Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
While it’s certainly convenient to depict the shock and miscalculation U.S. officials claim over Afghanistan’s tragic, rapid fall to the Taliban as an intelligence failure, the reality is far worse. It’s a convenient deflection of responsibility for decisions taken owing to political and ideological considerations and provides a scapegoat for a policy decision that’s otherwise unable to offer a persuasive defense.
As CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia before my 2019 retirement, I was responsible for assessments concerning Afghanistan prepared for former President Donald Trump. And as a volunteer with candidate Joe Biden’s counterterrorism working group, I consulted on these same issues. The decision Trump made, and Biden ratified, to rapidly withdraw U.S. forces came despite warnings projecting the outcome we’re now witnessing. And it was a path to which Trump and Biden allowed themselves to be held captive owing to the “ending Forever Wars” slogan they both embraced.
The U.S. Intelligence Community assessed Afghanistan’s fortunes according to various scenarios and conditions and depending on the multiple policy alternatives from which the president could choose. So, was it 30 days from withdrawal to collapse? 60? 18 months? Actually, it was all of the above, the projections aligning with the various “what ifs.” Ultimately, it was assessed, Afghan forces might capitulate within days under the circumstances we witnessed, in projections highlighted to Trump officials and future Biden officials alike.
In his prepared remarks on Monday, President Biden stated, “But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” That’s misleading at best. The CIA anticipated it as a possible scenario.
By early 2018, it was clear President Trump wanted out of Afghanistan regardless of the alarming outcomes the intelligence community cautioned. But he likewise did not want to preside over the nightmarish scenes we’ve witnessed. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the principal architect of America’s engagement with the Taliban that culminated with the catastrophic February 2020 withdrawal agreement, terms intended to get the president through the coming elections. Pompeo championed the plan despite the intelligence community’s caution that its two key objectives– securing the Taliban’s commitment to break with al-Qa’ida and pursue a peaceful resolution to the conflict — were highly unlikely.
America’s special representative, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, was a private citizen dabbling on his own in 2018 with a variety of dubious Afghan interlocutors against whom the intelligence community warned, trying opportunistically to get “back inside.” Undaunted, his end around to Pompeo and the White House pledging to secure the deal Trump needed which the president’s own intelligence, military and diplomatic professionals claimed was not possible absent a position of greater strength, was enthusiastically received. Our impression was that Khalilzad was angling to be Trump’s Secretary of State in a new administration, were he to win, and would essentially do or say what he was told to secure his future by pleasing the mercurial president, including his steady compromise of whatever leverage the United States had to incentivize Taliban compromises.
But it was just as clear in the Biden camp that the candidate was committed to leaving Afghanistan, the security implications from which his team had more confidence they could manage than the intelligence supported. Endorsing Trump’s withdrawal agreement was considered win-win. It played well with most Americans. Moreover, from my perspective, they appeared to believe that negative consequences would be at least largely owned by Trump, the GOP, and Khalilzad, whose being left in place, intentionally or not, allowed him to serve even more so as a fall guy. For the candidate, who had long advocated withdrawal, the outcome was, as it had been with Trump, a foregone conclusion despite what many among his counterterrorism advisors counselled. President Biden himself has said as much in terms of his mind being made up.
There was a rather naïve confidence among Biden’s more influential foreign policy advisors that the Taliban’s best interests were served by adhering to the agreement’s main points. Doing so, they argued, would guarantee the U.S. withdrawal, and leave room for more constructive engagement, possibly even aid, should the Taliban come to power. The Taliban learned a great deal about the utility of PR since 2001, and maximized their access to Western media as highlighted by Taliban deputy and Haqqani Taliban Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani’s apparently ghost written New York Times OpEd. The reality, of course, as the intelligence community long maintained, was that the Taliban’s control over the country was predicated on isolation from the rest of the world, rather than integration. International recognition, global financial access, and foreign aid were not going to influence how the Taliban would rule.
U.S. policy makers were also cautioned that the broad coalition of Afghan politicians, warlords and military leaders across the country benefiting from the money and power that came with a sustained U.S. presence were likely to lose confidence and hedge their bets were U.S. military forces and intelligence personnel to withdraw. Further, that President Ashraf Ghani’s stubborn resistance to the Afghan political practice of buying support and his dismantling of the warlords’ private armies would weaken their incentives to support the government. Switching sides for a better deal or to fight another day is a hallmark of Afghan history. And U.S. policy to impose an American blueprint for a strong central government and integrated national army served only to enable Ghani’s disastrous and uncompromising stewardship.
Because intelligence is an imprecise science with which to crystal ball given that the conditions upon which any assessment is made will likely change, projections and confidence levels varied based on the U.S. military presence, internal Afghan dynamics, and the credibility of the Taliban’s pledge to good faith negotiations. Scenarios for an orderly withdrawal ranged from those in which the United States retained roughly 5,000 troops and most of the existing forward military and intelligence operating bases, to what was determined to be the minimum presence of around 2,500 troops maintaining the larger bases in greater Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Khost, as well as the infrastructure to support the bases we would turn over to Afghan partners. The larger of these two options was judged more likely to prevent Afghanistan’s collapse for 1-2 years and still provide for a degree of continued U.S. counterterrorism pressure; the smaller footprint was more difficult to assess but allowed flexibility for the United States to increase or further reduce its presence should circumstances rapidly deteriorate. (It would be valuable if commentators and news coverage included a greater appreciation of how such contingency-based assessments work rather than conflating assessments.)
