SIGAR Warned Pentagon Afghan Air Forces Wouldn't Survive US Withdrawal, Declassified Report Reveals
19:45 GMT 19.01.2022 (Updated: 19:46 GMT 19.01.2022)
The declassification on Tuesday of a report dating to January 2021 revealed that the Pentagon’s watchdog on the Afghan war had attempted to warn military leaders that the Afghan Air Forces couldn’t operate as an independent force nearly eight months before the US withdrawal that imploded the US-backed government.
The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko published on Tuesday a declassified version of a report originally submitted in January 2021. According to the report, SIGAR had attempted to warn the Pentagon that the US hadn’t properly prepared the Afghan Air Forces to operate on their own without extensive support from the US military.
According to the report, despite pumping $8.5 billion into the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing since 2010, the military wing remained heavily dependent on contractors to fill key personnel roles, including pilots, maintenance crews, human resources, and financial management, having failed to develop a robust recruitment program.
“DOD currently supports the Afghan air forces sustainment through financial and non-combat support services,” the report states, noting that neither Train, Advise, Assist Command–Air or Special Operations Advisory Group advisers believed that the Afghan Air Forces “have the ability to sustain themselves without continued advisor and CLS [contractor logistic support] assistance.”
The report further notes that in the fiscal year 2020, the Pentagon spent $700 million on CLS for the AAF, which continued to perform the majority of aircraft maintenance. The AAF and SMW also relied on US-funded initial pilot training conducted outside Afghanistan. Pilot training was one of the better-funded programs, too: according to Sopko’s report, just 14% of non-pilot AAF staff had been prioritized for training, including for essential roles like maintenance.
“While DOD continues to provide assistance, the reduction in US and Coalition forces will alter how advisors conduct their duties and increase reliance on contractors for day-to-day assistance,” SIGAR further noted. “The potential withdrawal of contractors from Afghanistan, in addition to US 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.”
It’s unclear whether the report was submitted in the final days of the Trump administration or whether US President Joe Biden had taken office by then. Regardless, Biden decided to go ahead with the withdrawal, although he pushed the timeline back by several months from May 1 to August 31 in an attempt to sort out the huge logistical problems created by the pullout.
The US’ 20-year occupation war in Afghanistan was ostensibly a “reconstruction” effort following the October 2001 overthrow of the Taliban* by the US invasion. A month earlier, al-Qaeda* had carried out terrorist attacks against the United States that it coordinated and planned from its bases in Afghanistan, and the George W. Bush administration declared its new mission to be a Global War on Terror to root out terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
© AP Photo / Massoud HossainiMembers of Afghanistan's National Army work near military helicopters, in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. Since the departure from Afghanistan last year of most international combat troops, Afghan security forces have been fighting the insurgency alone. Figures show that casualty rates are extremely high, reflecting an emboldened Taliban testing the commitment and strength of the Afghan military. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
Members of Afghanistan's National Army work near military helicopters, in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. Since the departure from Afghanistan last year of most international combat troops, Afghan security forces have been fighting the insurgency alone. Figures show that casualty rates are extremely high, reflecting an emboldened Taliban testing the commitment and strength of the Afghan military. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
© AP Photo / Massoud Hossaini
After being thrown out of power, the Taliban regrouped itself and launched an insurgency from the Afghan countryside, steadily gaining ground against the US-backed Afghan government in Kabul until the US signed a ceasefire agreement with the Islamist group in February 2020, allowing US troops to withdraw. However, no similar deal was made with the Afghan government, which crumbled before a new Taliban offensive launched in the spring of 2021. By August 14, the Taliban had recaptured Kabul, which surrendered without a fight, and the last US troops left two weeks later, taking with them tens of thousands of collaborators and refugees.
Now back in power, the Taliban has refounded the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that the US destroyed in 2001 and reimposed its strict interpretation of Sharia. However, this time around, the group has inherited a modern military, including the billions of dollars of US equipment given to the Afghan armed forces.
The US spent at least $145 billion on rebuilding Afghanistan, including its military, and nearly $1 trillion overall on the war effort. In addition, 2,442 US servicemembers and 3,846 contractors were killed in the war. On the Afghan side, some 241,000 people were killed in the war, 71,300 of whom have been identified as civilians, and another 360,000 are believed to have died due to indirect causes from the war, such as shortages of medicine, stresses caused by the conflict or being a refugee, or illnesses caused by food and water shortages or spoilage.
For years, SIGAR sounded warnings about the failures of the US reconstruction mission, describing the rampant corruption and waste in both US and Afghan programs, which chronically failed to achieve their stated goals. The reports were further vindicated by the publication of dossiers like the Afghanistan Papers, although the public had long known about them thanks to the Afghanistan War Diary published by WikiLeaks in 2010.
In the final years of the war, the Trump administration even attempted to curb the amount of embarrassing information getting out about the war, including reports on how many districts were controlled by the Taliban - a number that steadily expanded almost every year. By the eve of the US’ peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, Sopko bluntly told Congress “we don’t know” many of the basic facts about the reconstruction effort, including how many Afghan police there were, whose salaries the US was ostensibly paying.
*Terrorist groups sanctioned by the UN or banned in many countries