Inside the fall of Kabul: a story from the field

The 15th of July, I went to the palace to see Mohib. Above the gate tower, a giant tricolor of the republic fluttered against a clear bl...


The 15th of July, I went to the palace to see Mohib. Above the gate tower, a giant tricolor of the republic fluttered against a clear blue sky. After going through security, I walked across the long, deserted lawn towards the building that housed the National Security Council office. I waited in the empty council reception room until a member of staff from Mohib, a young woman who had studied in America, brought me upstairs to his office, where he went. sitting behind his desk. Our conversation was mostly informal. He seemed exhausted as we spoke of the desperate fighting in the city of Kandahar, which had been surrounded by the Taliban.

Just days before, there had been a farewell ceremony for General Austin S. Miller, the longtime US commander. The military had completed 90% of its withdrawal, well ahead of Biden’s deadline. This rapid pace was intended to reduce the risk of attack during the retreat, but it had a devastating impact on the Afghan security forces. The US military had spent billions to train and equip a force in its image, heavily dependent on foreign contractors and air support. But the notoriously corrupt generals of the Afghan army stole the ammunition, food and salaries of their men; while the security forces were supposed to total 300,000, the actual number was probably less than a third of that. In neighborhoods, the army and police collapsed, handing over arms to the Taliban, who now controls a quarter of the country.

Ghani had repeatedly insisted that he get up and fight. “This is my home and my grave,” he thundered in a speech earlier in the spring. Its vice president, Amrullah Saleh, and the Security Council were working on a post-American strategy called Kaf, a Dari word meaning “base” or “floor,” which envisioned garrison towns linked by army-held corridors and reinforced by militias, in the same way that President Mohammad Najibullah clung to power during three years after the Soviet withdrawal. “It was really the Russian model,” said Bek, who returned to government as the president’s chief of staff this month. “They had a good plan on paper, but for it to work you had to be a military genius.”

Earlier in July, Ghani was warned that only two of the seven army corps were still functional, according to a senior Afghan official. Desperate for forces to protect the city of Kandahar, the president pleaded with the CIA to use the paramilitary army formerly known as the terrorist pursuit teams, according to Afghan officials. Formed for night raids and clandestine missions in border regions, the units had grown into a capable light infantry, thousands strong. They were now officially part of the Afghan intelligence service and were known as zero units, according to the codes that corresponded to the provinces: 01 was Kabul, 03 was Kandahar and so on. But officials say the CIA has always paid the salaries of these strike forces and had to agree to Ghani’s request that they defend Kandahar City that month. (A US official said the units were under Afghan control; the CIA declined to comment on details of their deployment.) “They are very efficient, motivated, cheap units,” Mohib told me in his office, claiming that Kandahar would have fallen without them. “They don’t need all kinds of heavy equipment. I wish we had more like them.

But the Zero Units had a reputation for being ruthless in battle; journalists and Human Rights Watch have called them “death squads” – allegations that the CIA denied, claiming that they were the result of Taliban propaganda. I had tried to follow these obscure units for years and was surprised to see them, in their distinctive tiger stripes, receiving glowing coverage on government social media accounts.

In Kabul, I met Mohammad, an officer from one of the NDS units operating around the capital, whom I had known for a few years. Mohammad had worked as an interpreter for the unit’s US advisers and as an instructor for undercover teams making arrests inside towns. He said the morale of his men had collapsed now that the Americans were leaving. According to Afghan officials, the Ariana Square station was empty at the end of July. But Mohammad’s team still received advice from the Americans. He showed me messages which he said came from the CIA, urging his unit to patrol areas around Kabul that had been infiltrated by insurgents. “The airport is still in danger,” a message said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Inside the fall of Kabul: a story from the field
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