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Intel community defends itself after US was caught out by speed of Taliban takeover

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Evan Vucci/AP

Intel community defends itself after US was caught out by speed of Taliban takeover

August 17, 07:00 AM August 17, 10:14 AM

The speed at which the Taliban took over Afghanistan, despite claims from the Biden administration last week that the fall of Kabul wasn’t imminent, has led to accusations the events of the past 72 hours represent a catastrophic intelligence failure, on top of a military and political one.

In a speech from the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden admitted the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover happened “more quickly than we anticipated.”

“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said. “So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”

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Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted Monday: “This administration was specifically told Afghan forces would surrender faster than our ability to exit. They decided to ignore these warnings & smugly tell everyone how smart & brilliant they are.”

The Taliban largely completed their sweep across Afghanistan on Sunday as they took the capital of Kabul amid a chaotic U.S. evacuation of its embassy following an ill-planned military withdrawal.

Just over a month ago, on July 7, Biden dismissed the chances of a Saigon-like situation.

“None whatsoever. Zero,” Biden said. “The Taliban is not the South — the North Vietnamese army … There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Biden added, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was similarly dismissive when pressed on June 7 about the failure to evacuate Afghan interpreters properly.

“We are not withdrawing, we are staying, the embassy is staying,” Blinken wrongly claimed. “If there is a significant deterioration in security, that could well happen — we have discussed this before — I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday. So, I would not necessarily equate the departure of forces in July, August, or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation.”

The intelligence community has defended itself amid questions of how the U.S. predicted the unfolding of events so poorly.

“We have noted the troubling trend lines in Afghanistan for some time, with the Taliban at its strongest, militarily, since 2001. Strategically, a rapid Taliban takeover was always a possibility,” a senior intelligence official told the Washington Examiner, though the definition of “rapid” — days, weeks, or months — was not provided. “The question all along was whether the Afghan government and military would be cohesive enough and have the willpower needed to exercise its military capabilities to resist the Taliban. As the Taliban advanced, they ultimately met with little resistance.”

The official added: “We have always clear-eyed that this was possible, and tactical conditions on the ground can often evolve quickly.”

“Numerous officials” reportedly insisted that “key intelligence assessments had consistently informed policymakers that the Taliban could overwhelm the country and take the capital within weeks.” One anonymous U.S. intelligence official told ABC News that “leaders were told by the military it would take no time at all for the Taliban to take everything,” but “no one listened.” An anonymous senior congressional official said, “The intelligence community assessment has always been accurate — they just disregarded it.”

The Wall Street Journal said over the weekend that a U.S. official “dismissed the notion that only intelligence failures were to blame for the swift collapse of the Afghanistan government, saying a number of factors contributed to the miscalculation, including the speed of the Biden administration’s withdrawal and the fact that the military contractors left as well.”

Biden administration officials “say they have long known that a total capitulation of the Afghan government to the Taliban was a possibility, and they planned their withdrawal efforts accordingly.”

The outlet also reported on June 23 that the intelligence community concluded the week prior that the Afghan government could collapse within six months after the U.S. military withdrawal. The Washington Post reported on Aug. 10 the U.S. military assessed a collapse could occur within 90 days, while others said it could be a month. ABC News reported on Aug. 12 a new U.S. military analysis warned Kabul could be isolated within 30 to 60 days and could fall within 90 days. It fell Sunday.

“The trend lines that all of us see today are certainly troubling. The Taliban are making significant military advances — they’re probably in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001,” CIA Director William Burns said on July 22 when asked about estimates the Afghan government could fall six months after a full U.S. withdrawal. “There are a lot of possibilities out there. I mean, what I would say is that the Afghan government retains significant military capabilities. The big question, it seems to me and to all of my colleagues at CIA and across the intelligence community, is whether or not those capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower and unity of leadership that’s absolutely essential to resist the Taliban.”

In April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessed: “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.

“Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report on July 30 that said the Afghan news was “bleak” and assessed that “the overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed.” The report noted, “U.S. military contractors are also being withdrawn from Afghanistan,” and warned, “Their loss could significantly impact ANDSF sustainability, in particular their ability to maintain aircraft and vehicles.”

SIGAR assessed there were just over 300,000 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. However, the report noted that it “does not reflect the loss of personnel to casualties, surrender, capture, or fleeing to other countries that occurred during the Taliban offensive from May through July.”

The report noted that “especially given its recent success on the battlefield, the Taliban may simply believe they can achieve military victory,” and the Taliban’s tone was “resoundingly triumphant in April and May following the announced withdrawal.”

SIGAR quoted Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, who said in June: “We are saying peace and [the Taliban] are nearing the capital of Afghanistan.”

Pentagon watchdog Sean O’Donnell said in May, “The Defense Intelligence Agency said that the Taliban is very likely preparing for large-scale offensives against Afghan population centers and government forces.”

The inspector general’s report said, “The Taliban very likely prepared for large-scale offensives against provincial centers, complex attacks against the ANDSF’s installations, and degrading ANDSF capabilities.”

The report added: “While the Taliban increased its attacks this quarter, the ANDSF also conducted offensive operations. However, the DIA reported that these attacks did not accomplish anything of strategic value.”

A now-rosy assessment from February by the congressionally established Afghan Study Group said “experts” assessed that “a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland within 18 months to three years.”

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“My concern about leaving with a date certain is that after we withdraw … is the ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they’re on now without the support that they’ve been used to for many years, which, we’ve weaned them off direct support … to a point where now it’s intelligence, it’s fire support, it’s the enabling things that actually give them an edge over the Taliban — all that will be gone,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate in April. “So, I am concerned about the ability of the Afghan military to hold on after we leave, the ability of the Afghan air force to fly.”

When asked whether the Pentagon should continue spending billions supporting the Afghan military, McKenzie replied, “If we don’t provide them some support, they certainly will collapse.”

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