♪ ♪ >> War is, full of mistakes, full of incredible loss, tragedy, heartbreak, hardship and casualties.
>> NARRATOR: Drawing on years of reporting, from both sides of the war... >> You set off a car bomb, it’s going to kill women and children and innocent civilians.
>> This was fighting.
>> You reject the idea that you handed a good deal to the Taliban?
>> Not at all.
I got a good deal for the United States.
We wanted out, we got out safely.
>> NARRATOR: Correspondent Martin Smith investigates the missteps... >> No one really knew how this would unfold.
>> NARRATOR: And miscalculations... >> People ask,” What was the Americans’ strategy?
The Americans did not have a strategy for Afghanistan.
>> Why do you think we lost?
>> I think it’s a matter of willpower.
>> We didn’t have the will?
>> We had a good amount of it, but they had more.
>> NARRATOR: Now on FRONTLINE, part two of an epic three part series.
>> Why did we fail on our mission?
And who was responsible?
>> NARRATOR: "America and the Taliban."
(radio running in background) (explosion roars) (people yelling) ♪ ♪ >> Friday is the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Some people wonder why the war is taking so long.
(guns firing) >> We can tell you that 2010 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops yet.
>> SMITH: Ten years in, the U.S. was no closer to winning the war in Afghanistan than when it had first arrived.
(guns firing) Over 2,700 coalition soldiers had been killed in action.
Close to half-a-trillion dollars had been spent and the Taliban were still gaining ground.
>> Allahu akbar!
>> SMITH: But President Obama had a plan.
>> Our nations agreed on a framework that would allow us to responsibly wind down the war.
>> SMITH: After trying a troop surge in 2009, Obama now planned to draw down America's commitment and hand over all the fighting to the Afghan military and police by 2014.
>> ...where Afghan forces will take the lead for combat operations across the country... >> SMITH: It was a move that would have major consequences.
>> Here it comes.
>> SMITH: The mission shifted from thousands of U.S. boots on the ground to more high-tech attacks from the air.
>> Roger, I copy... >> Impact.
>> SMITH: Large counterinsurgency operations were gradually exchanged for smaller task forces targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents.
It was a strategy commonly referred to as kill/capture, but it would often backfire and ultimately strengthen support for the Taliban.
(explosion roars) (soldiers talking in background) >> These are largely small-unit operations.
One or two helicopters land outside a compound, based on an intelligence assessment-- often telephone calls and so forth-- that indicate that there was an enemy force in that compound.
So, typically, Taliban.
(camera shutter clicking) >> SMITH: Initially, these raids were secretive.
But on May 2, 2011, when special forces snuck into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, the scope of the raids became widely known.
>> Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda.
>> The top leadership of the Taliban, of Al Qaeda, those senior leaders had to be detained or, if they resisted detention, killed.
>> SMITH: General David Petraeus, a staunch proponent of winning hearts and minds through counterinsurgency, also embraced these raids or targeted killings.
Restraints put in place by his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, were loosened, and the number of raids would increase sixfold.
>> Go, go, go!
(shouting) >> By the time I took command in 2010, we were conducting somewhere between ten and 15 operations on a given night against high-value targets of the insurgent networks and the extremist groups that were trying to reestablish a sanctuary in Afghanistan.
>> Go, go, go, go, go!
>> Keep in mind, this is just not the guys going through doors, it's not just the operators, it's the drones that are on top of it.
It's all of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance structure that we have to create to identify where the high-value targets are... >> Hit the guy on the road.
>> Roger, hit the guy on the road.
>> ...and then to overwatch the conduct of an operation with AC-130 gunships at night, and attack helicopters if you need them, and all the rest.
(explosions pounding) (guns firing) (man cheers) ♪ ♪ >> SMITH: In 2010, I embedded with a group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne division and an elite team of Army Rangers who were conducting targeted raids.
We choppered across Khost province to a small combat outpost along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
>> So if we do have detainees, uh, we're gonna flex them with the first lift and MPs are gonna take over from there.
>> SMITH: Soldiers were preparing for some raids the next day, reviewing new intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected Taliban militants.
>> Uh, with that being said, new threats in Momundi.
Scott and Chris.
>> These guys are part of Mohammad Ahmed's cell operating out of Momundi.
These guys are new, they're new faces.
We haven't seen them before.
On the sheet after the HLZ, I got the compounds labeled, and they're labeled next to the names here on the first sheet.
So everybody needs to be tracking these guys and keep an eye out.
