Afghan intel failure: US agencies failed to predict government’s speedy collapse, report

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar, Aug. 13, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar, Aug. 13, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - A Wall Street Journal report, published on Friday, detailed the general intelligence failure behind the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Four of the most important US intelligence agencies—Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR); as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)—all failed to anticipate that Kabul would fall to the Taliban, even before US forces had departed.

A key assumption underlying the US withdrawal, as the Journal explained, was that the US military would “draw down rapidly, while the embassy remained well-staffed to provide visas and other support to Afghan allies weeks and months” after the troops had left.

Because that assumption was wrong, the US withdrawal proved a fiasco. Afghans who had worked with the US and were vulnerable to Taliban retaliation were evacuated in a hasty, slipshod fashion, as were Afghan-Americans.

Many were left behind, and 13 US troops, assisting in that evacuation, along with nearly 200 Afghans, were killed in an ISIS-K bombing on August 26.

The US responded to that attack with a strike on what it thought was a vehicle carrying another ISIS-K suicide bomber. But it turned out to be the car of an Afghan aid worker, with seven of his children inside.

In addition, entire bases—replete with their US equipment—fell to the Taliban. And as NATO believed it could not operate independently of the US, its forces, nationals, and partners experienced similar problems.

Implicit in the failure of the US to anticipate the quick collapse of the Afghan government was a failure to understand its weakness. The prime minister—Ashraf Ghani, whose hurried departure triggered that collapse—was a former UN and World Bank official, with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League college, Columbia University.

As Ghani’s flight made clear, he lacked a determined commitment to the Afghan people or deep roots in the society.

Broad Intel Failure

Donald Trump initiated the negotiations with the Taliban that would culminate in the troop withdrawal carried out by Joe Biden. The Journal reviewed nearly two dozen intelligence assessments dating back to April 2020—a month after the Trump administration had reached an agreement with the Taliban that set May 1, 2021, as the deadline for the withdrawal of all US forces.

None of the four agencies anticipated what, in fact, happened. All the reports were significantly more optimistic than events, as they played out.

A CIA report, published on May 17, a month after Biden announced his plans for the withdrawal, was entitled, “Government at Risk of Collapse Following US Withdrawal.” But the CIA anticipated that the collapse would occur by the end of the year.

During the following month, the CIA published another, more optimistic, analysis: “Afghanistan: Assessing Prospects for a Complete Taliban Takeover Within Two Years.”

The DIA did no better. A June 4 report “said the Taliban would pursue an incremental strategy of isolating rural areas from Kabul over the next 12 months,” the Journal said. A July 7 Executive Memorandum modified that prediction to say that the Afghan government would, nonetheless, continue to hold Kabul.

The Journal report echoes what senior US military officials, including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, said. On August 18, three days after the fall of Kabul, Milley told reporters, “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”

The Blame Game

The US does not make such big mistakes that often. Nonetheless, they happen with some regularity: maybe, once or twice in a decade.

Typically, when such big mistakes happen, a blame game follows. Was it a policy failure? An intel failure? Reputations and careers are at stake, and few are prepared to acknowledge error—even if that increases the odds that US officials will make a similar mistake in the future, because the right lessons were not learned (a key element in what the Pulitzer prize winning historian, Barbara Tuchman, called “persistence in error.”)

Thus, Friday’s Wall Street Journal report contradicts an August 19 story in the same paper. The first report, which appeared a mere four days after Kabul’s fall, claimed the State Department had provided advance notice about the risks in withdrawing. 

The report was titled “Internal State Department Cable Warned of Kabul Collapse: July memo shows that administration officials were cautioned about Taliban’s quick advance.”

Yet the July 13 cable, which was signed by 23 staffers of the US embassy in Kabul, was sent through a dissent channel! That is to say it was a minority view—not the Department’s dominant position. It was issued rather late in the process, and it is far from clear that Biden was ever made aware of it.

The blame game is regularly played after any big mistake, and, as the Journal’s report shows, the fiasco surrounding the Afghan withdrawal has proven no exception.