Built and trained at a two-decade cost of US$83 billion, Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly and completely – in some cases without a shot fired – that the ultimate beneficiary of the American investment turned out to be the Taliban. They grabbed not only political power but also US-supplied firepower – guns, ammunition, helicopters and more. The Taliban captured an array of modern military equipment when they overran Afghan forces who failed to defend district centres. Bigger gains followed, including combat aircraft, when the Taliban rolled up provincial capitals and military bases with stunning speed, topped by capturing the biggest prize, Kabul, over the weekend. A US defence official on Monday confirmed the Taliban’s sudden accumulation of US-supplied Afghan equipment is enormous. The official was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity. The reversal is an embarrassing consequence of misjudging the viability of Afghan government forces – by the US military as well as intelligence agencies – which in some cases chose to surrender their vehicles and weapons rather than fight. The US failure to produce a sustainable Afghan army and police force, and the reasons for their collapse, will be studied for years by military analysts. The basic dimensions, however, are clear and are not unlike what happened in Iraq. The forces turned out to be hollow, equipped with superior arms but largely missing the crucial ingredient of combat motivation. Kabul airport satellite images show chaos and crowds as thousands try to flee “Money can’t buy will. You cannot purchase leadership,” John Kirby, chief spokesman for Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, said on Monday. Doug Lute, a retired US Army Lieutenant General who help direct Afghan war strategy during the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said that what the Afghans received in tangible resources they lacked in the more important intangibles. “The principle of war stands – moral factors dominate material factors,” he said. “Morale, discipline, leadership, unit cohesion are more decisive than numbers of forces and equipment. As outsiders in Afghanistan, we can provide material, but only Afghans can provide the intangible moral factors.” By contrast, Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents, with smaller numbers, less sophisticated weaponry and no air power, proved a superior force. US intelligence agencies largely underestimated the scope of that superiority, and even after US President Joe Biden announced in April he was withdrawing all US troops, the intelligence agencies did not foresee a Taliban final offensive that would succeed so spectacularly. US lowers flag at Kabul embassy as Taliban seize power “If we wouldn’t have used hope as a course of action, … we would have realised the rapid drawdown of US forces sent a signal to the Afghan national forces that they were being abandoned,” said Chris Miller, who saw combat in Afghanistan in 2001 and was acting secretary of defence at the end of Donald Trump’s term. Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a former adviser to US commanders in Afghanistan, said Biden’s announcement set the final collapse in motion. “The problem of the US withdrawal is that it sent a nationwide signal that the jig is up – a sudden, nationwide signal that everyone read the same way,” Biddle said. Before April, the Afghan government troops were slowly but steadily losing the war, he said. When they learned that their American partners were going home, an impulse to give up without a fight “spread like wildfire”. Russia says Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani fled with cars, helicopter full of cash The failures, however, go back much further and run much deeper. The United States tried to develop a credible Afghan defence establishment on the fly, even as it was fighting the Taliban, attempting to widen the political foundations of the government in Kabul and seeking to establish democracy in a country rife with corruption and cronyism. Year after year, US military leaders played down the problems and insisted success was coming. Others saw the writing on the wall. In 2015 a professor at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute wrote about the military’s failure to learn lessons from past wars; he subtitled his book, “Why the Afghan National Security Forces Will Not Hold”. “Regarding the future of Afghanistan, in blunt terms, the United States has been down this road at the strategic level twice before, in Vietnam and Iraq, and there is no viable rationale for why the results will be any different in Afghanistan,” Mason wrote. He added, presciently: “Slow decay is inevitable, and state failure is a matter of time.” Some elements of the Afghan army did fight hard, including commandos whose heroic efforts are yet to be fully documented. But as a whole the security forces created by the United States and its Nato allies amounted to a “house of cards” whose collapse was driven as much by failures of US civilian leaders as their military partners, according to Anthony Cordesman, a long-time Afghanistan war analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The Afghan force-building exercise was so completely dependent on American largesse that the Pentagon even paid the Afghan troops’ salaries. Too often that money, and untold amounts of fuel, were siphoned off by corrupt officers and government overseers who cooked the books, creating “ghost soldiers” to keep the misspent dollars coming. ‘War is over’: key Afghanistan dates since 2001 Of the roughly US$145 billion the US government spent trying to rebuild Afghanistan, about US$83 billion went to developing and sustaining its army and police forces, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a congressionally created watchdog that has tracked the war since 2008. The US$145 billion is in addition to US$837 billion the United States spent fighting the war, which began with an invasion in October 2001. The US$83 billion invested in Afghan forces over 20 years is nearly double last year’s budget for the entire US Marine Corps and is slightly more than what Washington budgeted last year for food stamp help for about 40 million Americans. In his book, The Afghanistan Papers , journalist Craig Whitlock wrote that US trainers tried to force Western ways on Afghan recruits and gave scant thought to whether US taxpayers dollars were investing in a truly viable army. “Given that the US war strategy depended on the Afghan army’s performance, however, the Pentagon paid surprisingly little attention to the question of whether Afghans were willing to die for their government,” he wrote.