>> All right, any questions?
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: We set out at dawn.
(radios running) The team was accompanied by a contingent of Afghan police in the ongoing effort to train Afghan forces.
>> The mission was a combined operation between ABP, Afghan Border Police, and coalition forces to ultimately clear suspected safehouses in three villages.
(radios running) We had about 17 persons of interest that we wanted to at least talk to.
>> All right, there's a door in, to the left when you go in.
>> The targeted raids around this area have been very successful.
(dog barking) >> There's a section over there, looks like... >> We've taken out cells and attacks have decreased significantly.
But with that being said, a new cell is created, not necessarily in the same area, but ultimately, the same effects on us.
>> (pounding on metal) >> So, it's the cat and mouse game.
(metal rattling) >> SMITH: These operations came with risks.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> We were very focused on capturing members of Taliban leadership and capturing Al Qaeda.
So we would go into a house, go into an area, and detain people or, or kill them.
Now, sometimes the information that we got for that could be bad.
(radios running) It could be that someone we were working with had some kind of grievance against a potential person, gave that information to the Americans so that we could conduct an attack.
(door slams, dog barking) >> Watch high, watch high.
>> There's something wrong.
>> SMITH: Within minutes of entering one compound, the team discovered a problem.
>> We're obviously in here.
>> SMITH: They had the wrong location.
>> That's his laborer's, so it should be that one.
>> SMITH: They had raided the home of the tribal elder.
>> (speaking Pashto): (radios running) >> SMITH: Although the elder appears innocent, the soldiers decide to conduct a search anyway.
They risk causing further offense, which put the accompanying Afghan forces in an awkward position.
>> (speaking Pashto): (glass shattering) >> SMITH: The raid turned up next to nothing.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Captain Keller told me that the way they carried out the raids had to keep changing.
In part because the Taliban kept adapting.
>> Insurgency changes daily.
>> Hey, this might be the same guy, but... >> What the last unit was fighting six to 12 months ago, we're fighting something new.
That is Masakan?
>> We're gonna search the rear.
If they know how we fight, they're gonna change their tactics.
We learn how they fight, so we change ours.
So, it's very difficult to just focus on one objective or one mission.
>> Hey, we're in, uh, Bravo 1, and we got targets seven and eight.
>> Hey, believe me, I don't want them sitting next to each other.
>> I mean, if one thing's not working, we need to try another.
And if that doesn't work, then, you know, and the cycle just goes around.
>> SMITH: It can go on for a long time.
>> It could go on for another day or another ten years.
(radio playing in background) >> SMITH: Ten years later, after the fall of Kabul in 2021, I returned to Afghanistan.
It was clear that, for Afghans, night raids had been a major feature of the war.
This is the road to Wardak province, once a hotbed of Taliban activity.
The road is pockmarked from hundreds of I.E.D.
explosions, used by the Taliban to attack U.S. convoys.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Wardak was a frequent target of kill/capture teams.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Why did the drone attack this group?
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Were there Taliban in your group?
>> (interpreter speaking Pashto): >> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: We couldn't verify this attack, but everyone here seemed to have a story.
>> (cheering) >> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Mohammad Aalem, a taxi driver, told me about a night raid on his house.
One night in October 2009, he was home with his children and two brothers.
Was there anybody in the house that was Taliban?
>>(speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Aalem says he was not Taliban.
Nor, he says, were his brothers.
>> (speaking Pashto): (inhales sharply) >> (speaking Pashto): >> (speaking Pashto): (Smith speaking off mic) >> SMITH: Aalem says that after his brother was killed, their house was then set on fire and he was taken to Bagram prison with another brother.
He spent four years there and, he says, he was never charged with any crime.
But the experience turned him against the Americans.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: Throughout his presidency, Hamid Karzai spoke out publicly against civilian deaths from raids and other errant attacks.
>> We're going to ask the international community to end nighttime raids on Afghan homes and eliminate civilian casualties.
>> President Karzai increasingly became bitter.
The raiding of houses and night raids, he was strictly opposed to it.
But the thing that particularly annoyed President Karzai was, was the killing of civilians.
Um, and it repeatedly happened.
>> In Ghazni province, Central Afghanistan, the dead include a woman and a child following what eyewitnesses say was a raid by U.S. forces.
>> Certainly, the province of Kunar has had more than its fair share of civilian casualties.
>> Digging small graves for nine children, all under 14.
General David Petraeus has since apologized for the deaths.
