The U.S. military spent years training Afghan soldiers to fight insurgents. Yet in a matter of days, the Afghan National Army collapsed, and the Taliban captured the country. What went wrong?



So many of the lingering questions about Afghanistan involve the collapse of its military. After decades of training, after billions of dollars spent, the Afghan army vanished in a matter of days. NPR's Monika Evstatieva and Tom Bowman have embedded many times with U.S. and Afghan troops. They sent us this report.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Afghan National Army, known as the ANA, collapsed quickly.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The northern city of Kunduz has fallen into Taliban hands.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Last night, the insurgents took their biggest prize yet, the country's second-largest city, Kandahar.

BOWMAN: But it was years of chronic challenges that weakened it from the inside, including a lack of faith in their government.

MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: In 2016, we visited Kandahar Military Training Center. There we met 23-year-old First Lieutenant Colonel Hayatullah Frotan. He was just 14 when he joined the army and quickly rose through the ranks. Even back then, he told us, the government wouldn't help the families of slain soldiers.

HAYATULLAH FROTAN: They don't have any policy and a very good plan when they lose some personal. So what will become...

BOWMAN: To help the families?

FROTAN: Families, yes. If they help their families so the personal morale will become high, and they will help fight just like a lion.

BOWMAN: Another reason, lack of leadership. The ANA struggled to find qualified commanders to lead the soldiers. Over the years, we met Afghan generals praised by the U.S. military, only to find out later the generals were replaced for incompetence or corruption. Frotan said the system was marked by cronyism. The leaders were not only corrupt, some of them were illiterate.

FROTAN: They don't know how to write, how to read.

BOWMAN: How to be professional.

FROTAN: Professional soldiers. And leadership is very, very important.

BOWMAN: Not knowing how to write meant these leaders couldn't even read the maps properly. I was with an Afghan army unit six years ago shooting artillery rounds at the Taliban. They were off by a kilometer because they couldn't figure out the proper grid coordinates. Not only that, Frotan says commanders often had trouble filing simple paperwork to give soldiers time off.

FROTAN: They don't have enough knowledge, so they cannot make a good schedule for their vacation.

BOWMAN: No proper time off meant burnout, which led to high attrition rates.

EVSTATIEVA: Nearly 60,000 soldiers and police officers have lost their lives fighting since 2001, two-thirds of that number just in the past six years. The high death rate meant a constant flow of new recruits that needed basic training. Few could advance enough to learn the more complex skills. U.S. military trainers like Major Kevin McCormick told us it's a time-consuming process to teach advanced military skills.

KEVIN MCCORMICK: It takes a long time. It's not a short process. These skills are perishable, so they require continuous training, continuous mastery.

EVSTATIEVA: In our conversations with Afghan soldiers, we also heard other complaints - commanders stealing food to sell on the open market for personal profit, leaving soldiers hungry or depriving them of SIM cards so they cannot call their families.

BOWMAN: Over the years, there were more basic challenges. In 2010, I was at a combat outpost before dawn with American and Afghan troops. The Americans were all geared up and ready to go on patrol. Some of the Afghan forces were half dressed, smelling of hashish and asking for food.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: No, we don't have enough milk. We don't have any milk.

BOWMAN: Two years later, I was with another American unit. A sergeant was telling his soldiers what he expected of the Afghan soldiers, the ANA.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ANA's going to lead, too. So make sure - if they don't want to lead, just stop and let them walk ahead of you.

BOWMAN: Make them walk ahead of you. The Afghans could do little without U.S. support. The American soldiers in the field knew the truth. But during this time, from the Pentagon to the White House to Congress, officials had the same thing to say - the Afghan army is getting better every day. They are fighting hard. They are leading.

EVSTATIEVA: When the Taliban started their advancement this year, the Afghan National Army, held by duct tape and glue, just couldn't hold. And support from American airstrikes against Taliban units dropped off. One soldier told us the Taliban also gave payments to Afghan soldiers who refused to fight, providing the most money to the officers. Even high-ranking Afghan military leaders gave up. Here is an Afghan Air Force colonel who spoke with NPR and is now hiding.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: The willingness comes from the leadership. The hope is given to subordinates from the leadership.

BOWMAN: So when the military leaders give up, the unit quickly falls apart. That was the Afghan army.

EVSTATIEVA: But there was another very powerful fighting force - the Afghan commandos. These highly trained soldiers were the backbone of Afghan's fighting power. Over the years, they were stretched thin, flying all over the country to back up regular Afghan army units who couldn't or wouldn't fight. As the Taliban advanced throughout the country during those final weeks, the commandos faced a chilling reality. One commando from the south told us no one in his unit wanted to surrender. They were fighting the Taliban, but the government ordered them to lay down their arms. We were no longer safe, he told us. We had to take refuge in our friend's houses. And now we are hiding.

BOWMAN: Another commando from the Kabul unit shared a similar story. We are not using his name for his safety.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #4: Yes, everybody hide yourself. And I'm really scared. I have been not outside like three days, four days.

BOWMAN: Once all the commando units throughout the country broke down, the Kabul unit was the last one standing.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #4: And we didn't fight because the government didn't say you have to fight. The Ministry of Defense didn't say you have to fight. Everything is like a political.

BOWMAN: It's a political decision, he says, because it was not about the willingness to fight.

EVSTATIEVA: Now, the Afghan commandos have either left for other countries or in hiding, ineligible for expedited visas without a job, an income or any protection.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #4: Last night, I really crying. And also my wife, my kids were crying about this. And I'm presently - I'm jobless. We don't trust the Taliban.

BOWMAN: The commandos tell us they feel betrayed. The Afghan authorities, they say, are not valuable human beings. This is the misfortune of the Afghan people.

EVSTATIEVA: Monika Evstatieva.

BOWMAN: And Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.