Generals Were Blindsided by the Afghan Army's Big Quit, But Enlisted Troops Saw it Coming

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies during Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Patrick Semansky, Pool/AP Photo)

The former Marine corporal couldn't believe that two generals and the defense secretary kept saying, over two days of confrontational hearings, that they were "surprised" at the quick collapse of the Afghan army and the Taliban's takeover of Kabul without a fight.

If they had asked any enlisted member among the more than 800,000 U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan over 20 years, the brass would have known that it was a bad bet to count on the Afghan security forces to provide cover and time for the American withdrawal, said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

When it came his turn for questions at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Gallego, an enlisted combat veteran of Iraq, told Army Gen. Mark Milley, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that their trust in the Afghan army to hold off the Taliban was misplaced at best, especially after the U.S. withdrew support and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

He wanted to know why U.S. intelligence appeared to be clueless on the lack of resistance put up by an army trained and equipped by the U.S. at a cost estimated at $83 billion.

Gallego said that "after speaking to a lot of service members, enlisted service members that have served for decades in and out of Afghanistan -- they were always telling me something extremely different from what I was getting from reports of many of you generals here, that the Afghan army was not ready, that they were not going to be sustainable on their own."

"You know, how did we miss that?" he asked. "How is it that a lot of 18-, 19-year-olds, mid-20-year-old E-5s were predicting this, yet some of our greatest minds, both on the civilian side and the uniformed side, absolutely missed this?"

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McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, agreed with Gallego and said one of the lessons learned from the chaotic U.S. withdrawal was that top commanders must do a better job of listening to the concerns in the ranks.

"I think it's a reasonable criticism," McKenzie said. "We'll have to take a look at how we actually remain connected to the people who are down at the advisory level.

"I'm conflicted by that as well, I'll be very candid with you," he told Gallego. "And we will certainly take a look at that because I've heard that same strain myself. It's harder to get the truth as you become more senior. We, perhaps, need to look at ways that's conveyed in a more rapid and effective way. I'll accept that criticism."

The civility of the exchange between Gallego and the generals stood out in a rancorous hearing marked by angry calls from Republicans on the committee for Milley, McKenzie and Austin to resign.

In his testimony Wednesday to the House, and on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin, a retired Army general who served in top commands in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, "The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away -- in many cases without firing a shot -- took us all by surprise. It would be dishonest to claim otherwise."

Way too late, the U.S. military leadership came to the realization that the $83 billion effort to train and equip an Afghan security force capable of supporting and defending a democratic government in Kabul was fundamentally flawed.

Milley said in his testimony Tuesday and Wednesday that trying to build up an Afghan army in the "mirror image" of the U.S. military was destined to fail, but the warning signs were there almost from the start.

U.S. and coalition advisers were attacked repeatedly, either by Afghan troops themselves or by insurgents who infiltrated their ranks, in what came to be known as insider attacks, or "green on blue" incidents.

Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy pulled French troops out of Afghanistan in 2012 after four French troops were shot and killed in an insider attack in eastern Afghanistan.

Sarkozy said he could not continue the mission when French service members were being targeted by the troops they came to help. France "is at the side of its allies, but we cannot accept that a single one of our soldiers be killed or wounded by our allies," he said. "It is unacceptable; I will not accept it."

At the time, U.S. and coalition commanders became so concerned about the possibility that their Afghan allies might turn on them that they implemented additional vetting procedures and designated some soldiers as "guardian angels" to watch over their troops as they worked with the Afghans.

From 2007 to 2012, insider attacks killed 52 U.S. troops and wounded 48, according to the Brookings Institution's Afghanistan Index, but the number of attacks dropped off significantly as U.S. and coalition forces began withdrawing and reduced their combat role.

Still, the Afghan forces fought and died in staggering numbers despite the constant criticism of their competence. The U.S. estimates that more than 60,000 Afghan military and police were killed.

The blame for the complete collapse of Afghan forces rests with the U.S., said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

"We're the ones who built a national army in our image" without taking into account the culture and traditions of the Afghans, Dempsey said.

"It was the easy thing and only thing for the [U.S. military] institution to do," he added. The result was that the U.S. ended up "pushing billions of dollars into unrealistic structures" and "contributed to the illegitimacy of the Afghan government and particularly its perceived illegitimacy in the eyes of the [Afghan] people."

"It briefed well  in periodic reports to Congress]," Dempsey said, "but was an absolute failure in execution. At end of day, we went along with this design for a national army for a nation that did not exist."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

Related: After Afghanistan: The Legacy of Two Decades of War

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