>> SMITH: Karzai repeatedly complained to General Petraeus that the raids were backfiring.
>> (shouting) >> SMITH: Protests were mounting, even as Petraeus made efforts to reduce civilian casualties.
>> (shouting, chanting) >> The accumulation of civilian casualties, mistakes-- all mistakes, to be clear-- I mean, we were very, very tough.
>> SMITH: Karzai complained repeatedly, he told you that you had to stop running night raids.
>> Again, I understand absolutely the pressures that Karzai was under.
And I sought to convey to him the challenges with which I was having to deal as the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
War is full of mistakes, full of incredible loss, uh, tragedy, heartbreak, hardship, uh, and, and casualties.
>> SMITH: When I asked General Petraeus about this, he says, "Look, well, war is messy, these things happen."
>> Yeah, no, it happens, but we virtually never held anyone accountable for civilian casualties.
I mean, we paid condolences, and sometimes we said, "It wasn't us."
Or, "Sorry, it's a mistake."
But we never held anybody accountable.
>> This footage shot by the Taliban appears to show ISAF airstrikes on another village in Kunar.
A government inquiry found 65 civilian casualties.
ISAF said it found no evidence that civilians were killed.
General Petraeus went even further, suggesting that some of the children's burns may be down to parental discipline, not ISAF bombs.
>> I remember that conversation with General Petraeus about civilians killed in Kunar.
And some children, um, uh, had survived.
They were in hospital.
>> SMITH: As a minister of Karzai's National Security Council, Omar Zakhilwal sat in on key meetings.
>> And then what infuriated President Karzai in that conversation was when, when General Petraeus say, "Look, "these children are trained by their fathers to say this story.
"Um, so, it's, they're put at risk by their parents there, um, and they just want to defame us."
>> SMITH: In February 20 of 2011, there was a closed-door meeting at the palace, and there was talk about an attack in Kunar, and you made a comment that you believed that some of the families might have deliberately injured their own children in order to spark a reaction against the Americans.
>> No, that's mythology, I would never say something like that.
I never did-- it's absolutely wrong.
>> SMITH: But the story circulated widely and made it to "The Washington Post," CNN, and other news outlets.
General Petraeus denies being aware of the story.
>> I'd never heard that story before.
>> SMITH: You, you've been asked in the past for comment.
>> I've never heard of that story.
Again, if I was asked, I clearly don't remember it, and it's not something that I ever would've said.
This is just nonsensical.
(sirens blaring) >> Afghan officials have repeatedly called for an end to night raids, alleging that such operations are disruptive to Afghan lives and lead to civilian casualties.
>> SMITH: The number of targeted raids fell after General Petraeus left.
His successor was General John Allen.
>> This last year, we had about 2,200 night operations.
In all of those, there was less than 1.5% civilian casualties.
Now, I don't diminish any civilian casualties by reducing it to a percentage point, but after 9,200 night operations, 27-- 27-- people were killed or wounded.
That would argue for the power of night operations preserving life.
>> Those are very impressive statistics... >> SMITH: The Pentagon's civilian casualty statistics are impressive and widely dismissed as underreported.
>> So, there has not been a lot of transparency around this for many years now.
So they run this civilian casualty... >> SMITH: Azmat Khan won a Pulitzer Prize for her work investigating civilians killed in airstrikes.
She says the Pentagon has been inconsistent in releasing reliable data.
>> And so they put out these numbers in reports to Congress every year.
And they'll admit a certain number of incidents.
But I can't calculate it for Afghanistan the way I could for Iraq and Syria, because they did not consistently put out numbers the way Iraq and Syria did, or maintain a total caseload of numbers.
>> SMITH: So, we don't know.
>> So you can do it for 2018 and 2019, but it's very hard to do before that, because they did not release those numbers.
>> It pains us all here to know what you must be going through right now with the loss that you just suffered.
>> I'm-- I'm deeply, deeply sorry.
>> Oftentimes when we'd do an errant strike, we'd accidentally kill some civilians, we'd go and we'd make a peace offering.
>> SMITH: Lieutenant Colonel Jason Dempsey served two rotations in Afghanistan.
>> We would pay that family the equivalent of two goats and a couple of thousand dollars because you accidentally killed their uncle.
>> What we can do is try to help you out with a payment for your losses.
It's, it's, uh, it's the absolute least that we can do, because obviously, there's... You can't bring back someone you love.
>> You think it's over, but it's not, because...
The irony, of course, was, they didn't forgive us.
