Operatives of the Taliban government in Kabul are trying to identify and retaliate against Afghans who cooperated with the 20-year American military and reconstruction effort, using fingerprint records, gun records and other methods to sniff them out and target them for retribution, according to a U.S. government report.
Eighteen months after President Biden withdrew the last U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan, the radical Islamist regime remains intent on revenge against those who served in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a survey being released this week.
The hasty, bloody evacuation in the summer of 2021 resulted in casualties for U.S. forces and friendly Afghans alike. Critics said the operation left behind tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who had worked with the U.S.-led military mission in the country as the Taliban consolidated power. Backlash from the collapse sent Mr. Biden’s approval ratings into a sustained free-fall in the early months of his presidency.
“The Taliban are going after former ANDSF on a daily basis,” one former Afghan military intelligence officer told investigators. “They search their homes, and if they cannot find the individual, they will go after their family members. They punish their family until the person they are looking for surrenders.”
The former director of criminal investigations for the national police said people came to his home to track down his gun. The Taliban gained access to official records on firearm ownership that the U.S.-backed government kept.
“They are looking for everything now because there were systems showing which pistol or whatever belongs to whom,” he said, according to the inspector general.
The report, which takes a deep dive into why Western-trained and -supplied Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly in the face of the Taliban’s 2021 offensive, also offers new details about what happened to those troops after the Taliban takeover.
Some fled to Pakistan and others to Iran. Afghan air force pilots flew their jets to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.
Some former members of the security forces reached the U.S., though it’s not clear how many. Roughly 79,000 Afghans were airlifted out of the country and eventually brought to the U.S., but neither the Defense Department nor State Department would tell the inspector general how many of those were Afghan security personnel.
The Taliban have created a repatriation commission, reportedly to welcome back some who self-exiled. Many of them have technical and management skills that Afghanistan’s current rulers badly need. At the same time, Afghans told SIGAR auditors that the Taliban are still trying to track down former troops who fought against them.
The intelligence officer who spoke to the inspector general said Taliban operatives are using fingerprints to try to spot those who worked with the U.S.
He told investigators that he had relocated four times and finally went to a different province where he hoped his background was unknown.
“I think my former colleagues who have been recruited by the Taliban are providing information about us,” the officer speculated. “If people pass information to the Taliban, they get a reward.”
Doomed from the start
In its broader findings, the report says the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan’s security forces was doomed from the start.
Neither the U.S. nor the Afghan government ever had the level of commitment or the strategy to forge cohesion, auditors said.
Afghan forces became dependent on U.S. support and were unable to operate without it. Once the Trump administration forged a withdrawal timeline agreement with the Taliban in 2020, security started to collapse quickly. The U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was not included in the original withdrawal talks.
“Overnight, once the agreement was signed, the next day, 98% of U.S. airstrikes had ceased,” Afghan army Gen. Sami Sadat told auditors.
Military and political officials said the U.S. deal gave “legitimacy” to the Taliban, sapped the morale of the Ghani government security forces and sowed confusion about the sorts of operations where Washington could assist.
The Afghan air force had to ground most of its Black Hawk helicopters because it couldn’t get them repaired. Security forces on the ground were left defending checkpoints that bore no strategic significance once U.S. troops were gone, but giving up those checkpoints would be seen as a weakness, so officials were trapped, the report found.
Some Afghan leaders thought Mr. Biden would reverse President Trump’s withdrawal decision when he took office in early 2021. Once Mr. Biden announced on April 14, 2021, that he was sticking with the total withdrawal, albeit on a slightly slower schedule, the Taliban began their final push.
“I was watching the announcement. And the Taliban are also watching,” recalled Afghan Gen. Fida Pirzada, a former provincial chief of police. “And after eight or nine minutes, the Taliban intensified their attacks immediately, in all different places.”
The audit offered some broader conclusions about American attempts to build a military. SIGAR officials, who have long been critical of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, noted that the U.S. has taken up three major security operations since World War II — Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan — and “two of the three have been catastrophic failures.”
In Afghanistan and Vietnam, the U.S. was trying to prop up “corrupt governments” on its own self-imposed deadline for withdrawal, and trying to force the model of a superpower’s army onto a country is simply unmanageable.
“Why does the world’s mightiest superpower find it so hard to create self-sustaining armies in other countries? One part of the answer, as South Korea demonstrates, is that it is an inherently difficult, expensive, and time-consuming task,” the report concluded.
“But a more basic reason is that the U.S. military has failed to examine the fundamental assumption on which those efforts are based: that superpower ways of waging war can be transplanted to smaller, poorer countries, without factoring in the political or cultural context in which those armies operate or adapting its methods to the means at hand.”