US president Joe Biden’s last phone call with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani contains a number of early indicators that the Taliban would be able to seize Afghanistan, and quickly, despite expectations.
The Taliban announced victory against the US on Tuesday once the States completed its evacuation missions, although they have effectively been ruling Afghanistan since Ghani fled overseas on August 15.
Ghani was backed by western powers, so his departure – and the rapid collapse of Afghan armed forces – stunned Nato allies.
Reuters revealed excerpts of the last phone call between Ghani and Biden, made on July 23, and the transcript contains early warning signs that Afghanistan was close to collapse.
1. Biden was focused on the ‘perception’ the Taliban would take over
One of the first things Biden mentioned was the international “perception” towards Afghanistan.
He said: “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things aren’t going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban.
“And there’s a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
These comments suggest Biden did not understand the reality on the ground, and how the Taliban were on the cusp of launching a lightning offensive through Afghanistan.
2. Biden thought Afghan military was ‘well-armed’
The US president seemed undeterred at the idea the Taliban would attack the Afghan military, which had received 20 years of training from Nato allies.
Comparing the Afghan soldiers to the Taliban, Biden told Ghani: “You clearly have the best military, you have 300,000 well-armed forces versus 70-80,000 and they’re clearly capable of fighting well, we will continue to provide close air support, if we know what the plan is and what we are doing. And all the way through the end of August and who knows what after that.”
The US spent more than $2 trillion (£1.45 trillion) in Afghanistan, funding and training the soldiers, throughout its 20 years in the country.
But these two decades had not tackled the widespread corruption among Afghan officials who sold American weapons over to the Taliban, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute Jack Watling told CNBC.
The Taliban had also stolen equipment from the US over the years, and gradually grown stronger.
As secretary of state Antony Blinken later said: “The fact of the matter is we’ve seen that that [Afghan] force has been unable to defend the country ... and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated.”
3. Ghani actually warned ‘we are facing a full-scale invasion’
The now-deposed Afghan president warned Biden that the situation on the ground was serious, as Afghanistan would not just be fighting against one terror group.
He said: “We are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support and at least 10-15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this, so that dimension needs to be taken account of.”
He later added that the “Taliban showed no inclination” to negotiate.
4. Ghani knew Afghan soldiers were not well-paid
He said the pay had not increased for more than decade, and warned Biden that a gesture was needed to “rally everybody together” before expecting Afghan soldiers to take on the famously deadly Taliban.
There had been a loss of around 40 Afghan soldiers a day in recent years, too, meaning its forces were significantly weakened.
As Watling told CNBC: “The soldiers in many cases have not been fed very well, very rarely been paid and been on duty for a long time away from home... and were not well led.”
Ghani hinted at a similar sentiment when speaking to Biden in July. He said: “We can get to peace only if we rebalance the military situation.”
5. Ghani said US support ‘mobilises’ Afghans
The Afghan president made it clear how the Afghan forces relied on the States for boosting morale, explaining: “Your assurance of support goes a very long way to enable us, to really mobilise us in earnest.”
Ghani repeatedly emphasised the importance of US air support as well, hinting at the level of protection the States provided.
He told Biden: “There are agreements with the Taliban that [you] are not previously aware of, and because of your air force was extremely cautious in attacking them.”
Biden did promise to provide air support if there is a military strategy on the ground, but he had withdrawn it completely by the time the Taliban announced victory in Kabul.
Congressman Mike Waltz even pleaded with Biden to “commit US air support to blunt the Taliban offensive” to give Afghans “time to regroup and turn the tide of the battle”. But his plea came just hours before the Taliban declared victory over Kabul.
6. Ghani trusted cities would not surrender to Taliban
Despite being aware of the Afghan military’s vulnerabilities, Ghani did stand by the cities which had not yet surrendered after a 55-day siege.
He told Biden: “The urban resistance, Mr. President is been extraordinary, there are cities that have taken a siege of 55 days and that have not surrendered. ”
This was a clear warning sign that the Taliban already had a tight grip over the country, and cities cannot survive sieges for long without outside help.
By the time of their phone call, 159 Afghan districts were contested while 104 were under Taliban control and 135 were still managed by the government.
What’s Biden and Ghani’s relationship like now?
Despite claiming Biden was his “friend” during the call, Ghani’s relationship with the White House publicly collapsed once he fled abroad and handed the reins of power to the militants.
The US said it no longer recognised Ghani as the president of Afghanistan, even as the deposed leader swore to return to his home country to “fight” for his people.