Yeah, they nodded politely when they're in a room full of Americans and Afghan security forces.
But they held those grudges, and they did accumulate over time, not only in an individual action, but in the narratives our enemies were building about us being indiscriminate killers.
You know, our failure rate, if it's one, two percent out of hundreds and thousands of strikes per year, you can build a hell of a lot of stories about the evil Americans if you're screwing up two percent, and I guarantee we were screwing up more than that.
>> Gentlemen, this is for you.
For your losses.
Um, the U.S. Marines, the, the citizens of Afghanistan, and the government of Afghanistan together can achieve great things to make Afghanistan a safer and more prosperous place for all.
(radios running) >> SMITH: In February 2013, days after five children were killed in another raid in Kunar province, Karzai finally ordered a ban on Afghan troops calling in U.S. and NATO air support.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: In November of that year, he tried to take it even further.
>>(speaking Dari): >> (applauding) (helicopter whirring, sirens blaring) >> SMITH: For years, there had been growing concern among some U.S. officials that the Pentagon simply could not win the war by force.
Beginning as early as 2009, they had pursued a secret parallel track-- peace through negotiations.
>> SMITH: Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was one of the original founders of the Taliban, along with their supreme leader, Mullah Omar.
Zaeef, who was under house arrest in Kabul, recalls a visit from some Americans asking him to help.
>> SMITH: But that was the message, that, "We think we can't win this by force"?
>> SMITH: "So we want to talk."
>> A small group of us began to explore potential outreach to the Taliban.
There were loose intelligence reports of, you know, so and so wants to talk, or here's the guy who says he's connected.
Here's a guy who says he knows the leadership, someone who speaks for Mullah Omar.
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: Eventually, they were able to get in touch with a man who claimed to speak for supreme leader Mullah Omar.
>> The deceptively boyish Sayed Tayeb Agha.
This is as close as you are likely to get to the Taliban leader.
>> We found this fellow by the name of Tayeb Agha, a former Taliban government official.
>> And we will defend our religion... >> And he was also a close personal associate of Mullah Omar, who happened to be in an accessible place, Doha, Qatar.
So a place we could actually visit.
>> SMITH: Doha, 1,200 miles to the west of Kabul on the Persian Gulf.
How does Tayeb Agha become the chief negotiator?
>> SMITH: But he's a very young man.
>> SMITH: So how did he have that position?
>> SMITH: So Mullah Omar and he were close.
>> SMITH: The task of exploring talks with Agha fell to an old hand, diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
Together with an adviser, Barnett Rubin, they devised a plan to vet Agha.
>> We said to Tayeb Agha, "Can you bring us a message from Bowe Bergdahl?"
>> Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of war held in Afghanistan... >> SMITH: Holbrooke and Rubin also asked that Agha tell Mullah Omar to release a special message.
>> We told him that the message should include some comments on some recent events in Somalia.
>> American soldier Bowe Bergdahl was captured in Eastern Afghanistan... >> SMITH: They reasoned that if Agha proved he had access to Bergdahl, the Taliban's prized American prisoner, and to Mullah Omar, Agha would pass their test.
But the Pentagon was against any negotiation.
The military believed it was too soon for talks.
>> The military was always saying, "Okay, "we know there has to be a political settlement, but we should wait till we are in a stronger position."
And I used to say, "Why do you think "you'll be in a stronger position if you wait?
"If you want to negotiate when you have maximum leverage, you're a couple of years too late already."
>> SMITH: Holbrooke recorded his thoughts on tape.
>> SMITH: Over Holbrooke's objections, the Pentagon put Holbrooke and Rubin on a tight leash as far as talking with Tayeb Agha.
>> The military was adamant.
"You can meet him and talk to him, "but you cannot negotiate anything.
You have no authorization to it."
So, but they agreed that we could meet him, and the president signed off on that.
(siren blaring) >> SMITH: But before any real talks were held, everything came to a halt.
(siren continues) Holbrooke was hospitalized in Washington with a rare heart ailment.
>> Holbrooke would've continued on, maybe this would've all worked out differently.
But it didn't, that's not what happened.
He passed away.
I got this job.
I did the best I could.
The responsibility to bringing peace to Afghanistan... >> SMITH: Ambassador Marc Grossman, another veteran State Department official, took over the job of negotiating in February 2011.
♪ ♪ He met several times with Agha at various locations in Doha, pressing the Taliban to talk with Karzai's government.
But it wasn't happening.
