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Military Analyst: U.S. Trained Afghan Forces For A Nation That Didn't Exist


Earlier today, the Taliban issued a statement to say its fighters had entered Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in order to take care of the security situation there because Afghan government forces had melted away. It's been a similar story for more than a week as major cities fell to the Taliban, one after another in quick succession. It raises a key question - why, even after years of U.S. military training and billions of dollars in American investment, has the Afghan military been unable or unwilling to stand up to the Taliban? For that, we go to someone who helped in that effort to train the Afghan military. Jason Dempsey is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He's a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and served as an adviser to Afghan forces in 2012.

Jason Dempsey, thanks for being with us.

JASON DEMPSEY: Thanks for having me.

GONYEA: First, I'm wondering about your reaction today as we see the Taliban advance on Kabul and reports that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country. What's going through your mind as you watch these images?

DEMPSEY: You know, it's hard to process all of this because so much is happening at once. But it's hard to avoid kind of a mix of sadness, anger and a little bit of humiliation.

GONYEA: The speed with which the Taliban has captured territory and key cities this past week has really been quite stunning to watch. And we just said, it does raise the question of why the Afghan military wasn't more prepared. Having advised and worked with Afghan troops and commanders and seeing firsthand how the U.S. military was training them, what do you think went wrong?

DEMPSEY: Well, for one, all of this ties into the fundamental challenge, which is we built an Afghan National Army for a nation that simply doesn't exist. And so two elements kind of contributed to the speed with which everything collapsed this week. The main one - setting aside some questions of Afghan military competence - the main question is, who are they fighting for? And I think it became very clear very quickly that there was not going to be a coherent, unified response out of Kabul. And so if you're an Afghan out in the hinterlands and you've got little faith in your army to begin with, and it looks like the politicians are going to fold pretty quick, then it doesn't take long, you know, to kind of speak with your feet. So that's the unfortunate side of that part.

The other, obviously, being the Taliban proved how you fight in Afghanistan. And it's about the long term, really in-depth knowledge of local politics and the ability to understand which levers to put pressure on and how to isolate and work around in a very methodical manner local power structures. We never had any time for that. And we trained an Afghan military that was completely divorced from the realities of Afghanistan.

GONYEA: You say that we trained an army for a nation that didn't exist. I mean, obviously, we were going to start the training of the Afghan army right away. We had to, I guess, count on the governmental structure and the rest of the country to, I guess, catch up. But was that just an unreasonable thought to have?

DEMPSEY: It was unreasonable for the way we built the military. The easy button and the what the blame that lies on the U.S. military is we did the easiest thing possible, which is we decided to build a military that looked exactly like ours without understanding all the things that make a military like ours possible. That's functioning bureaucracies. It's a lack of corruption. It's a lack of sectarian conflict. It's a great educational system. It's access to technology and proficiency with those weapons. We wanted to put all of that on the Afghan military to make it effective instead of working with them as they were.

What we needed to do was work with local powerbrokers and figure out how to build an army that worked for those who wanted to fight against the Taliban. Instead, we created this hodgepodge of folks that were all tied to patronage networks, familial relationships, and who really took their marching orders from the people they'd been working with and surviving with their whole lives. But we just pretended those relationships didn't exist. And we created a chain of command structure that looks just like ours and pretended that somehow that would influence decisions more so than the patronage networks that work behind the scenes.

GONYEA: The postmortems have already started. There are those who are arguing today that the U.S. war in Afghanistan should be considered a failure, period. You're a veteran of that war who worked and trained with the Afghan military. What's your own personal reaction to what's happening right now?

DEMPSEY: It's really hard to acknowledge it as anything but a failure, as painful as that is. Before we do all the incriminations and recriminations and the I-told-you-so's, I hope we reflect deeply on just how much was given and how much was lost in this effort and come to a resolution that maybe we should set egos, policy positions and partisanship aside and really think deeply about how we use military force overseas and what we're really capable of doing.

GONYEA: Is it something that there should be some kind of formal investigation into?

DEMPSEY: Absolutely. I would very much welcome and encourage a formal investigation and a panel that really digs into where we went wrong, because unfortunately, despite saying to ourselves, well, we can never - we never want to recreate a Vietnam like situation, we did that exact same thing, which means that we never really asked the hard questions. It appears that a lot of, you know, a lot of the simple narratives we took out of Vietnam, you know, we never really got beyond that. And so even though we thought we were smarter than the generation previous to us, we really weren't. So unless we do ask some hard questions down the road here as things settle out, I think - or unfortunately, we'd be setting ourselves up to do it yet again somewhere down the line.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Jason Dempsey. He's an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. And he served as an adviser to Afghan forces back in the year 2012. Jason, thanks for your time.

DEMPSEY: Thanks, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.