on July 15 I went to the palace to see the majestic. Above the Gate Tower, three giant colors of the Republic fluttered over a clear blue sky. After going through security, I walked through the tall deserted grass toward the building that houses the National Security Council office. I waited in the council’s empty reception room until one of the staff of Majes, a young woman who had studied in America, took me upstairs to his office, where I sat behind his desk. Our conversation was mostly unmemorable. He looked exhausted when we talked about the desperate fighting in the city of Kandahar, which was surrounded by the Taliban.
Just a few days ago, a farewell ceremony was held for General Austin S. Miller, the long-serving American commander. The military completed 90 percent of its withdrawal, long before Biden’s deadline. This rapid pace was intended to reduce the risks of attack during the withdrawal, but it had a devastating effect on the Afghan security forces. The US military has spent billions to train and equip a force in its image, relying heavily on foreign contractors and air support. But the Afghan army’s notoriously corrupt generals stole their men’s ammunition, food, and wages. While the security forces were supposed to number 300,000, the real number was likely to be less than a third of that number. In the regions, the army and police were collapsing, and they handed over their weapons to the Taliban, who now control a quarter of the country.
Ghani insisted over and over that he would stand up and fight. “This is my home and my grave,” he thundered in a speech earlier in the spring. His deputy, Amrullah Saleh, and the Security Council were working on a post-American strategy called slap, a Dari word meaning “base” or “ground,” which depicts garrison towns connected by corridors controlled by the army and backed by militias, similar to the way President Muhammad Najibullah held onto power for three years after the Soviet withdrawal. “It was very much the Russian model,” said Beck, who returned to government as the president’s chief of staff that month. “They had a good plan on paper, but for this plan to work, you have to be a military genius.”
Earlier in July, Ghani was warned that only two of the army’s seven corps were still operating, according to a senior Afghan official. In a desperate bid for troops to protect the city of Kandahar, the president has appealed to the CIA to use the paramilitary army formerly known as Counter-Terrorism Pursuit Teams, according to Afghan officials. Trained for night raids and covert missions in the frontier lands, the units have grown into capable light infantry, a strength of the thousands. They were now officially part of the Afghan intelligence service and were known as Zero Units, after the codes corresponding to the provinces: 01 was Kabul, 03 was Kandahar and so on. But according to officials, the CIA was still paying these strike forces and had to agree to Ghani’s request for them to defend Kandahar city that month. (A US official stated that the units were under Afghan control; the CIA declined to comment on details of their deployment.) “They are very efficient units, they are motivated and they are cheap,” Muhib told me in his office. without them. They don’t need all sorts of heavy equipment. I wish we had more like them.”
But the Zero Units had a reputation for their ruthlessness in battle. Both journalists and Human Rights Watch referred to them as “death squads” – allegations the CIA denied, saying they were the result of Taliban propaganda. I’ve been trying to track down these mysterious units for years, and was surprised to see them in their distinct tiger stripes, under glowing coverage on government social media accounts.
In Kabul, I met Muhammad, an officer from one of the National Security Administration units operating throughout the capital, who I had known for a few years. Muhammad worked as a translator for the unit’s American advisers and as a trainer for secret teams that carried out urban arrests. He said that morale plummeted among his men after the Americans left. According to Afghan officials, the station at Ariana Square was empty by late July. But Mohammed’s team is still receiving advice from the Americans. He showed me messages he said were from the CIA, and urged his unit to patrol the areas around Kabul that had been infiltrated by the insurgents. “The airport is still in danger,” one message said.