>> It became clear, certainly, in the second or third negotiation that they weren't interested in talking to the Karzai government.
>> SMITH: The Taliban had a different agenda.
>> I think they saw in front of them the opportunity to get their senior leadership out of Guantánamo.
>> SMITH: The talks were stalled.
Grossman left in December 2012.
Wanting to revive the talks, Barnett Rubin stayed on as a consultant and worked to clear the way for a Taliban political office in Doha.
At the time, the Taliban were headquartered in Pakistan, where they had been granted sanctuary.
Pakistan protected them, but also watched them closely.
>> They wanted to have a political office.
As Zaeef said to me, "You will not know what "the Taliban true positions are "until they have a political office outside Pakistan.
"But as long as they're in Pakistan, they cannot say anything."
>> SMITH: You wanted legitimacy and recognition?
>> SMITH: In return, the Taliban were to agree that they would not infringe on the Karzai government's sovereignty.
At the proposed office, they would not fly their flag and they would not identify themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
It didn't go according to plan.
>> I'm flying back to Doha, and at that time, there was no internet on airplanes.
I start scrolling through my Blackberry, and I said, "My God, what happened?"
The Taliban had a press conference on Al Jazeera with a big sign saying "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
They raised the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
This cannot stand.
You know, this is a violation of the agreement.
>> SMITH: So, I mean, you, you've got to be pretty upset.
>> I was pretty upset, yeah.
>> The name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan suggests it's an embassy, representing an actual government.
>> The mistrust is rampant between the Taliban and the Afghan government and the U.S. You wonder where these negotiations are gonna go.
>> The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan simultaneously follows both military and political options.
>> SMITH: Another Taliban leader, Muhammad Suhail Shaheen, was at the new office the day it was to open.
One of the agreements that you had made is that you would not call yourselves the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and you would not raise your flag, but you did that-- why?
>> (chuckling): No, that was not... SMITH: But... >> It is not true.
>> SMITH: I have pictures.
>> You have pictures, I was there.
It is not needed the Americans call us as Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan-- it is up to them.
But we, we are, we have right to call ourself Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Everyone has the right and everyone has a flag.
Even if you go to a football team, they have their own flag.
>> Just 24 hours ago, there was talk of new prospects for finding peace in Afghanistan.
Today, President Hamid Karzai angrily changed course, leaving the initiative in doubt and U.S. officials doing damage control.
>> The secretary reiterated the fact that we do not recognize the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
>> Raising the Taliban flag on Tuesday in Doha was just a reminder of a dark and bloody past from which our country still struggles emerge.
>> SMITH: That night, Rubin rode over to the office and demanded that the flag and banner be taken down.
The Taliban complied.
>> This is the Taliban's new office here in Doha, in Qatar.
Now, the Taliban had a big inauguration ceremony.
There had been a plaque there, and it said "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
>> SMITH: So, after all this time... >> Yeah.
>> SMITH: ...the negotiations of three or four years just falls apart.
>> Well, yes, but you must understand this is not something unusual.
This is how peace negotiations go.
>> SMITH: Were you surprised when the Americans killed the talks?
>> Ah, ah, yes, it was very, something, uh, disappointed to me.
Something, uh, disappointed to everyone.
To, I, I think, to all Afghans.
>> SMITH: The Taliban refused to resume talks if their name was not recognized and if their flag was banned.
But there was an agreement for a controversial prisoner swap: several high-ranking Taliban officials in exchange for one high-profile American.
>> After nearly five years in captivity, Bowe is coming home.
>> American soldier Bowe Bergdahl is a free man after being handed over in exchange for five Afghan detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.
>> SMITH: How was it that you were able to achieve the release of five of them?
For one American.
>> Yeah, yes.
>> SMITH: Five of them.
>> Because the Americans had invaded our country, but our prisoners, they were innocent.
They were not part of the 9/11, and they were kept in Guantánamo.
>> SMITH: And now those men are in powerful positions in your government.
>> Yes, they are ministers.
♪ ♪ (crowd cheering and applauding) >> Hello, Bagram!
(cheering and applauding) >> Hoo-ah!
Well, you know, I know, I know it's a little late, but I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by.
>> (laughing) >> SMITH: Ahead of Memorial Day 2014, President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan.
>> After more than a decade of war, we're at a pivotal moment.
For the first time, Afghan forces took the lead to secure their own country.
>> SMITH: In spite of peace negotiations going nowhere, by 2014, nearly 70,000 troops had returned home from Afghanistan.