Initially, even a “Kabul only” option included the retention of the sprawling U.S. Bagram Air Base and other intelligence facilities in the greater capital area through which the United States could project force, maintain essential logistical, intelligence and medical support to Afghan operated bases, and retain some technical intelligence collection and counterterrorist capability across the country. But without any U.S. military and intelligence presence beyond the Embassy in Kabul, faced with a Taliban military and propaganda offensive, and undermined by Ghani’s fractious relationship with his own national political partners, the intelligence community warned the government could dissolve in days. And so it went.
The clock began to accelerate when US military and intelligence elements withdrew from Kandahar on May 13, and thereafter closed remaining forward operating bases and “lily pads,” the term used for temporary staging areas under U.S. or coalition control. By the time Bagram was closed on July 1, the United States and NATO had also departed Herat, Mazar I Sharif, Jalalabad, Khost and other locations I am not at liberty to name. The Taliban was moving in even as we were packing up. They were quite likely joined by the many al-Qa’ida members (some of whom had enjoyed Iranian sanctuary),-if not direct operational support, augmented further by recently released comrades the Taliban set free from Afghan detention at Bagram and elsewhere.
Policy makers were also aware of the Taliban’s effective use of a parallel “shadow government” structure maintained since losing power that provided for reliable lines of communication with local elders across the provinces, as well as government authorities, often owing to shared family or clan connections. To an American it might be surprising, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for an Afghan military commander or police chief to be in regular contact even with those faced daily in combat.
The Taliban was thus well positioned to negotiate and buy rather than fight their way to successive conquests, itself an Afghan tradition. Moreover, the Taliban was prepared to quickly rule and provide services in the territories coming under its control. And by prioritizing the periphery to secure borders and the lines of communication required to sustain an insurgency, striking first from where they were defeated in 2001, the Taliban clearly learned from history, whereas we still have not. But where did the money come from to finance this campaign?
Persuading low level government fighters and functionaries to turnover their weapons and abandon their posts was well within the Taliban’s means, but it was undoubtedly more expensive securing the cooperation of senior officials with the authority to surrender provincial capitals. Layer on that the need to pay the surge of their own fighters, many of them essentially part-time and seasonal. Payroll and care for the families of fighters killed and wounded is often the greatest expense for the Taliban and its terrorist partner groups, and in Afghanistan, likewise the most important incentive to attract fighters.
The Taliban’s finances are complicated, more so by a structure which is not monolithic, and heavily dependent on the vast international criminal network operated by the Haqqani Taliban Network in the East, and somewhat autonomous regional commanders in the West. Revenues are variously drawn from taxes imposed on locals, narcotics trafficking, foreign donations-largely from Arab Gulf countries, real estate (some of which is abroad), the extortion of mining companies operating in areas under their control–many of which are Chinese government parastatals, and other foreign governments. Pakistan has long been a principal backer, but Russia and Iran increased their investments to court the group in recent years. Moreover, both benefited decidedly from the Taliban’s swift, bloodless conquest that expeditiously purged and humiliated the United States, and minimized what might have been a violent, prolonged fight that increased regional instability and the flow of refugees.
Momentum the Taliban needed to secure their adversaries’ cooperation was facilitated by a robust propaganda machine that, in many instances, successfully manipulated the media into positive, disproportional coverage from the outset of their offensive in casting their conquest as inevitable. Neither the Afghan government nor the United States could ever effectively counter the Taliban’s persistent and savvy media efforts given the need to protect sources and methods, legal restraints, and an unfortunate lack in investment and imagination.
And in grading their own homework, the U.S. defense establishment only exacerbated the problem. While it’s little surprise the Department of Defense was unwilling to objectively evaluate the resolve and capacity of those they trained, equipped, and advised to resist a forthcoming Taliban offensive, their rose-colored depictions of achievement over 20 years flew in the face of reality, and was consistently challenged by the CIA’s more gloomy, albeit realistic projections.
As the CIA’s former regional counterterrorism chief, and then a private citizen, I advocated the need for the United States to remain in Afghanistan with a small, focused, counterterrorist presence but to adopt a dramatically different approach that did not require us being in the line of fire between rival national forces whose conflicts predated our intervention and will persist long after we’re gone. And while I have criticized the CIA and the intelligence community for various ills that require reform and contributed to the current circumstances, not least of which was a counterterrorism strategy that was arguably more damaging than the ill it sought to address, there was no intelligence failure by the agency in warning either Trump or Biden as to how events would play out. Operating in the shadows and “supporting the White House” will prevent the intelligence community from publicly defending itself. But the failure was not due to any lack of warning, but rather the hubris and political risk calculus of decision makers whose choices are too often made in their personal and political interest or with pre-committed policy choices, rather than influenced by (sometimes inconvenient) intelligence assessments and the full interests of the country.