The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee pointed to the “rosy picture” the State Department had painted about Afghanistan as opposed to the increasingly “grim” intelligence community assessments in explaining why he believed the Biden administration miscalculated the Taliban takeover so badly.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas told the Washington Examiner the Biden administration ignored the bleak assessments from the Pentagon and the intelligence community, and he critiqued the U.S. Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who had negotiated the February 2020 deal in Doha, Qatar, with the Taliban and had continued to insist wrongly the extremist group was open to a peaceful settlement rather than taking the country by force.
“The IC assessments got grimmer by the briefing,” McCaul told the Washington Examiner when speaking of the time frame following President Joe Biden’s April announcement that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. “I have never heard more grim assessment on Afghanistan on these briefings, while at the same time the State Department gave this rosy picture … was giving a more rosy picture of the negotiations that special envoy Zal Khalilzad was entertaining.”
McCaul added: “And I would meet with Zal periodically about these Taliban negotiations, and I frankly didn’t put a lot of stock into them because it was the Taliban.”
Khalilzad repeatedly said he did not believe the Afghan government would collapse nor that the Taliban would rapidly take over, clinging to the apparent fiction that the Taliban were legitimately seeking a peaceful settlement.
“The Taliban must recognize that they have a choice between two very different futures: They can embrace a negotiated path to peace, make the transition from a violent insurgency to a political movement, and join their fellow Afghans in a nation that enjoys respect in the global community,” Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 27. “But if they obstruct a negotiated settlement and instead pursue a military takeover, they will be opposed not only by the United States but by our allies, partners, and the region.”
Khalilzad added: “I don’t personally believe that there will be an imminent collapse. I know there are others who have had a different view. I believe the choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war. … I do not believe that the government is going to collapse or the Taliban is going to take over.”
As recently as early August, Khalilzad was still insisting that a Taliban takeover would not happen, telling Voice of America such a move would make them “a pariah state, which they say they don’t want.” He said: “The Taliban cannot conquer Afghanistan and have a government and that has the support of the overwhelming majority of the Afghans and international support. Maybe some Taliban think there is a military solution to the conflict, although they tell us otherwise. When they speak to us, the Taliban says there is no military solution.”
The U.S. envoy’s last tweet was on Thursday, in which he promoted a statement issued by the negotiating countries in Qatar and said, “We demand an immediate end to attacks against cities, urge a political settlement, and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state.” The Taliban took Kabul just a few days later.
Just over a month ago, on July 7, Biden claimed, “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 McCaul pressed him on June 7 about the Biden administration’s failure to prepare special immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters and allies properly.
“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,” Blinken said. “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.”
McCaul said: “The IC came out with like a six month — that basically the Taliban was going to take over, that Afghan forces were not going to be able to adequately defend themselves without our air support and our intelligence and logistics. So that was no secret. And for the administration to say that the IC got it wrong is just not accurate — it’s not truthful.
“And I think they really put all their eggs in the Doha basket, which obviously didn’t work out. And they were doing that as recently as a few days ago, talking about how, ‘Oh, we’re still holding out for these negotiations.’ And their six-month prediction was sort of based on the spring offensive and the summer and the fall, and then they upped the clock — they said 90 days.”
He added: “And even the IC, I think, is a little surprised at the speed with which the Taliban — the lightning speed with which they took over. But, it was still very consistent with the assessment that the Taliban was going to take over the country, and the Afghan forces without our support could not defend themselves. So I don’t know why they just ignored that completely.”
McCaul said he thinks the intelligence community was “pretty in line with DOD,” but they were in disagreement with the State Department, saying: “It was only the State Department and the point guys at the White House that were really pushing this fantasy that they were someone going to pull a rabbit out of the hat with this negotiation.”
McCaul said: “I would say they were playing us the whole time with these Doha negotiations.”
Biden said Monday that the collapse of the Afghan government and the takeover happened “more quickly than we had anticipated.” Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked Tuesday about alleged U.S. intelligence reports indicating that the Taliban could overwhelm Afghanistan and take the capital within weeks, and he dodged.
“I’m not actually familiar with the intelligence assessments you’re describing, but I also don’t want to get into specific intelligence products,” Sullivan said.
Biden also seemed to indicate that he still believed the Taliban may have been willing to reach a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government up through at least last month, saying that he spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and High Council for National Reconciliation Chairman Abdullah Abdullah in June and July when he “urged them to engage in diplomacy, to seek a political settlement with the Taliban” but that that “advice was flatly refused.”
The so-called peace agreement signed in February 2020 during the Trump administration between the U.S. and the Taliban said that the U.S. was “committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces” within 14 months, while the Taliban said it “will take the following steps to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The alliance between the Taliban and al Qaeda continues.