And more were slated to leave soon.
>> For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan.
>> (cheering and applauding) >> And by the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security, and our combat mission will be over.
>> (cheering and applauding) >> SMITH: Obama made good on his promise, and by the end of the year, the end of the war was officially in sight.
(band playing) In December, at a ceremony held under heavy guard to foil Taliban attacks, the U.S. and NATO formally relinquished control to the Afghan National Security Forces.
>> Today, NATO completes its combat mission... >> SMITH: The new mission was called Operation Resolute Support.
Going forward, U.S. forces would be focused on training and advising.
There was another big change.
Karzai's two terms as president were up.
Responsibility would now fall on the shoulders of a new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, a World Bank academic who famously co-wrote the book "Fixing Failed States."
>> (speaking Pashto): (audience applauding) >> President Ghani was a teacher.
He was a good talker.
He would impress people with his ideas.
>> (speaking Dari): >> (cheering and applauding) >> But he had this ego problem.
He was condescending of others.
He was a micromanager.
The Americans knew it, but he was the best they had.
They couldn't find a better person than him.
>> We're very openly proud of our foundational partnership with the United States.
You're remarkable friends... >> SMITH: But with the Americans leaving, Ghani's hold on power was doomed.
He was depending on the strength of the Afghan forces.
>> The Afghan National Army is an enduring tribute to your investment and sacrifice, so I want to thank you.
(men speaking non-English language) >> SMITH: But the Afghan army and police forces were plagued by corruption.
>> All right, let's try it again.
>> SMITH: And low morale.
>> Let's go, baby, let's go!
Two more rounds!
Two more rounds!
Let's go, let's go, let's go!
>> The annual attrition rate in the military that we were building was 30%.
We were losing 30% of the Afghan National Army a year.
So we're trying to build the force to 350,000, but there's this giant hole in the bucket.
Even though we were the largest jobs program in Afghanistan, we could not sustain an army.
>> SMITH: Many of you have just joined the police, is that correct?
(interpreter speaking non-English language) >> SMITH: Early in the program, I spoke to some Afghans being trained in Wardak province.
And is it, is it a good paying job?
They told me that they simply weren't earning a living wage.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: Some never even received their salaries.
>> (shouting in non-English language) >> In the whole country, we were the only reliable employers.
>> (shouting) >> They were actually supposed to get paid.
>> (shouting in response) >> What happened?
They didn't get paid.
Their commanders ripped them off.
And they eventually figured this wasn't worth it and they walked home.
>> (gives order) >> SMITH: In effect, no one actually knew the true size of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Basic attendance data was simply not reliably collected.
>> Can you tell me how many Afghan National Army personnel we've trained?
>> I can't.
>> There is no way to give you that number.
>> How about Afghan National Police?
>> Uh, we don't know.
>> SMITH: The inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, John Sopko, an Obama appointee, investigated this lack of accounting and brought attention to yet another problem-- that of ghost soldiers.
What's a ghost soldier and what was going on here?
>> That's a term we've used and others have used.
Actually, I heard it first from Ashraf Ghani, when he was, uh, finance minister.
Uh, went to his house for dinner, and he said, "John, you realize you Americans "are paying the salary of a soldier, and he doesn't exist."
And that's what it was.
We would be paying the salary and somebody else would be taking the money.
Usually a corrupt bureaucrat.
>> (shouting in non-English language) >> SMITH: In his summary findings, Sopko reported that the U.S. paid more than 300 million dollars a year to soldiers that may not have existed.
So where does the money go?
>> To the generals, to the commanders, to the defense ministers.
To buy houses in California, in, uh, Virginia, in, uh, Germany, in Turkey.
All the defense ministers, all the chief of army of Afghanistan.
None of them is in Afghanistan and they are all having very cozy life.
Very nice life, very comfortable life in Europe and Middle East.
>> You know, it's a disgrace that we don't have an accountable system, and here's all this money being stolen.
I commend you on your work.
We just got to figure out a way to, to stop this.
>> SMITH: Throughout 2015, the issue of higher-ups siphoning payments from ghost soldiers popped up more frequently in Sopko's reports.
(chuckling) >> Group picture.
>> Yeah, let's get a group picture all these guys right here.
>> SMITH: That same year, U.S.-trained Afghan forces would face their biggest test in a provincial capital located in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan, Kunduz.
Getting there requires an arduous trip through the Salang Pass, high in the Hindu Kush mountains.
We set out in May of 2022.
