In the wake of Kabul’s fall, it is worth asking: How did corruption help lead to the collapse of the Afghan security forces and the triumph of the Taliban? The answer lies in a famous quote from the novel The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. A character named Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he replies. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Like this bankruptcy, corruption in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces gradually undermined the U.S.-backed forces’ willingness and ability to fight before the dramatic final downfall.
The Gradual Signs of Security-Sector Decay
The seeds of the hollowing out of the Afghan security forces began soon after the 2001 U.S.-led occupation. First was a decision to focus on a counterterrorism mission. This choice was understandable at the time given the West’s need to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent future attacks like those that occurred on September 11, 2001. To bolster their own forces and provide the necessary on-the-ground knowledge and access, the United States and its allies turned to the very warlords whose rapacious regime had enabled the Taliban to overthrow the prior Afghan government.
After the defeat of the Taliban, however, the United States and its allies failed to prioritize and furnish resources for building up professional and sustainable Afghan military and police forces. Instead, as security conditions in the country deteriorated, the United States and its allies filled the security vacuum by further arming and empowering these same warlords.
The best opportunity to establish professional and accountable Afghan military and police forces was in the first few years following the 2001 collapse of the Taliban: this was when both the Taliban and the warlords were in a state of flux. At the time, whichever security actor took the lead would largely shape the future course of the country. As the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction documented in a comprehensive 2017 study, initial Western efforts to build modern police and military forces were lackadaisical, and U.S. efforts were undermined by piecemeal measures followed by a diversion of resources to Iraq.
Provided with copious amounts of arms and other resources plus impunity for eye-watering levels of criminality, warlord-led networks used violence, patronage, and bribery to help morph the Afghan security sector into an arena for their own armed muscle. Even though corruption in the Afghan security forces was widely recognized as a severe threat to the NATO mission by the late 2000s, the United States did not substantially ramp up its emphasis on building security institutions based on accountability and good governance until around 2015.
A complementary decision was the United States’ prioritization of building up the number of fielded Afghan forces. The idea was that, in a fragile security environment like Afghanistan, building the security forces should be the top priority and that vital governance reforms could wait until enough security had been established. As a result, the United States kept arming and pouring resources into a security sector riven with patronage networks. Since corruption and poor governance were helping to fuel insecurity and provide recruits and resources to a resurgent Taliban (and later to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Khorasan Province as well), the security situation continued to deteriorate.
Over time, the ever-increasing corruption and predation by the Afghan government ground down the ability of many dedicated security professionals to build a sustainable security sector. Reliable-enough logistics and supplies for troops could not get off the ground because contracts were riddled with kickbacks (if they were fulfilled at all) and because some of the weapons, ammunition, food, and other necessities were diverted for personal gain. A corrupt personnel system meant promotions and key jobs went to politically connected Afghans or those who paid bribes rather than those most willing and able to fight. Troops faced battle knowing they may not be fed or paid because money and resources were being siphoned off. If they were wounded, they had to bribe medical staff for care and then pay for their food and medical supplies out of their own pockets. If they were killed, their widows would probably not receive their pensions without bribes or connections, leaving their families destitute. All of these problems degraded the ability of the Afghan government to hire, supply, and retain a competent force willing and able to fight.
The Sudden Collapse
And then the Afghan security sector fell apart rapidly. By no means was the collapse entirely due to corruption: the announced U.S. withdrawal, evacuation of contractors essential to the Afghan Air Force, and the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners who became available again for battle were among the myriad of reasons.
But the years of corruption and politicization meant that the Afghan leadership—including the country’s security leadership—was still led by many of the avaricious warlords the Taliban had co-opted or conquered in the 1990s. These warlords were again willing to cut deals rather than fight or flee. As they cut deals, they also ordered their troops to lay down their arms and surrender to the Taliban.
The soldiers and police forces still willing to fight found themselves isolated and with no hope of having the ammunition, food, fuel, or other resources required to keep resisting. They faced the daunting decision of surrender or slaughter.
Key Takeaways for the Future of U.S. Security Assistance
There are four key lessons for the United States going forward.
First, other Western security assistance programs and the regimes that support them need a fresh evaluation. Many of the regimes in sub-Saharan Africa—and their security forces—have received substantial U.S. and French security assistance and are just as predatory and corrupt as the Afghan regime was. The United States and its allies should evaluate which regimes are most likely to face a similar dramatic collapse as the United States and Western allies decrease their roles in these locales, the strategic risks entailed in a drawdown, and what—if anything—can be done to begin to reform these regimes and their security sectors before it is too late.
Second, the focus on building counterterrorism forces first and governance later should be consigned to the dustbin of history. This strategy not only contributed to the collapse of the Afghan regime but also to Islamic State victories in Iraq in 2014. Building strong, accountable security institutions cannot be an afterthought; it must be part of the main effort. Legislation such as the Global Fragility Act and governance-focused efforts by the Departments of State and Defense are an important start, but additional resources and prioritization are needed.
Third, U.S. legislative and regulatory requirements for various arms export programs—whether through defense-related capacity-building programs, foreign military sales, or direct commercial sales—must be reevaluated. Consider that Afghanistan received more than $83 billion in U.S. training and equipment, that Iraq by 2012 had received about $25 billion, and that Egypt has received roughly $50 billion since 1978. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest purchasers of U.S. arms and a recipient of numerous U.S.-backed capacity-building programs. And yet in each case, these countries’ security sectors have been unable to offer competent showings against terrorist, insurgent, or conventional military threats. Defense export programs are supposed to help build the capacities of allies, but clearly these programs are failing to meet many of their goals when they matter most.
Finally, after the 1980 failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, Congress insisted on forcing important reforms on the Department of Defense in the form of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. This act completely revamped everything from professional military training to leadership roles on the military’s joint staff, helping to create the conditions for success in Operation Desert Storm. In light of a rising China, a pugnacious Russia, reinvigorated Islamist extremist movements, and worldwide democratic backsliding, it is vital that Congress in concert with the U.S. executive branch overcome deep polarization to again assess and then undertake the reforms necessary for the United States to bounce back from this military defeat and meet tomorrow’s security challenges head on.