KABUL, Afghanistan -- Abdullah Mohammadi lost both his legs and an arm below the elbow in a battle with the Taliban. As a young soldier, he had been eager to fight for his country, but now he's furious at a government he says ignores him and hasn't paid his veteran's pension in almost a year.
Afghanistan's National Defense and Security Forces, meant to be the bulwark against advancing Taliban insurgents, are rife with corruption, demoralized and struggling to keep territory. The government says the army can hold its own, but military experts warn of a tough fight ahead for poorly trained, ill-equipped troops whose loyalties waver between their country and local warlords.
By Sept. 11 at the latest, the remaining 2,300-3,500 U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces will have left Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. Also leaving is the American air support that the Afghan military has relied on to stave off Taliban assaults since it took command of the war from the U.S. and NATO in 2014.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Thursday that America's withdrawal is "slightly" ahead of schedule, but he provided no details.
Austin said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing that the Defense Department's proposed budget will include money to help the military develop the capabilities to prevent attacks against the U.S. by terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
"Without U.S. military support, it is a matter of time before the Taliban consolidates its gains, particularly in the south, east and west," said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the American Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal.
This week, some of the heaviest fighting since President Joe Biden announced the end to America's "forever war" took place in eastern Laghman province, with the Taliban threatening the provincial capital of Mehtar Lam. Particularly worrisome, police and army personnel deserted several posts protecting the city, allowing Taliban to walk in and take abandoned military equipment.
At least half the country is believed to be contested ground, often with the government holding only the main towns and cities in local districts and the Taliban dominating the countryside.
Soldiers complain of substandard equipment, even shoddy basic items like army boots that fall apart within weeks because corrupt contractors used inferior material. The Associated Press witnessed boots with gaping holes being worn, insufficient helmets available and weapons that often jammed.
At a police outpost seen by the AP this month, eight men lived in a partially built bunker that looked big enough for only half that number; they had only a few rifles.
The commander, who wore sandals, said the outpost is occasionally hit by rocket or gunfire and would have a hard time fending off a full-fledged attack.
"There's no other option but peace," he said, asking not to be identified because he did not have permission to allow the media into his compound.
Mohammadi, the veteran, was wounded six years ago in Zhari district in southern Kandahar province. He led a company of 18 men airlifted into battle in a grape field, about 3 miles from their nearest base. The fight went on all day and night until eventually the Taliban surrounded them.
For a year he recovered in the hospital. He received two wooden legs and a plastic hand. The legs are painful to wear and he can manage them only 15 minutes at a time. It takes two people to help him get them on, and he sometimes pays a neighbor to help.
"I am proud of what I have sacrificed for this country. What I gave for my country I gave with pride," he said.
But Mohammadi is fuming at the government. For years, his pension of about $200 a month, has been erratic, and for the past 11 months he hasn't received it at all.
Mohammadi says he's had to borrow from family and friends. It wounds his pride, but it's better than begging, he said.
"I think that the Afghans ... realize that we have been there now for 20 years and we have invested heavily in blood and treasure in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.
"Afghanistan has come a long way, both when it comes to building strong, capable security forces, but also when it comes to social and economic progress. At some stage, it has to be the Afghans that take full responsibility for peace and stability in their own country," he said.
Stoltenberg said NATO countries would continue to support the country through civilian experts who will advise government ministries, by funding the security forces and with support for slow-moving peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
He said NATO is also "looking into the possibility of providing some training out of country for the Afghan security forces."
Asked about the impact of leaving without the security guarantee that has helped keep the Taliban at bay, Stoltenberg conceded "there are risks entailed to the decision of ending NATO's military mission in Afghanistan. We have been very transparent and clear-eyed about that."
"At the same time, to continue to stay means that we will also have to take some risks; the risk of more fighting, the risk of being forced to increase the number of troops there, and the risk of remaining with a [military] mission," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Kathy Gannon, Lorne Cook and Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press.