Once upon a time, it took a car or truck three days to get across here.
But in 1964, a series of snow sheds and tunnels was completed by the Soviets, shortening the journey to ten hours.
The last tunnel is the longest.
By the time we reached it, traffic was backed up for miles.
(car horn honking, man shouting) Like so much else in Afghanistan, the tunnel's in serious disrepair.
The money that was meant to fix it has disappeared.
Ventilation inside the tunnel was intermittent at best.
We're in the Salang Tunnel.
It's, uh, almost three kilometers, this long section of it.
And people have been known to die from asphyxiation, from carbon monoxide poisoning in here.
Um, actually today, they've got a couple of fans working.
And about between 6,000 to 10,000 trucks come through here every day.
(car horns honking) ♪ ♪ In December 2022, a tanker truck overturned inside the tunnel and caught fire.
31 people died.
Eventually, we emerged safely, and descended towards Kunduz.
♪ ♪ First stop, I had to visit the Ministry of Information to get permission to film here.
(woman speaking non-English language) When I arrived I was stopped by this group of war widows.
Why have you come here today to the Ministry of Information?
(interpreter speaking Dari): >> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: As best I could tell, they had all either lost their husbands or eldest sons and were now unable to pay for shelter or food.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: When you come here to the Ministry of Information, do they see you?
Do they talk to you?
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: I couldn't help them, either.
♪ ♪ Kunduz has seen more fighting than most cities.
By the spring of 2015, the Americans had largely pulled out of here.
The countryside was in Taliban hands.
As a result, the provincial capital was increasingly at risk.
>> (speaking Dari) >> Takbir!
>> Allahu akbar!
>> SMITH: The defense of Kunduz would now be up to Afghan forces.
(Takbir repeating) What happened next foreshadowed the collapse of the Afghan army in August 2021.
>> The Taliban is progressing to capture the city of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan.
>> On Monday, some 400 to 500 Taliban soldiers swept into Kunduz in a surprise attack.
>> (speaking Pashto): (weapons firing, men shouting) >> It was a carefully coordinated attack from four directions that highlights the insurgents' ability to expand beyond its southern stronghold.
>> (speaking Pashto) >> There was so little resistance, Taliban fighters had time to take selfies with local residents.
>> SMITH: The city fell on September 28, 2015.
It was the Taliban's biggest victory in 14 years of war.
Hundreds of prisoners from the city's jails were released amid reports of revenge killings.
The Afghan army fled the city.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: According to a subsequent Afghan government investigation, more than a third of the Afghan forces believed to have been deployed in Kunduz either deserted or didn't exist at all -- they were ghost soldiers.
>> (speaking Dari): >> (talking softly) >> SMITH: Back in Washington, there was worry.
If the Taliban could take one of Afghanistan's largest cities, what would be next?
>> Well, obviously this is, uh, a setback for the Afghan security forces, um, but we've seen them respond in recent weeks and months... >> SMITH: The Afghan army clearly needed help.
But under Operation Resolute Support, the U.S. was not supposed to engage in combat.
Scrambling, they made an exception.
>> We've seen U.S. aircrafts supporting the Afghan Security Forces because they can't do it alone just yet.
>> SMITH: What followed was among the worst decisions of the entire war.
One night, American forces had received instructions from their Afghan partners to strike a compound that they had identified as harboring Taliban fighters.
An American AC-130 gunship was called in and opened fire.
They hit the wrong target.
It turned out to be Kunduz's only hospital, run by Doctors Without Borders.
>> SMITH: Dr. Esmatullah Esmat was resting after a 12-hour shift.
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: In fact, the gunship fired 211 shells.
>> We opened the door and that was the most memorable moment for me, seeing this figure, uh, standing at the door.
>> SMITH: Dr. Kathleen Thomas, an intensive care surgeon, was on her first mission with Doctors Without Borders.
>> There was a nurse, uh, from the E.R., I recognized him immediately.
Um, his left arm had been, uh, almost completely amputated and was just hanging by a small thread.
And there was a big piece of metal sticking out of his back.
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: 42 people died in the bombing, including 24 patients and 14 Doctors Without Borders staff.
>> In a new report, Doctors Without Borders describes patients burning in their beds and staff members shot from the air while they fled the burning building.
>> Doctors Without Borders wants an international investigation into war crimes.
>> SMITH: An Afghan government spokesman claimed the attack was justified.
>> I mean, that was absolute bull(bleep).
There was no fighters in the hospital, there was no one armed in the hospital.
