Secret assessments by U.S. spy agencies over the summer painted an increasingly grim prospect of a possible Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and warned of the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, even as President Joe Biden and his advisers have publicly declared that it is unlikely to happen so quickly. , according to current and former U.S. government officials.
In July, many intelligence reports were more pessimistic, questioning whether Afghan security forces would put up serious resistance and whether the government could retain the capital, Kabul. Biden said on July 8 that the fall of the Afghan government was unlikely and that there would be no chaotic evacuation of Americans, as at the end of the Vietnam War.
The pace of the warnings over the summer raises questions about why members of the Biden government and military planners in Afghanistan appear unprepared to deal with the Taliban’s final advance on Kabul, including the failure to provide security at the main airport and to return thousands of additional troops. to the country to protect the final withdrawal of the United States.
A report released in July – as dozens of Afghan districts fell and Taliban fighters besieged several major cities – exposed growing risks to Kabul, noting that the Afghan government was unprepared for a Taliban attack, a person familiar with. with classified communications.
Intelligence agencies predicted that if the Taliban took cities, a cascading collapse could occur quickly and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of disintegration. It is not clear whether other reports during this period have presented a more optimistic picture of the ability of the Afghan army and government in Kabul to confront the insurgent group.
Historical analysis provided to the US Congress concluded that the Taliban had learned lessons from their takeover of the country in the 1990s. This time, according to the report, the militant group would first secure border crossings, dominate capitals. provinces and occupy regions of North Africa. . . , before advancing towards Kabul, a prediction that turned out to be correct.
But major US decisions were taken long before July, when the consensus among intelligence agencies was that the Afghan government could hold on for up to two years, leaving enough time for an orderly exit. On April 27, when the State Department ordered the departure of non-essential embassy staff in Kabul, the overall intelligence assessment was still that a Taliban takeover would take another 18 months, government officials said. .
A senior official, who requested anonymity due to the secret nature of the information, said that until the end of July, as the situation became increasingly volatile, intelligence agencies never provided any information. clear prediction of an imminent Taliban takeover. The official said those ratings also lack a “high confidence” rating, the highest level of certainty for agencies.
Until a week before the fall of Kabul, general intelligence analysis was that a Taliban takeover was not yet inevitable, the official said. Officials also said that at the time of his comments in July, Biden was pressuring the Afghan government to make concessions that intelligence reports said were necessary to prevent the collapse of the government.
CIA spokesmen and the director of national intelligence declined to discuss the assessments given at the White House. But intelligence officials admitted that their agencies’ analyzes were sober and that assessments had changed in recent weeks and months.
In his speech on Monday, Biden said his government had “planned for every eventuality” in Afghanistan, but that the situation “has unfolded faster than expected.”
Faced with clear evidence of the collapse of Afghan forces, US officials began to blame themselves internally, including White House statements suggesting an intelligence error. These accusations usually come after major national security violations, but it will take weeks or months to get a fuller picture of the decision-making in the Biden administration that has led to chaos in Kabul in recent days.
Intelligence agencies had long predicted a definitive victory for the Taliban, even before former President Donald Trump and current President Biden decided to withdraw their forces. These estimates provided a series of timelines. If they question the will of the Afghan security forces to fight without the Americans by their side, they do not see a collapse in a matter of weeks.
But in recent months, assessments have grown increasingly pessimistic as the Taliban broadened their achievements, according to current and past officials. Reports this summer in the northern hemisphere (winter in Brazil) questioned in harsh terms the willingness to fight of the Afghan forces and the government’s ability to maintain power in Kabul. With each report of massive defections, a former official said, the Afghan government seemed less stable.
Another CIA report released in July indicated that security forces and the central government had lost control of roads serving Kabul and calculated that the government’s viability was in serious jeopardy. Other intelligence reports from the State Department and the research division also noted the failure of Afghan forces to fight the Taliban and suggested that deteriorating conditions could lead to the collapse of the government, said. officials.
“The intelligence sector is not saying, ‘You know, on August 15 the Afghan government is going to fall,'” said Timothy Bergreen, former director of personnel at the House Intelligence Commission. “But what everyone knew was that without the hardening of the international forces, and in particular our forces, the Afghans would be unable to defend themselves or to govern themselves.”
Two former Trump administration officials who reviewed some CIA assessments of Afghanistan said intelligence agencies had issued warnings about the strength of the Afghan government and security forces. But the agency declined to give a specific timeline, and the assessment could be interpreted in several ways, including the conclusion that Afghanistan could fall quickly or perhaps over time.
Intense disagreements also persisted in the intelligence community. The CIA has been pessimistic about the training of Afghan forces for years. But the Defense Intelligence Agency and other Pentagon intelligence agencies have given more optimistic assessments of Afghan readiness, according to current and past officials.
Military and intelligence assessments predicting that the Kabul government could hold out at least a year before a Taliban takeover were built on a premise that turned out to be wrong: that the Afghan army would face combat.
“Most of the assessments of the United States inside and outside of government have focused on how well the Afghan security forces would do in a fight against the Taliban. In reality, they never fought. “when the Taliban advanced across the country,” said Seth Jones, an expert. in Afghanistan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Two decades ago, this dynamic unfolded in reverse. When US-backed Afghan militias began to seize Taliban territory in late 2001, Taliban fighters withdrew relatively quickly, and Kabul and Kandahar fell before the end of the year.
Some Taliban surrendered, some switched sides, and many more simply mingled with the population to plan what would become a 20-year insurgency.
After all, analysts say, the Taliban won thanks to a strategy that has often proven effective in the decades of war in Afghanistan: they outlived their adversary.
“I’m not too surprised that she was as quick and thorough as she was,” said Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst. “The Taliban have certainly shown their ability to persevere, to hold on and to come back even after being defeated. And the population is so tired of the conflict that they will switch sides and support the winner to survive.