Intelligence Agencies Did Not Predict Imminence of Afghan Collapse, Officials Say

The acknowledgment came as the Biden administration faces heavy criticism over its handling of the withdrawal of American-led forces from Afghanistan.,


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WASHINGTON — Intelligence reports presented to President Biden in the final days before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan this past week failed to predict the imminence of the Afghan government’s collapse, even after their earlier warnings had grown increasingly grim, senior intelligence and defense officials said on Wednesday.

The intelligence agencies had been stepping up their warnings about the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan throughout the summer. Their reports grew more specific in July, noting how the Taliban had taken control of roads leading to Kabul and how the group had learned lessons from its takeover of the country in the 1990s.

But senior administration officials acknowledged that as the pace of White House meetings on Afghanistan grew more frenzied in August and in the days leading up to the Taliban takeover this weekend, the intelligence agencies did not say the collapse was imminent.

“As the president indicated, this unfolded more quickly than we anticipated, including in the intelligence community,” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement to The New York Times.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said intelligence predictions of when the Afghan security force would stop fighting and of the government collapse varied widely.

“There are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days,” General Milley said.

The acknowledgments came as the Biden administration faces its gravest foreign policy crisis so far and weathers heavy criticism of how the White House handled the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the final days of the government in Kabul.

Amid the finger-pointing, questions about the clarity and timing of intelligence warnings have become more urgent. White House and defense officials have said they did not receive precise predictions of when the government would fall.

Still, intelligence agencies warned for years about the Taliban’s strength and the likelihood that the Afghan government and military could not hold on after U.S. and international military forces left, offering far more pessimistic assessments than others in the government.

Making precise predictions of when a government could fall is an impossible standard to meet, according to former intelligence officials, a task better for oddsmakers than government analysts.

Even so, clear warnings emerged in the weeks before the collapse. By July, the reports from the C.I.A. and other agencies were growing more urgent. Intelligence analysts noted the Afghan military and government were unprepared to counter the Taliban’s push toward Kabul, raising questions about whether they would mount any serious effort to defend the capital.

Congress was also given a historical analysis of the Taliban’s previous campaigns to take over the country, a report that noted the group had learned lessons from the 1990s. The Taliban, the intelligence report accurately predicted, were likely to secure provincial capitals, the border and the country’s north before moving on Kabul.

Asked by ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday whether the chaos in Afghanistan was a failure of “intelligence, planning, execution or judgment,” Mr. Biden did not directly address the question. Instead, he criticized President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee Afghanistan and the collapse of the military.

“When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government, get in a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to 300,000 of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off — that was, you know, I’m not, that’s what happened,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s simply what happened.”

Over the past year, intelligence agencies shrank their predictions of how quickly the Afghan government would fall, from two years to 18 months to six months to a month, according to current and former officials. But, according to officials, the warning that its demise was days away never came.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. They are emerging now from obscurity, but little is known about them or how they plan to govern.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost as the militants retake power.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

The intelligence he reviewed, General Milley said, outlined different scenarios including a Taliban takeover after the collapse of the Afghan security forces, a civil war and a negotiated settlement.

“The time frame of the ‘rapid collapse’ scenario widely varied and ranged from weeks, months and even years following our departure,” he said.

Still, senior officials noted, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies had throughout the fighting season in Afghanistan identified the risk of a rapid collapse and issued increasingly pessimistic reports about the Afghan government’s survival, particularly as Mr. Ghani resisted changing military strategies or creating a more inclusive government.

The military and intelligence agencies have long been at odds over the prospects of success in Afghanistan. The C.I.A. has consistently offered dour predictions and raised questions about the effectiveness of the military’s training of Afghan security forces. Many American military officers have been loath to predict that years of training efforts would amount to little, but the rapid collapse of the Afghan forces since the United States began its final drawdown from the country has proved the most pessimistic estimates correct.

No intelligence agency is good at estimating a partner force’s will to fight, said James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of national intelligence in the Obama administration. The United States misjudged it in Vietnam, during the Islamic State take over of northern Iraq and again in Afghanistan.

“Mysteries are unknowable,” Mr. Clapper said. “Predicting the exact number of days that the Afghan government would survive before Kabul would fall is, in my mind, more in the realm of mysteries.”

He said the intelligence agencies were correct about the overall picture of Afghanistan.

“The intelligence community led by C.I.A. has consistently, and I think very realistically, had a very pessimistic outlook about the viability of the Afghan government and the competence, dedication and commitment of the Afghan military and security forces,” Mr. Clapper said.

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