President Joe Biden insisted, as Kabul fell in August, that nobody could have predicted Afghanistan would be so quickly subsumed into darkness by the advance of the Taliban.
“The intelligence community did not say, back in June or July, that in fact this was going to collapse like it did,” Biden said during an interview shortly after the fall of the capital, according to USA Today. “Not even close.”
Mind you, plenty of politicians, pundits and publications had been predicting a swift fall upon America’s withdrawal simply by looking at the dire situation. But, no, our president said — there was zero evidence this was going to happen.
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Just in case you needed reminding how farcical Biden’s assertion was, we now have a report from the top U.S. watchdog on Afghanistan confirming it predicted the collapse of the U.S.-backed government’s air force a full seven months before the disastrous withdrawal of the American military in August.
According to The Hill, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, declassified a January 2021 report last week in which the office said the Afghan air force was essentially doomed the moment America left.
“According to that report, the Afghan Air Force continued to struggle with a host of issues, including leadership challenges, aircraft misuse, and a dependence on contractors for support,” The Hill’s Jordan Williams wrote.
The report particularly noted the problems facing the Afghan Air Force and the Special Mission Wing of the Kabul government’s Interior Ministry.
“The U.S. and Afghans’ lack of focus on the non-combat support activities of the [Special Mission Wing] and [Afghan Air Force] risks the development of independent, self-sustained Afghan aviation capability,” the report read.
“Further, the potential absence of both military advisors and contractors before the AAF and SMW are able to staff, manage, fund, or maintain their forces puts at risk the entire U.S. investment in the Afghan air forces.”
The report acknowledged issues in developing and training personnel, along with poor leadership development, a lack of advisers from the U.S.-led coalition and the misuse of aircraft. Even though the United States had spent a considerable chunk of change on Afghanistan’s air force, we would have to continue to fund pilot training outside of Afghanistan post-withdrawal.
There was also a Cassandra-like warning about the coalition’s reliance on contractors to keep the air force flying.
“Contractors continue to fill important roles in the development and sustainment of the AAF and SMW as U.S. and Coalition forces withdrawal from Afghanistan. Contractors provide mentoring and training in a variety of areas, including aerial resupply, air-to-ground integration, aircrew training, command and control, personnel management, logistics, communications, budgeting, training and force development, intelligence, and engineering,” the report read.
“[The Department of Defense’s] reliance on contractors poses operational challenges and risks, as well as the potential for waste due to the challenging oversight environment. Further, the potential withdrawal of contractors from Afghanistan, in addition to U.S. and Coalition forces, may leave the AAF and SMW without the necessary support to sustain and develop the Afghan air forces, if alternative sources are not identified.”
And yet, when the Biden administration decided to proceed with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it agreed to withdraw contractors along with coalition troops.
“Without the contractors’ help, Afghan forces will no longer be able to keep dozens of fighter planes, cargo aircraft, U.S.-made helicopters and drones flying for more than a few more months, according to military experts and a recent Defense Department inspector general’s report,” NBC News reported in June.
The report recommended the United States should “[f]inalize a mitigation plan to ensure the continuation of essential maintenance, operation, and advisory support to the AAF and SMW should the U.S. and Taliban agreement require the withdrawal of contractors from Afghanistan.”
That, you won’t be surprised to learn, didn’t happen.
And it isn’t as if SIGAR’s report got lost. Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Rob Lodewick told The Hill the Department of Defense is “well aware” of the report — and was at the time of the fall of the country, too.
“DoD has long-acknowledged the important role the [Afghan Air Force] had within the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] and its efforts/ability to secure Afghanistan, the need and importance of continued funding and maintenance, logistics and training support, and the challenges faced with continuing such support amidst a withdrawal of on-ground forces,” Lodewick told The Hill.
“The specific challenges presented by SIGAR were well known to DoD at the time of the report’s original release and were actively being addressed all the way up to the fall of Kabul.”
It’s difficult to overstate how damning this report is. The collapse of the Afghan air force wasn’t just removing a Jenga block or two from the tower, so much as it was kicking the whole thing over.
The military of the former Afghan government was modeled on our own — which relies heavily on air superiority. As Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, noted in an Aug. 14 report, “The U.S. military, the world’s most advanced, relies heavily on combining ground operations with air power, using aircraft to resupply outposts, strike targets, ferry the wounded, and collect reconnaissance and intelligence.”
“In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”
The knowledge that the Kabul government’s air superiority was doomed was the knowledge the government was doomed — and not to a slow death of tiny cuts but a decapitation. There was a reason that, out of the $145 billion the U.S. spent trying to rebuild Afghanistan, $8.5 billion since 2010 had been spent on the air force alone.
If air superiority couldn’t defeat the Taliban, it could at least act as a kind of chemotherapy, keeping the insurgent theocrats from metastasizing. The Biden administration was well aware, as was any outside observer, that, should air power be removed from the equation, the cancer would overrun whatever remained of the country — and quickly.
And yet, on July 8 — just weeks before U.S. troops were scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan — Biden told Americans this when asked if the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban was inevitable:
This may become the most infamous — and devastating — press conference ever held by an American President. pic.twitter.com/j4kKwyPDVm
— BDW (@BryanDeanWright) August 15, 2021
“No, it is not” inevitable, Biden said. “Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.”
He was either a) lying, b) demonstrating he lacks the cognizance and foresight necessary to act effectively as president in matters of foreign affairs and military operations, or c) both.
While we could have known this before SIGAR’s report was declassified, it still provides a profoundly condemnatory piece of confirmation. The slow-motion tragedy we saw last summer wasn’t unavoidable, and the buck stops at President Biden’s desk.
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