Afghanistan: Corruption from day one – Afghan colonel now in hiding on who he blames for return of the Taliban

“I want to make it clear that the Afghan security forces fought a hard fight. They really stood for what they were doing. It was the politicians who lost this battle, not the army or the police.”

Colonel Hanif Rezai was the spokesman for the 209th Shaheen corps, an Afghan army division based in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Now he speaks to Sky News by phone from an undisclosed location outside of Afghanistan, where he and his family are in hiding. He says that even there he does not feel safe.

On 16 August, US President Joe Biden placed the blame for the Taliban’s terrifying advance squarely on the shoulders of the Afghan security forces.

“How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war, when Afghan troops will not?,” he said after the fall of Kabul.

Given the deaths of 66,000 Afghan troops over 20 years of war and the speed of the Taliban’s final onslaught, Colonel Rezai believes that is deeply unfair and an abrogation of US responsibility.

He paints a picture instead of a rapid deterioration in morale among armed forces in the north, partly the result of the withdrawal of international forces and the aerial and reconnaissance support they provided but mostly because of the weakness of the Afghan leadership, set against the pervasive corruption which existed throughout the army’s ranks.

He puts the turning point in the north to the visit of then President Ashraf Ghani to Mazar-i-Sharif on 11 August.

On that day, in nearby Kunduz, hundreds of soldiers had surrendered to the Taliban.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, Mr Ghani held a meeting with local strongmen Ata Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum and promised 15 million Afghanis (£130,000) as support for the extra men who had offered to fight alongside the army.

“This sum was hardly enough to equip these people, to pay for their expenses. It weakened the resolve of those who’d risen up to defend the area and the country,” he said.

Three days later, Mazar-i-Sharif, the last urban hold-out in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban.

The next day the capital Kabul did, too – and Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

The former president has denied reports he left with huge amounts of cash, but Colonel Rezai does not believe it.

“Ashraf Ghani from day one had no interest in the people of Afghanistan or the country,” he said. “It was corruption from day one that he was bent on.”

US intelligence reports had long warned that endemic corruption both on a political and military level would be a crucial if not key contributor to mission failure in Afghanistan.

Colonel Rezai details how even after the withdrawal of international forces, the contents they left behind were systematically sold and distributed, with just a few individuals pocketing the proceeds.

“There was a very comprehensive corruption throughout the ranks, and throughout the army,” he said. If I were to sit and give you examples, there will be many, many examples, I could quote things about fuel, food, salaries.

“Any area you can mention, there was corruption there – and this was at all levels.

But he believes that the spirit of the Afghan people is so deeply opposed to the Taliban’s rule that the present make-up of power may not last long.

“If the Taliban do not bring about a government that is all-inclusive, I could see very soon and very quickly something stronger than the Northern Alliance that we used to know.”

In Afghanistan’s mountainous Panjshir Valley to the northeast of Kabul, Ahmad Massoud, the son of Afghanistan’s famous resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, is promising a new Mujahideen onslaught on the Taliban.

He is in need of supplies, though, and so far there has been no open admission of external support for his National Resistance Front.

Colonel Rezai believes that it will come.

“I cannot mention any particular sources right now as we speak, but I am quite certain that the northern front is already receiving a lot of support in terms of very modern weapons, equipment, and it will continue to come from various places.”

If it does, though, he will not be going back to fight.

He hopes one day to return with his family as a civilian, but he is bleak about his country’s future and the assortment of terror groups Afghan and NATO forces fought for 20 years to try to snuff out.

“I can confidently say the word as a whole is not going to be peaceful. From 2001 to 2021, it was the sacrifices of the Afghan forces that brought relative peace in the region.

“But from now on, especially after the corrupt regime of Ashraf Ghani, things have changed, and I cannot see any peace after what has happened.”

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