Last autumn, with the departure of American troops from Afghanistan looming after the US signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban, several of the most senior security officials in Kabul urged President Ashraf Ghani to make some hard choices.
The Afghan army and police needed to retrench, figures including the then defence minister, Assadullah Khalid, told Ghani. Remote outposts, and rural areas where troops held little more than the cluster of government and security buildings that make up a “district centre”, should be abandoned.
Troops and ammunition drawn back from these areas could focus on the fight for more important assets, such as key roads and border crossings, as forces adapted to the loss of the US air force and other technical support that had been critical to fighting the Taliban, they argued.
The men urging this strategic retreat had, between them, years of experience fighting in the different iterations of Afghanistan’s civil wars, which have now stretched on for more than 40 years in a kaleidescope of shifting enemies and allies.
Ghani and his national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, who have multiple prestigious degrees but no battlefield experience, refused. “We’re not giving up one inch of our country,” Mohib reportedly told the assembled officials at one point, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions. The government declined to comment.
Less than a year later, swathes of the country – including those remote outposts and many more – have fallen to the Taliban, and thousands of soldiers have fled the country or surrendered to the militants, handing over their equipment and weapons.
Instead of retrenchment there was collapse, and intelligence agencies have ripped up their assessments of the strength of the Afghan military. The US now fears Kabul could fall within months.
In its desperation to stem the losses, the government has summoned one of the darker spectres from the country’s recent past, urging warlords and regional strongmen to call up militias that fought the Taliban – but also each other – during the all-out civil war of the 1990s. As recently as last year, Ghani had been trying to disband these groups.
In the fog of confusion, fear and blame that has settled over government-controlled parts of Afghanistan, there is perhaps just one thing that the entire political spectrum can agree on: no one foresaw the scale or speed of the collapse of the Afghan security forces in recent weeks, even those who wanted a strategic retreat.
“There is an acknowledgment on our side that we didn’t foresee this [Taliban] advance, we weren’t comprehensively prepared,” said one official with access to the president.
Afghanistan’s army and police have long been beset by problems, both structural and strategic. The US and its allies were slow to start building the Afghan security forces after toppling the Taliban. They also turned a blind eye to allegations of serious human rights abuses by favoured partners, and corruption so bad that injured soldiers starved to death in the main military hospital.
In return for billions in aid, Washington’s men and women in Kabul also kept a large say in how the security forces were run, including top appointments. It was the Americans who leaned on Ghani to keep Khalid in office as defence minister last year, even after old wounds from a Taliban assassination attempt flared up and he had to be hospitalised for months in the United Arab Emirates, Afghan and international sources told the Guardian. He was only finally replaced at the end of June.
The last 20 years have, however, shaped a powerful fighting force. The security officials wanted to retrench because they believed their men (and a handful of women) could hold most of the country, and almost all the areas that mattered.
The elite commandos, called in to spearhead the most difficult fights, are recognised as among the best in the region, trained internationally, including in the US, and battle-hardened by years of intense warfare. The air force is small and overstretched, but it was set up and running faster than many western sceptics had believed possible, and has been running resupply missions and joining battles for several years now.
Even the ordinary forces, though riddled with corruption, are large, and count among their numbers men who have few other options for employment. The question now facing the country and its leadership is whether they will be able to regroup after the string of recent defeats and hold off the Taliban.
The recently appointed defence minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, another grizzled veteran of Afghanistan’s long wars, believes he can stem the Taliban advance, according to sources familiar with his thinking.
But he expects it to take weeks before the tide turns, and he is braced for thousands more soldiers to defect first. More than 1,000 have fled across the border, and hundreds more have handed over weapons and equipment to the Taliban in mass surrenders videoed and shared on social media.
The men have been filmed embracing their enemies, and have been sent home with money for travel, a savvy tool to undermine the fighting spirit of others defending remote outposts and make capitulation in the face of a militant advance far more attractive.
The scale of the losses in men, equipment and morale is so profound that one experienced officer, long hardened to death of individual comrades in arms, teared up talking about the disintegration of the armed forces.
The Taliban are also targeting the air force, which is overstretched but vital to supporting increasingly isolated areas of government control. After recent advances, many provincial capitals are in effect surrounded and under siege.
Militants are shooting down aircraft and, in a more insidious campaign, assassinating pilots. Years of training needed to fly means these men are very difficult to replace. Another question hanging over the army is whether the contractors who keep the helicopters and planes running will stay on after American forces leave. Afghan mechanics cannot yet maintain their own aircraft.
Outposts that rely on helicopters for resupply are running out of ammunition and even food, and airstrikes that have been vital to holding off the Taliban in major battles do not arrive either. The US has promised “over the horizon” support from planes operating off aircraft carriers and drones based in the Gulf, but that is likely to be slow to arrive.
“We called our commanders, we called the army headquarters, we called the governor’s office, we called the government in Kabul asking for air support, but no one arrived,” said one special forces soldier trapped in a bitter siege in a district centre that has now fallen to the Taliban.
“Only the Red Crescent came, to take away the dead,” said the man, who fought in Obe, in western Herat province. He was eventually evacuated by helicopter, but only after pouring gasoline on vehicles then setting them on fire to prevent the Taliban getting them – further losses of vital equipment.
The men who died in Obe were at least returned to their families. One great indignity of the intensifying fighting is that many bereaved families never see their loved ones, or are given sealed coffins with remains that have not always been clearly identified.
In June more than 20 members of the commando forces were killed in a Taliban ambush as they spearheaded efforts to retake a district in the north. It took two days to bring their bodies home, and in the fierce heat of the Afghan summer they had become almost unrecognisable.
Among them was Sohrab Azimi, the son of a former defence ministry spokesman, who had been trained in Turkey and the US and was widely known. Social media filled with the grief of friends after his death.
One close friend called in to help identify the bodies said he could only narrow it down to two corpses, and the army had to use fingerprints to confirm the identity.
“What was painful for me was that Sohrab choose to die proudly for his country, but never choose to have his body like this,” he said. “He was the most elite of the special forces – what do you think will happen to the ordinary policeman who comes from Badakhsahn and dies in Helmand.”
That man is not in the military but has now lost two close friends in Taliban ambushes, and the death of Azimi has undermined his faith in the government and pushed him to consider for the first time trying to flee abroad.
“Recently I feel this is not where I belong, I don’t feel my life is valuable here, I don’t trust the government,” he said. “I never want my body like that, for my brother to see that. For the first time in my life I feel I have to go away.”