat enabler support remains difficult to answer,” the report said, warning that the U.S. military had been moving the goal posts for years to provide a more rosy assessment than warranted.

“The systems designed to measure that capability have been criticized for being inconsistent,” the report said. “Rating systems designed to capture ANDSF operational effectiveness have shifted over time, reflecting persistent questions about what data mattered, how to balance quantitative and qualitative information, and, more fundamentally, how exactly to measure capability in the first place.”

You can read that report here.

At a reporters’ roundtable on July 29, just two weeks before the fall of Kabul, Sopko accused the U.S. military of covering up just how bad the Afghan army really was.

"Every time we went in, the US military changed the goalposts and made it easier to show success, and then finally, when they couldn't even do that, they classified the assessment tool," Sopko told the reporters. “So they knew how bad the Afghan military was, and if you had a clearance you could find out, but the average American ... wouldn't know how bad it was, and we were paying for it.”

Many of the warnings in 2021 echoed what Sopko and other overseers had repeated time and again.

For instance, years earlier, Sopko declared in an October 2017 report that Afghan soldiers had a propensity to flee, noting that Afghans sent to the United States for training defected, went AWOL, or sought asylum at rates exponentially higher than any other U.S. foreign ally. “The tendency of Afghan trainees in the United States to go AWOL may hinder the operational readiness of their home units, negatively impact the morale of fellow trainees and home units, and pose security risks to the United States,” his report warned.

In a 2017 lessons learned report, Sopko declared the American military simply had been unable to shape an effective Afghan fighting force despite limitless resources, a sentiment he renewed in a report released Tuesday. And he directly warned the army could not keep Afghanistan safe from external threats or terrorism.

“These findings underscore the significant shortfalls in the U.S. approach to security sector assistance in Afghanistan that contributed to the current inability of the ANDSF to secure the country from internal and external threats and prevent the re-establishment of terrorist safe havens,” Sopko wrote in 2017. “The United States failed to understand the complexities and scale of the mission to construct the Afghan security forces in a country suffering from 30 years of war, government misrule, and significant poverty and underdevelopment.”

The 2017 report quoted a former DOD official who declares the army’s incapability was a larger threat than the enemy: “It’s not that the enemy is so strong, but that the Afghan government is so weak.” You can read that report here.

The follow-up report released Tuesday made clear the inadequacies never changed. “Troops and resources continued to draw down in full view of the Afghan government’s inability to address instability or prevent it from worsening,” Sopko concluded. You can read that report here.

 

The memos and their data stand in sharp contrast to a narrative the Biden administration delivered the public in the weeks before the dramatic collapse of Afghanistan. The unsubstantiated storyline of a capable Afghan army was delivered from the podiums of the White House to the Pentagon.

“They have the advantage. They have numerous advantages,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters last month, propping up the Afghan army. ‘“They have better capabilities than the Taliban in the air and on the ground. And they are certainly going to continue to have American support financially, logistically and through assistance and maintenance. It’s really going to come down to their ability and their willingness to use those advantages to their benefit.”

In the end, the Afghan army failed. And like the post-mortems from Vietnam decades ago, policymakers, congressional overseers and a new generation of military leaders in Washington will have to divine, after the fact, how that happened. And Americans will have to decide whether the Biden administration misled them with too rosy an assessment.

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