MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The Taliban attack on a police outpost at the edge of the city began at dusk, with the muted chatter of machine-gun fire and the thud of explosions. The men under attack radioed Capt. Mohammed Fawad Saleh at his headquarters, several miles away, desperate for help.
The police captain replied that he would send more men, along with one can of machine-gun ammunition — 200 rounds, not enough for even a minute of intensive fire.
“One can?” the voice on the other end of the radio responded, incredulously.
Ammunition shortages are just one of the serious and systemic issues plaguing soldiers and police officers who will soon have to defend Afghanistan — and themselves — without U.S. aircraft overhead or American troops on the ground.
“We’re holding the weight of the war,” Captain Saleh said as the attack unfolded in January. Yet one ammunition can was all he could spare.
Some soldiers have not been home in years because their villages have been overtaken by the Taliban.
Prospects for improvement are slim, given slumping recruitment, high casualty rates and a Taliban insurgency that is savvy, experienced and well equipped — including with weapons originally provided to the Afghan government by the United States.
66,000 Afghan troops have been killed since 2001, along with more than 3,500 from the U.S.-led coalition and a much higher number of civilians. Many more troops have been wounded. Years before Mr. Biden announced his plan to leave, U.S. officials were already warning of unsustainable Afghan casualty rates.
On paper, the Afghan security forces have more than 300,000 troops, but the actual figure is likely significantly less. Some police units keep their ranks lower than their rosters so commanders can pocket the salaries of dead or absent officers. One important army corps meant to have 16,000 men and women has around half that.