WASHINGTON (AP) – The warnings were clear: The Afghan government would likely fall once American troops withdrew. But intelligence agencies and ultimately President Joe Biden missed how quickly it would happen, wasting weeks that could have been used for evacuations and sparking a foreign policy crisis.
Without the feeling that the country could collapse so quickly, the administration listened to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani when he met face-to-face with Biden in June. Biden says Ghani pressured him to postpone any urgent evacuation of Americans, arguing that it would invite the Taliban to advance more quickly. as it turned out they did it anyway – and tell the Afghan army to surrender.
It was a question that Biden heard, despite more than a decade of deep-seated skepticism about the competence of the Afghan government and military, marred by widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Biden on Wednesday blamed Ghani for fleeing the country and Afghan forces for surrendering so easily to the Taliban. He told ABC News that he believed problems with the withdrawal were inevitable.
“The idea that somehow, there is a way out without chaos, I don’t know how it happens,” he said.
American officials estimate that as many as 10,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of Afghans who fought alongside the United States or helped the United States in the nearly two decades of occupation are struggling to get out.
Biden’s claim on Monday that some Afghans, “still hopeful for their country,” did not want to leave, has been widely criticized. The State Department has a backlog of tens of thousands of visa applications from those who have been trying for years to leave the country prior to the US withdrawal. That is now scheduled for August 31 although Biden said Wednesday that Americans would not be left behind.
While analysts have long warned that the Afghan government would be in grave danger without US support, they did not anticipate the speed at which it would fall to the Taliban.
That failure is prompting instant reviews of what went wrong, said current and former US officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Just two weeks ago, intelligence agencies in briefings with lawmakers failed to warn that the Afghan government was facing imminent collapse, said an official familiar with the briefings.
An estimate by the defense that Kabul could be surrounded in 30 days, an assessment that was deemed pessimistic when reported last week, turned out to be overly optimistic. In just over a week, the Taliban invaded the country and entered Kabul without a fight. Ghani and his top aides fled.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted on Wednesday that he had no indication of the speed of the Afghan collapse.
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” he said.
A senior intelligence official said the agencies identified the risk of a rapid collapse of the Afghan government and became “more pessimistic” during the final months of the Afghan fighting season.
“That said, the Afghan government fell apart even faster than we anticipated,” the official said.
Analysts have warned for years that the US withdrawal would destabilize Afghan forces trained at great cost by the United States and that they still rely heavily on US air power and intelligence gathering, current and former officials said. The withdrawal would also risk damaging the morale of Afghan units that had fought alongside US and coalition forces for two decades and would be forced to face a resurgence of the Taliban alone.
A public threat assessment in April warned that Afghan forces “will fight to keep the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws its support.”
An administration official said the intelligence community had informed the White House that a rapid military collapse would be possible after the pullout, as the Taliban seized key provincial capitals. In fact, that happened just days before the fall of Kabul.
And the anticipated danger was limited to Afghanistan itself. Analysts had also warned that new terrorist threats would likely emerge from the country if the Taliban took power. According to a former official, an assessment predicted that a large-scale terrorist attack could be planned in Afghanistan within one to three years after the withdrawal.
Many have blamed an intelligence failure for not anticipating the speed with which the Afghan government would collapse. Some current and former intelligence officers have backed down.
Marc Polymeropoulos, who served in the CIA for nearly three decades, said the intelligence community had always been clear amid a renewed focus on the wrong 30-day time frame.
“Whether it’s six or 30 days, I don’t see the IC ever making any kind of optimistic predictions or selecting at all,” he said.
But Chris Miller, who was sent to Afghanistan in 2001 and later served as the nation’s top counterterrorism official and acting defense secretary under former President Donald Trump, called the lost speed “an intelligence failure of catastrophic proportions.”
“We have something fundamentally wrong with the way we do our intelligence assessments in our country,” he said. “It is cultural and technological arrogance. This was as predictable as it was going to happen. “
Other elements of the US government were pressuring Americans and others to leave months ago, with increasingly dire warnings, culminating in an urgent plea on August 7 from the State Department to leave, offering funds for Americans to leave Afghanistan. .
Some US officials believe they may have bought into the leaked intelligence assessment that the Afghan government could hold Kabul for a month or more. Officials maintain that those assessments were not publicly released and were only the best estimates. Despite all the focus on intelligence failures, officials say the State Department warnings should have pushed most Americans out of Afghanistan weeks ago.
Now the United States is working with the Taliban to ensure safe passage for the Americans and Afghans who aided in the 20-year war effort and are frantically trying to get to Kabul International Airport. As the Taliban take hold, the State Department has said it cannot guarantee them safe passage to the airport.
Associated Press journalist Eric Tucker contributed to this report.