There were certainly no Taliban that were using it as some sort of base.
>> SMITH: Doctors Without Borders had repeatedly informed the coalition that it had a hospital operating in the center of Kunduz and they had provided the Americans with GPS coordinates.
>> This hospital had been open for four years, was well-lit, easily visible from the sky, and it was one of the most well-known facilities in the area.
>> SMITH: You had those coordinates.
I mean, the military had those coordinates.
>> Yeah, I, well, you're right.
I, uh, the, the the fact that there was a MSF facility, or Doctors Without Borders facility, in Kunduz isn't a, isn't a surprise to anybody.
>> SMITH: Who called in the strike?
>> Ultimately, U.S. forces called in the strike.
They, we were depending upon information we were getting from our partners on the ground with this, and, uh, again... >> SMITH: But the, it begins with your partners on the ground?
>> Yes, they're our Afghan partners on the ground.
So we're relying on information that is coming from them, um, and, uh, and it's going up through, uh, through our channels, uh, to our aircraft to, to actually, you know, deliver ordnance.
But it was not a deliberate targeting of the Doctors Without Borders, uh, hospital.
I'm, I'm convinced of that.
It is, it is, it was, it was a mistake that was made in a fast-developing situation, with humans in the loop, with imperfect information.
Uh, and it, it was absolutely tragic.
Um, and, and we are completely responsible for, for what happened there.
♪ ♪ >> Well, after four days of differing stories about how that hospital came under attack, President Obama decided to call Doctors Without Borders and say he was sorry.
>> The United States, when we make a mistake, we own up to it, we apologize where necessary, as the president did in this case, and we implement the kinds of changes that make it less likely those kinds of mistakes will occur in the future.
>> SMITH: The Pentagon investigated what happened but never publicly released their full report.
>> I want to emphasize that the trauma center was a protected facility... >> SMITH: They released only 700 heavily redacted pages.
>> The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict.
The investigation identified 16 U.S. service members whose conduct warranted consideration for appropriate administrative or disciplinary action.
>> SMITH: Was anybody disciplined for the, as you call it, mistake?
>> Yeah, there were, and we did held people accountable as a result of that, uh, uh... >> SMITH: But those names are unknown.
>> Yeah, I'm, I'm certainly not gonna talk about that.
>> SMITH: Were they removed from the service?
>> I don't know of anybody was removed...
I didn't, we did not remove anybody from the service.
>> SMITH: Was anybody court-martialed?
>> Uh, we didn't, we chose to go administrative, um, um, measures on this.
♪ ♪ (horns honking) >> SMITH: Only with U.S. help were the Taliban routed from Kunduz.
But the Taliban had proved a point.
>> (cheering) >> SMITH: Afghan forces were weak.
>> (cheering) >> SMITH: The entire country was vulnerable.
The Taliban's momentum was undeniable.
>> (cheering) >> The Taliban were gaining ground.
We didn't pay a whole lot of attention, but there were markers along the way that should have signaled to us that the Taliban were gonna have a voice in the future of Afghanistan.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> They were not going to be denied.
They were not going to be defeated in anything like a military sense.
>> (speaking Pashto): (explosion echoes) >> The Taliban were gonna have a role.
And at the end of the day, they got a role.
It's just not the role we imagined.
(people cheering, horns honking) >> (speaking Pashto): (horn honking) >> Takbir!
>> Allahu akbar!
>> (speaking Dari): ♪ ♪ >> Nobody believed the entire thing will fall apart overnight... >>NARRATOR: Next time -- America's campaign ends... >> This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
NARRATOR: And the Taliban takeover... >> What looks like a disaster movie was all too real.
>> There is no protective force in Kabul.
The police have abandoned their checkpoints.
>> We did not achieve what we wanted to achieve.
What different decisions could we have made.
>>NARRATOR: The final chapter of "America and the Taliban" next time on FRONTLINE.
>> Go to pbs.org/frontline for more of Martin Smith’s coverage.
>> After 12 years I decided to go back to southern Afghanistan... >> Do you expect them to attack you today?
>> I do.
>> So why did the Americans tolerate their ally making these deals with the Taliban?
>> And see all of our reporting on Afghanistan over the years.
>> Connect with FRONTLINE on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
And stream anytime on the PBS App, YouTube or pbs.org/frontline.
Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH access.wgbh.org.
>> For more on this and other Frontline programs visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ Frontline's "American and the Taliban" is available on Amazon Prime Video.