July 15th, I went to the palace to see Mohib. A huge tricolor of the Republic fluttered against a clear blue sky above the gate tower. After going through security, I walked down the long, deserted lawn to the building that housed the National Security Council office. I waited in the empty council reception room until one of Mohib’s employees, a young woman who had studied in America, took me upstairs to his office, where he was sitting behind his desk. Most of our conversation was secret. He seemed exhausted as we discussed the desperate fighting in the Taliban-encircled city of Kandahar.
Only a few days earlier, General Austin S. Miller, the longtime US commander, had held a farewell ceremony. The military had completed 90 percent of its withdrawal, well before Biden’s deadline. This rapid pace was intended to reduce the risk of attack during the retreat, but had a devastating effect on the Afghan security forces. The US military had spent billions training and equipping a force in its own image that was heavily dependent on foreign contractors and air support. But the notoriously corrupt generals of the Afghan army stole ammunition, food and wages from their men; while the total number of security guards should be 300,000, the actual number is likely to be less than a third. Out in the districts, the army and police crumbled and handed over their weapons to the Taliban, who now controlled a quarter of the country.
Ghani had repeatedly insisted that he stand up and fight. “This is my home and my grave,” he thundered in a speech in early spring. His Vice President Amrullah Saleh and the Security Council were working on a post-American strategy called Coffee, a Dari word meaning “base” or “floor,” envisioned garrison towns connected by corridors held by the army and supported by militias, much like President Mohammad Najibullah did for three years after the retreat the Soviets held on to power. “It was very much the Russian model,” said Bek, who returned to the government this month as the president’s chief of staff. “They had a good plan on paper, but for that to work you had to be a military genius.”
In early July, Ghani was warned that only two out of seven army corps were still functional, according to a high-ranking Afghan official. Desperate to protect Kandahar City, the president pleaded with the CIA to deploy the paramilitary army formerly known as the Counter-Terrorism Tracking Team, according to Afghan officials. Trained for night raids and secret missions in the border areas, the units had grown into capable light infantry with thousands of men. They were now officially part of the Afghan secret service and were called Zero Units, according to codes that corresponded to the provinces: 01 was Kabul, 03 was Kandahar and so on. But officials said the CIA was still paying these forces’ salaries and had to agree to Ghani’s request to defend Kandahar City that month. (A US official stated that the units were under Afghan control; the CIA declined to comment on the details of their operation.) “These are very effective units, motivated and cheap,” Mohib told me in his office , Kandahar would have fallen without her. “You 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 combat; Both journalists and Human Rights Watch have called them “death squads” – allegations that the CIA has denied, claiming they were the result of Taliban propaganda. I had tried to track these shadowy units for years and was surprised to find they received glowing coverage in their signature tiger stripes on government social media accounts.
In Kabul I met Mohammad, an officer in one of the NDS units operating in the capital, whom I had known for a number of years. Mohammad had worked as an interpreter for the unit’s American advisors and as an instructor for undercover teams making arrests in the cities. He said morale had broken among his men now that the Americans were leaving. According to Afghan officials, the train station on Ariana Square was empty at the end of July. But Mohammad’s team still received advice from the Americans. He showed me messages that he said were from the CIA asking his unit to patrol areas around Kabul that had been infiltrated by the insurgents. “The airport is still in danger,” it said in a statement.