WASHINGTON -- A government watchdog says decisions by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan were the key factors in the collapse of that nation's military.
The new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, mirrors assertions made by senior Pentagon and military leaders in the aftermath of the U.S. troop withdrawal that ended last August in the chaotic evacuation of Americans and other civilians from the embattled country. Military leaders have made it clear that their recommendation was to leave about 2,500 U.S. troops in the country, but that plan was not approved.
In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in which the U.S. promised to fully withdraw its troops by May 2021. The Taliban committed to several conditions, including stopping attacks on American and coalition forces. The stated objective was to promote a peace negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but that diplomatic effort never gained traction before Biden took office in January 2022.
Just a few months later, Biden announced he would complete the U.S. military withdrawal.
"Many Afghans thought the U.S.-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the U.S. was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country," the interim report said. "Its immediate effect was a dramatic loss in (Afghan troops') morale."
U.S. officials have said they were surprised by the quick collapse of the military and the government, prompting sharp congressional criticism of the intelligence community for failing to foresee it.
At a recent congressional hearing, senators questioned whether there is a need to reform how intelligence agencies assess a foreign military's will to fight. Lawmakers pointed to two key examples: U.S. intelligence believed that the Kabul government would hold on for months against the Taliban, and more recently believed that Ukraine's forces would quickly fall to Russia's invasion. Both were wrong.
Military and defense leaders have said that the Afghanistan collapse was built on years of missteps, as the U.S. struggled to find a successful way to train and equip Afghan forces.
In a blunt assessment of the war, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last fall that the result was years in the making.
"Outcomes in a war like this, an outcome that is a strategic failure -- the enemy is in charge in Kabul, there's no way else to describe that -- that is a cumulative effect of 20 years," Milley said, adding that lessons need to be learned, including whether the U.S. military made the Afghans overly dependent on American technology in a mistaken effort to make the Afghan army look like the American army.