LOS ANGELES — On April 14, President Joe Biden announced that he would be moving forward with the withdrawal of American military troops from Afghanistan — a deal brokered by the previous administration under former President Donald Trump. Biden’s initial plan was to evacuate American personnel over a four-month period, beginning in May and continuing until the end of August.
However, after the U.S. withdrawal timeline was expedited and the final American plane departed Kabul on Aug. 30 — one month earlier than expected — things quickly unravelled. Taliban forces moved quickly and toppled the capital city, taking full control of the country.
In public, Biden downplayed the threat of the Taliban, stating at a press conference in July that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Yet, looking at the swift collapse of the Afghan government and what can only be called a resounding defeat by U.S. forces to curb an extremist takeover, the question arises as to how much the U.S. intelligence community knew about the Taliban’s capabilities.
In the days following the insurgent takeover of Afghanistan, it has become clear that the U.S. intelligence community issued multiple warnings to the Biden administration about the strong possibility of a government collapse. While these classified reports have not yet become public, representatives from the major intelligence agencies have acknowledged that their outlook on the military withdrawal and Afghanistan’s future were bleak.
When Taliban forces entered Kabul on Aug. 15, the rapid disintegration of the Afghan government was almost expected. In the official annual threat assessment briefing on April 29, the Afghanistan conflict garnered a surprisingly brief discussion. Intelligence officials provided a simple, but dire, outlook of the situation. Officials stated that, “the Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield… the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” The assessment made clear that without American military support, intelligence officers seriously doubted the effectiveness of the Afghan military in keeping the insurgent forces at bay.
In the wake of Kabul’s collapse, the United States was wrapped in a whirlwind blame game. Did U.S. forces underestimate the threat? Was the threat downplayed? Who was to blame?
It has become clear that there were strong disagreements regarding the capability of Afghan government forces to hold off the Taliban threat. While CIA reports erred on the side of caution, the Defense Intelligence Agency had a more optimistic outlook on Afghan readiness, although the formal assessments were not made public. In the July press conference at the White House, Biden emphasized the money spent on equipping Afghan national security and military forces. Echoing this sentiment, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman said that, “the Afghan leaders have to come together,” indicating the widespread view among high-level U.S. officials that the administration has done more than is necessary when it comes to the Afghanistan situation.
Moreover, the Biden administration believed that the Taliban was not the most pressing threat facing the Western world. In one interview, Biden noted that there were extremist footholds (particularly al-Qaeda and the Islamic State) in parts of the Middle East and Africa that required the focus of U.S. military forces.
“The idea that we have… tens of thousands of American forces in Afghanistan, when we have Northern African and Western Africa, the idea that we can ignore those looming problems… is not rational,” Biden said.
Intelligence agencies warned about the fear of weak Afghan security forces but these reports were apparently ignored by the Biden administration, whose decision to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan had been finalized. At the time this decision was made, intelligence reports had indicated that the Afghan government would be able to hold off Taliban forces for at least two years, which would have given the U.S. military enough time to organize a structured withdrawal. A spokesperson for the CIA indicated that intelligence reports had changed over the course of the withdrawal, shifting the timeline of Afghanistan’s collapse from two years to a short span of 12 months.
However, as Taliban forces quickly overran some of the country’s largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that it could be a matter of days before Kabul fell. One intelligence official emphasized that, “We grew more pessimistic…as the fighting season progressed.”
As intelligence agencies updated the administration with newer information, these reports were apparently cast to the side. One senior congressional official stated, “[U.S.] leaders were told by the military that it would take no time at all for the Taliban to take everything… No one listened.” The withdrawal had already commenced by the time intelligence assessments began forecasting a more imminent timeline for Taliban takeover, which could be a reason why Biden was reluctant to accept these reports — pivoting to a different withdrawal strategy might have been a disaster in and of itself.
While some call Afghanistan an intelligence failure and others tout the fickle nature of intelligence reports, the verdict stands that U.S. intelligence no longer has a foothold within Afghanistan. In fact, the CIA is currently under pressure to find a new route into the region in order to conduct counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering operations. In August, CIA director Williams Burns made a trip to Pakistan to meet with Pakistan’s head of military intelligence to determine if a partnership could be worked out such that the CIA could continue to conduct intelligence operations from a base in Pakistan. However, with the ties that Pakistan’s government has to the Taliban, it might prove difficult for the CIA to navigate such a relationship, especially given the sensitivity of intelligence information.
To call the situation in Afghanistan an outright failure would call into question the very nature of intelligence collection. It is apparent that U.S. intelligence agencies were successful in gathering information about the Taliban, if officials were able to make pessimistic predictions about the country’s collapse.
However, it is also apparent that this information arrived too late for policymakers to change their minds about their chosen military strategy. This poses an interesting quandary based on the relationship between intelligence agencies and policymakers.
If intelligence agencies meant to inform and support policy makers’ decisions, then why didn’t Biden pivot the withdrawal plan based on new information?